What Indiana Jones did for map-in-one-hand-gun-in-the-other cinema, Lara Croft has done for video games. They're really very similar iconic figures when you think about it. Except that Lara never gets older than twentysomething and, well, Indiana never thought short shorts and a tank top was the best attire for spelunking.
Tomb Raider: Underworld is Lara's eighth video game excursion. In it she picks up where gamemaker Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider: Legend left off. In other words, our ridiculously proportioned hero is still following up on previous archeological expeditions that her father had embarked on, while scratching up new clues about her mother's disappearance.
True to her well-established MO, the intrepid British explorer must piece together stony puzzles, scale seemingly impossible heights, somersault over and squirm under deadly obstacles, and blast the occasional bad guy, Bengal tiger or undead creature. The "story" starts in an ancient ruin on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea and then jumps to a series of cobweb-filled crypts and tombs in exotic locales around the globe.
There are a few notable gaming improvements. For one, the scope of Underworld's detailed environment is huge. This makes things a little less linear than in the past and allows gamers to approach puzzles and problems from different angles. With some exploration and a little thought, a choice or two usually stand out from the ancient, moss-covered environs. But just in case the fun gets a bit too puzzling, there's also a new PDA help system to lend a hand.
And speaking of hands: Lara has a number of new free-climbing, rope-swinging and motorcycle-riding moves that she's learned over the years and brings to the fray. But it's her hand-to-hand and weapons-packed battle system that gets the biggest boost. Something called an adrenaline meter slowly fills with each successful melee attack or well-aimed gunshot. Once full, players can jump into an adrenaline-induced slow-mo moment that allows enough time for a deadly pinpoint headshot or a smashing up-close takedown that's worthy of Lara's acrobatic style.
All of which leads us to the darker parts of Underworld (as redundant as that may sound). While there's no blood dripping off the walls or pooling underfoot in the killing side of the title, it still sprays when death comes calling—often at the behest of hails of bullets fired from a variety of high-caliber weapons. Spikes and stone formations can also spear or smash something or someone.
Then there's the twisted spiritual threads that run through Lara's mysterious investigations. All of the creepy netherworld spots that she explores have ties to shadowy Norse mythology. The hammer of Thor—the mythical God of Thunder—gets dragged into the action. As do skeletal Viking beasties and giant tentacled critters, occultist rituals in vast demonic realms, an evil doppelganger and a winged Atlantean queen.
Top this off with Lara's wardrobe of midriff- and cleavage-baring outfits, high-cut diving gear and catlike, sexy athleticism and you've got all the stuff that the Tomb Raider series is best known for. It's interesting to note, however, that in spite of the successive graphic improvements that have made Lara and her environment more and more lifelike, her famed, over-the-top physique seems almost tame in comparison to a number of today's more leering, risqué video game titles.
Not that that solves anything. Let's face it: Unlike Indiana Jones, Lara Croft won't be sitting around at the retirement home in a cardigan and a lap blanket anytime soon. She'll always be ready to reveal as much well-toned digital skin and deliver as much T-rated shoot-'em-up as the ESRB raters will allow—and increasingly jaded gamers will demand.