Lara Croft Is Back and Remarkably Well-Preserved

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I was never a huge Tomb Raider guy. I get it that Lara Croft is remarkably attractive. I’m just not really a puzzle-solving, box-jumping sort of fellow. And once you take that away, all you’ve got is an average-looking shooter with a hinky camera and lightweight weapons (and nowhere near enough of them). When I heard the quality of the games had fallen off a cliff in the early aughts I merely smiled smugly to myself and sipped a satisfying single malt and burnished my Master Chief figurines.

And yet now I’ve picked up Tomb Raider Underworld, and I haven’t put it down yet. Why not? Hint: it’s only partly because I can’t find my damn Gears of War 2 disc.

First off — and I’ll drop this in a moment — Lara Croft really is remarkably attractive. She looks like Michelle Trachtenberg with curves. I mean, she spends the first few levels wearing a wetsuit that’s cut off right below her shapely derriere. Hit B to crouch! It’s a lot better than watching Marcus Fenix.

But even beyond that, she’s a remarkably limber little sprite. Coming off Dead Space, where you lumber around like a Shambling Mound and you can’t even jump, it’s an incredible relief. The freedom of movement is amazing. Lara clambers up and over and around things like a tiny, sexy monkey. Obstacles that would be hard barriers in any other game, she just does a handspring over. Sometimes not even on purpose. I have no idea what I’m looking for, because the plot is incomprehensible, but it’s pretty fun looking for it.

Tomb Raider Underworld is far from a perfect game. Some areas are incredibly dark, and the little flashlight Lara affixes to her decolletage like a prom corsage doesn’t help much. The search for generic museum artifacts hidden in pots is beyond uninspiring — when she sees a piece of ancient crockery Lara listlessly kicks it to pieces with all the joie de vivre of a spoiled kid dumping out a cereal box to see if there’s a prize inside. And the combat is pretty much a joke after Gears. And the puzzles — meh, I can take or leave them. (Except I can’t — you have to solve them to move on in the game.)

At least the game runs at a stately, restful pace. That giant octopus will wait all day if necessary for you to figure out how to drop a huge spiky chandelier on its head. Really! Take all the time in the world. And the opening cut scene is so stunning, it’s almost worth the price of admission all by itself. (I can’t find it on YouTube, sorry.) Maybe I should just go rent the movies again.