Tomb Raider: Underworld and broadening gaming horizons

As I wrote about last month, I recently completed the game Tomb Raider: Underworld. I played this on a whim. I had never played a Tomb Raider game before and I was also looking for a game to play using a controller, rather than keyboard and mouse. I was really satisfied on my choice. While TR: Underworld isn't a classic or a great game, it was a very good gaming experience. Looking back, I can point to three things that the game did very well.

First, I really enjoyed the gameplay mechanic. I haven't played a lot of platformer games, the genre that the Tomb Raider games belongs to, but I found that maneuvering the acrobatic Lara Croft around the game world was a pleasant and enjoyable challenge. I also liked that violence was really pushed into the background of this game. Sure, Lara shot a large number of enemy guards, animal predators, and ghosts; but unlike an FPS or RTS game, killing enemies was not really the point. The point was solving three-dimensional puzzles using Lara's repertoire of leaps, climbs, and acrobatic talents. Successfully navigating the game's levels required a kind of spacial awareness and exploiting the environment. I'm not a terrifically skilled gamer, so I also appreciated that the difficulty level felt right. The puzzles still required me to think, but I didn't get frustrated very often.

Second, the narrative was interesting and had a strong sense of being part of a persistent story. I have played and given up on the preceding game in the Lara Croft cycle, Tomb Raider: Legend, but even though I didn't play through the entire story, I always felt like my actions were part of a rich context. The Norse, Mayan, and Hindi mythological elements added interest without overwhelming the plot arc. The game broke no new ground in interactive narrative design, but it didn't feel forced or overly contrived. While Lara's plot arc was certainly on rails, that is to say I didn't feel as though my choices effected the way the story unfolded, I was still satisfied with the way the story played its way out. It is no Bioshock or Half Life, but on the other hand, I have enjoyed TV series and movies that weren't any more innovative than Tomb Raider: Underworld.

Third, the game was visually beautiful. I'm happy that Deus Ex 3 plans on using the same engine. I don't know how it compares with leading engines such as CryEngine2 or the latest iteration of Unreal, but the 3d world was smooth and very pretty. More than that, the colors were lush and rich. After playing in the desolate wasteland of Fallout 3 and many other 3D games that are painted in palates of brown or grey, the lush tropical scenes with vibrant palm trees, orchids, and tropical birds was really immersive.

Most of the time when I'm playing games these days I'm looking for innovations in the player-training arena. I didn't see anything in this game that I felt like I could add to my teaching repertoire. The game world wasn't open, and players weren't really given a decisions to make on how to solve puzzles. Most of the time there appeared to be one right answer for each challenge and the player just had to apply the tools they were given in the proper manner. So, now that I'm done with the game, I doubt I'll be going back to it to analyze it further. It was pretty, it was fun, and it was consistent in the challenge that it offered.

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