- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2009

Superhero and cartoon characters are integral parts of the electronic-entertainment industry. With this in mind, I salute the meld of pop-culture character and video game with a look at Tomb Raider Underworld (for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Eidos, rated T for teen, $59.99).

Gaming icon and fearless British archaeologist Lara Croft returns as nimble as ever to save the world and help her family.

A solo player takes part in an interactive adventure movie that encompasses exploration, combat, puzzle solving and attacking a gantlet of environmental obstacle courses.

What’s the story? Paraphrased from the Web site (www.tombraider.com) - Stories have been told for generations of the fearsome weapon of Thor, the Norse god of thunder. Legend holds that Thor’s hammer had the power to smash mountains into valleys and to destroy even the gods. For more than 1,000 years, it has existed only as a myth … until now.

In an ancient ruin on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea, Lara Croft uncovers proof of the Norse underworld and the mythical hammer. As she attempts to unravel the secrets behind these myths, her perilous journey leads her toward a forgotten power that, if unleashed, could lay waste to all civilization.

Play the role: The player controls Lara Croft, who easily couldwin Olympic gold in many gymnastics events. Handstands and cartwheels are commonplace as she jumps to cliffs, swings on poles, climbs walls, balances on beams and scampers across ledges.

Besides being armed with a variety of guns, nearly unlimited ammo and her lethal kicks, she has at her disposal a sonar map, use of a grapple line and an all-terrain motorbike.

For the first time in the series, I really felt Lara was a living entity, thanks to fantastic character modeling and full-motion capturing, which allow for incredible, subtle detail.

Get to the action: Lara journeys around the world, with stops in the Mediterranean, Thailand, England, Mexico, the Jan Mayen Island and the Arctic Ocean. She constantly fights jungle brush, crumbling ruins, water and Amanda Evert’s minions to succeed.

Lara still solves massive puzzles through the collection of pieces, balancing of weights and matching of artifacts, and the player will appreciate the loosening of the usually linear game play to work through each.

Memorable moments: The entire encounter with the Kraken merged cinematic drama with platform puzzling at its finest.

Also, all of her underwater expeditions add up to a breathtaking, easy-to-control wonder punctuated with aggressive sea life, colorful terrain and Lara’s ability to swim like a dolphin.

Violent encounters: Being an animal lover, I did not have fun slaughtering creatures, even in self-defense. The current count includes four sharks, seven tigers, a dozen bats, a panther and 13 acid-spitting, king-size iguanas.

Lara also runs into plenty of really stupid bad guys who require dozens of bullets to take down as they collapse in a laughable death. She even can use an occasional adrenaline boost to deliver a “Matrix”-style, slow-motion head shot to enemies.

Extras and unlockables: Progress through the game to learn a bit about Norse mythology and Lara’s past through her accumulating journal entries. Also, collect relics and treasures to unlock collections of concept art.

Read all about it: Check out “Tomb Raider Compendium Edition” ($59.99) for Top Cow Productions’ complete 50-issue run of its monthly sequential-art ode to Lara Croft. The 1999-to-2005 series featured the talents of Dan Jurgens, Michael Turner and David Wohl and the heroine in as little clothing as possible.

Pixel-popping scale: 9.0 out of 10. As stated, Lara has never looked more lifelike in high definition, down to the dirt accumulating on various parts of her body and complemented by the incredible lush depth of the terrain around her. Surprisingly, the game action looks better than the cut scenes.

The bad news: I curse that annoying and difficult-to-control camera. It gave me a headache and cost Lara her life numerous times during any difficult-to-traverse catacomb.

What’s it worth? It’s too bad Lara Croft: Underworld got lost during the holiday crunch and had to compete against the mind-boggling efforts of Gears of War and Resistance 2 for gamers’ dollars. The title is slightly more enjoyable than the similar platforming acrobatics seen in Prince of Persia and offers dynamism to satisfy both Lara’s fans and those new to her exploits.

Visit Zadzooks at the blog section of The Washington Times’ Community pages (www.washingtontimes.com/communities/zadzooks).

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