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Tomb Raider Fangirl Review: Beneath the Ashes (It’s Epic!) February 26, 2009

Posted by tombraiderfangirl in 360 DLC, Underworld.
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I just finished playing Beneath the Ashes, which is the first downloadable expansion pack for Tomb Raider Underworld (the DLC is exclusive to Xbox 360, although the main game came out on several other platforms as well).  I had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed the level.  As a general warning to everyone, you MUST make a manual save if you want to turn the console off, otherwise it will not keep your place when you turn it back on (unlike the main game which made permanent autosaves).  I will now give a more detailed review, but I will refrain from spoiling the puzzles or the storyline.

The level does actually have a bit of a story which seems to be setting the stage for the upcoming DLC entitled Lara’s Shadow.  This second expansion level is due to be released on March 10th (I am looking forward to that even more now!).  Lara’s headset is back, which I am not too thrilled about as it completely ruined the atmosphere of Legend and greatly spoiled my enjoyment of that game, but it was not too bad in Beneath the Ashes.  There was a cutscene at the beginning of the level and one at the end, and the headset was only used twice in between that I remember (and only a few lines of dialogue each time at that) so the level was essentially silent except for the wonderful ambient noises.  The sound effects were brilliant and really enhanced the experience for me.

As for the graphics, I cannot give an honest review of that.  I have not yet set up my Xbox 360 to use a high definition monitor so I had to make do with a tiny 13″ standard definition TV set.  Beneath the Ashes looked great anyway (about the same as the main Underworld game looks on this TV set) but I am sure that my TV did not do it justice.  Additionally, the game was obviously designed for a much higher resolution as I had trouble reading the words on the screen.  To make them fully legible I had to fiddle with my TV settings so that everything was dim and nearly black and white.  This was only really necessary to read the journal that Lara’s father wrote (accessible via the PDA).  It is an interesting read and adds a bit to the feeling of the level, but unlike the Underworld Journal, the BtA Journal gives away hints and tells you what you will see in advance.  I suggest reading it at the end of the level as I did so that you get the full experience without the spoilers.

In any case, aside from reading the journal, I played the level with my TV set rather bright with maximum color saturation.  The level was quite beautiful this way, which I was not expecting given that it’s a dank stone dungeon.  The floor was slick with water and gave a faint iridescent shine of red and green.  The walls had bits of green moss growing on them.  There were faint hints of color all throughout the level.  Everything was eerily beautiful.  Combined with the ambient sound effects and overall lack of distracting dialogue, this provided a fantastic atmosphere which really absorbed me.  It brought me right back to one of my very first experiences playing Tomb Raider, which was the Tomb Raider 3 demo in the South Pacific in which you have to traverse a partially water-filled cave.  I can’t explain it in more detail, but the feeling of exploration was the same.

The level design was quite good.  I never got thoroughly lost, but still it was a lot of fun figuring out how to get through the areas and I loved the fact that I had to go back and forth between different areas.  For example, I was in one room with a giant waterwheel (which is completely different from the Wii version’s waterwheel room) and I saw a place I wanted to go but it was too high to reach.  I went on with the level in another direction and eventually I found myself back up where I had wanted to go before.  That’s the same sort of magic that made Palace Midas so wonderful in the original Tomb Raider game, to have that instant realization of familiarity and accomplishment when I realize that I have managed to get somewhere that was previously inaccessible.  This sort of level design is so much better to me than a more streamlined approach in which the player has to solve one room at a time and then never return.  I truly hope that Lara’s Shadow and future Tomb Raider games will take this more complex, intertwined approach to level design.

Concerning the puzzles, there were only a few challenges that I would really consider to be puzzles but they were incredibly clever and I really enjoyed them.  I am a little bitter that one of the puzzles was spoiled in the Developer Diary (and the launch trailer as well, although I did not watch that one until after I had won the level).  I know that puzzle would have taken me quite awhile to figure out on my own, but I instantly knew how to do it from the trailer.  However, the other puzzles were really good too so I am very relieved that they were not spoiled in anything that I saw prior to playing the level.

The combat was essentially identical to the combat in the main game (same guns and same abilities).  As in the main game, you get a choice of which secondary gun to take with you.  As for enemies, we get a new type of thrall which seems to be a Crusader knight, plus we see the return of the bats, small spiders, and giant albino spiders.  I have played the Wii version of Underworld more recently than the 360 version, so I found myself getting a little annoyed at some of the enemies as I would rather be left to explore in peace without distraction (the Wii version of the main game has far fewer enemies than the 360 version).  However, the combat wasn’t too much of a distraction overall.  It provided a bit of action to the level without being overly frustrating, so it was alright with me.  Plus, I loved making the small spiders scream…

As for a few other loose ends which may be interesting, the game has 125 points worth of achievements, which you get for completing the level and finding all secrets.  There are 28 artifacts and 1 relic.  I didn’t keep track of an exact play time, but the level took me several hours to win since I tried to explore every inch and I found the relic and all but two of the artifacts.  I discovered that if you start BtA over again after you win it, then it keeps track of all the secrets you found the first time.

There are also six new outfits that come with BtA.  There is the awesome Casual Explorer outfit which can be seen in the official screenshots and trailers (it has a blue shirt, brown pants, and boots).  There is also a gray version of Underworld’s main shorts outfit which is alright I guess, and then there are four bikinis which aren’t my style.  BtA also lets you choose from a few of Underworld’s main outfits, plus the free DLC outfits, in case you don’t like any of the new ones.

That pretty much wraps up my review for BtA.  I was thoroughly impressed by it and now I am really looking forward to Lara’s Shadow, which comes out in less than two weeks.  Before I had played BtA, I expected Lara’s Shadow to be better based purely upon the general information and the concept of each one.  Now, I’m not so sure.  I would love for Lara’s Shadow to be even better, but BtA set the bar rather high.  I am now expecting Lara’s Shadow to be completely different because of the new gameplay mechanics which are supposed to be in it, so I don’t even know if it will be possible to compare them.  Honestly though, it won’t matter as long as Lara’s Shadow is great in its own way.

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