The Demoman: Tomb Raider: Underworld

Christopher Livingston is a freelance writer with plenty of time for games but not enough money to buy them. Thus was born The Demoman; a shadowy yet helpful figure dedicated not to helping you decide which expensive games to buy, but which free game demos to play.

The great thing about Tomb Raider games is that they give you an outlet for the inevitable rage that builds up from playing Tomb Raider games. That outlet is Lara Croft herself: she's just so enjoyable to punish when you're pissed off.

You can run her into walls, drown her in the surf, or make her fall to her death from clifftops--and as gracefully as she springs around in the demo of Tomb Raider: Underworld, man, she falls like a fucking brick when you want her to. Arms pinwheeling, legs kicking, she plummets face-first into the ground with a satisfying thud. Much in the same way World of Warcraft now lets you play Peggle to stave off the boredom of playing World of Warcraft, Tomb Raider lets you terrorize Lara to relieve the frustration of playing Tomb Raider.

When Lara isn't dying accidentally or being killed on purpose, she's hunting through ruins in Thailand, extinguishing whatever wildlife she comes across, and kicking priceless ancient urns into pieces to find out what's in them. The demo begins with Lara in a boat offshore, where after a short swim through shark-infested waters, she must scale cliffs, dangle from ledges, leap across chasms, and repeat her swim through shark-infested waters after falling from the cliffs, ledges, and chasms.

Lara looks nervous. Is it the heights, or the angry man who might
deliberately make her fall from them?

Where is where the frustration set in: some from the trial-and-error nature of the jumping, climbing, and clinging puzzles, but mostly from the quirks of the third-person camera, which is often positioned three inches from the back of Lara's head, floating behind a dense thicket of leaves, or finding other creative ways to hide the details of what you're supposed to be jumping towards, climbing up, or clinging to.

I was curious as to how long three dimensional third-person perspective games have been around, so I did a little research and discovered that it's much easier to just make something up: let's say twenty-seven years. In all that time, why has no one found a way to make a third-person camera that does not make me want to put my fist through a wall? Why is it so hard? Why can't I be standing with my back to a boulder and not have my view blotted out by my own shoulder blades? Why can't I make a sharp turn and not wind up inspecting the bark of a nearby tree trunk? Sure, I like having a bunch of leaves shoved in my face--we all do--just not while I'm hanging by my fingertips from a cliff a hundred feet over a stone floor.

This jump looks tricky. Just ask the GODDAMN TREE THAT'S IN MY WAY.

At least all the stuff obstructing your view is nice to look at: Lara looks great, the ruins look great, and the game, overall, is gorgeous. And, I can grudgingly admit the annoyances of the camera are offset by the satisfaction of finally making a difficult climb in one smooth go. I learned to pay attention to Lara's body language: if a jump is possible, she'll lean in that direction, while a gentle shake of her head indicates the questionable leap I'm attempting to perform is not going to be possible. I was also entertained by the fact that the more she clambers around on dusty stone walls and pillars, the dirtier she gets -- a nice subtle touch. And, instead of a giant floating arrow pointing your way ahead, look for a colorful bird acting as sort of a natural quest marker.

With all due respect to your climbing skills, Lara, bring a helicopter next time.

Speaking of animals, the Underworld demo lets you kill a whole bunch of them. First come the spiders and bats, who cleverly wait until you're balancing on a narrow stone outcropping before ambushing you. Eventually a number of beautiful, majestic tigers appear and invite you to empty your twin uzis into them. The game is nice enough to auto-aim for you, so you can just sit back, click the mouse, and enjoy ending the lives of rare species in their natural habitats.

Birds are both the indicator of which way to go, and the only animals that Lara doesn't kill.

Honestly, the best part of the demo came when I entered a new area, which was much larger than the previous one. My framerate dropped, my screen went black, and I found myself looking at my desktop. The demo hadn't crashed, however: in a surprising twist, it popped up a window informing me my visual settings were too high for the game to perform properly in this new area, and I was allowed to tweak some of them down a bit and immediately return to the demo where right I had left off.

Holy crap. That's definitely a new one on me: I'm used to games just crashing and letting me figure out why, but Underworld alerted me to the problem and let me fix it without having to restart. Its third-person camera may have been dug out of some tomb, but when my aging PC started hanging, at least the game was nice enough to throw me a rope.

Download the Tomb Raider: Underworld demo.