View the first 15 minutes of Beneath the Ashes and Lara's gold bikini in action. (540p HD version here.)
With new expansions for Grand Theft Auto IV, Fable II and Fallout 3 , the GameSpot Reviews Blog has been awfully busy with downloadable content of late. Tomb Raider Underworld is the latest game to be given the DLC treatment, with 'Beneath the Ashes' adding a new level, a new enemy and six new outfits. The result is an expansion that offers some memorable set-pieces, but it's short at around two hours and does very little to fix the existing problems from Underworld.
Beneath the Ashes takes place under Croft Manor, which is now a burnt wreckage after the events of Underworld. Lara is following a lead from her father's journal, who buried a sacred artifact deep under the country estate to stop it getting into the wrong hands. This isn't just some dusty old monument either--it holds the power to control the Thralls, an ancient supernatural army of warriors. Lara being Lara, she decides to investigate, and this mini-adventure takes her from the basement of her home right down to the ancient monuments underneath.
Beneath the Ashes does a good job of maintaining the same balance of adventuring, puzzle-solving and combat from Underworld. The action takes place completely underground, but the new level isn't short on huge expanses to cover. This is where the game is at its best--gradually figuring out your way through an environment, and then being rewarded with some spectacular views along the way. The expansion also has some great puzzles, including the best use of Lara's grapple rope yet. Where it all falls down is on the combat--frequent encounters with Thralls and giant spiders are unwelcome distractions from the business of tomb raiding. The combat is fiddly, the enemies are weak, while Lara's ability to fit a shotgun, rifle and uzis into her tiny backpack mean that it's all incredibly easy.
Lara Croft fans who also have a Princess Leia fetish have their prayers answered by this DLC, as it adds six new costumes including a gold bikini. Putting aside the impracticality of spelunking in a swimsuit for a moment, the bikinis are nicely designed, and show off the work that's been put into designing the character. They also demonstrate the great dirt effects that gradually build up on her body, while the confined spaces allow you to 'appreciate' the subtle breast physics.
I had plenty of gripes with the core mechanics of Underworld, so I'm sad to report that they're still present in Beneath the Ashes. The camera is as unruly as ever, refusing to move around solid objects to offer a better view of the world, while it's even worse in confined spaces, of which there are many. You have to wrestle with the camera as it makes simple mistakes, moving underwater as you're doing something above, and there are even bugs, such as an underwater corridor where Lara never needs to come up for air.
Story and characters have never been Tomb Raider's strong point, but if you are into the lore of the series, you'll get something out of Beneath the Ashes. The level features Lara's Shadow character from Underworld, plus an interesting plot twist towards the end. You also get to read Lara's father's journal, which not only helps figure out the puzzles, but also fills in some of the Croft family history. And if you're not into any of the exposition but are lured by the possibility of achievements, then there are 125 points offer for completing the level and finding all the treasures.
Another problem with Beneath the Ashes is that it's a victim of bad timing, releasing just after The Lost & Damned has set a new benchmark for downloadable content. True, Tomb Raider's content is half the price of GTA's, but it also offers a lot less than half the value and entertainment. For what it is, Beneath the Ashes offers a good Tomb Raider level and some revealing outfits, but I'd certainly rather have seen new gameplay mechanics or environments. If you're a die-hard fan of Tomb Raider then you've probably already added this to your download queue, but everyone else is likely to feel a little short-changed.