After six years of conjuring elaborate puzzles, death traps and dungeons, and four years of drowning, maiming and fracturing every bone in the body of one of video game's enduring icons, Crystal Dynamics is, at long last, about to make its very first Tomb Raider game.
That isn't to say this is the first TR title the studio has worked on, of course. Legend and Anniversary both proved it was adept in the handling of a formula created by Core Design in 1995.
By the time of 2008's Underworld, Crystal Dynamics had that formula perfected. Underworld ticked with the rhythm of one of its own labyrinthine puzzles, taking everything that made the Tomb Raider games tick and pushing the series to a natural conclusion. Those tombs had never been so lush, those puzzles so epic and that sense of exploration so thrilling.
And then, with the isometric co-operative adventure Guardian of Light, the studio proved it knew the formula so well it could flip the perspective, add another player and still create an experience dripping with essence of Tomb Raider.
But now, having taken that formula borrowed from Core Design and extracted it, transmuted it and explored it in every conceivable way, it's time to start again. It's time for Crystal Dynamics to make a Tomb Raider game that is, from the ground up, its very own.
"When we finished Underworld there was a very conscious decision that we'd never really told the tale of Lara and how she got to this situation," says Karl Stewart, who's been the brand director of Tomb Raider throughout Crystal Dynamics' tenure.
"We stepped aside and looked at what that meant Ė and we realised that Lara had become a caricature of herself."
It's a caricature which has endured, though, and one that's survived not only the attention of Hollywood and a dead-eyed Angelina Jolie but also one complete car crash of a game.
In all that time it hasn't moved far away from its nineties' source; Lara is still a impossibly pneumatic cipher with an improbable waistline, and the Lara of Underworld and Guardian of Light was very much the same as the one that helped define a whole generation of games.
To tear that apart, and to potentially throw away all that makes Lara so popular, is incredibly risky business. Crystal Dynamics is aware of the line it has to walk.
"What we said from day one is that Lara Croft, she's an icon," explains Stewart. "We just need to make sure that we treat that with respect and don't forget who we are Ė we don't want people to play the game and say that's not a Tomb Raider or a Lara Croft experience."
Nolan's Batman Begins is a recurring influence, and Tomb Raider's aims are much the same; it's about the deconstruction of an icon, about breaking it down and rebuilding it in a novel and at times surprising way. The game will present an approximation of the Lara that we know. The fun part will be seeing how Crystal Dynamics constructs her in its own way.
At the hear of the new game is a younger Lara, straight from college and untouched by adventure as she sets out on the Endurance, a ship captained by family friend Roth. A dramatic and violent storm that hits just off the Japanese coast tears it apart. A frail, distraught and solitary Lara is left drifting in and out of consciousness upon the shores of a rain-lashed island.
The story is told in tightly directed cut-scenes (for the first time, Crystal Dynamics has employed a cinematographer). There's the slightest hint of the digital aesthetic that defined Kane & Lynch: Dog Days in the time-code that runs through loading screens, and in the hurried and intense camera work.
There are also glimpses of the kind of opulent tombs that have defined Tomb Raider itself, though they're hidden behind a vision that's darker and more gritty. The sense of exploration which accompanied the opening moments of past games is replaced by one of abject fear.
It's a fear that's well maintained through an opening section which, we're told, offers up a vertical slice of the game. Lara wakes up, suspended upside down and bound in rope. With a little waggling from the player she works her way free, only to plummet with little grace straight on top of a rusty nail.
Her scream is chilling. The way she limps to her feet indicates this isn't the invincible action hero of before; this is a very real and fragile Lara, abandoned in a dark and frightening place. She's a survivor but not yet an adventurer. As such it's no surprise that with regard to these early moments, as Lara scrambles in the darkness, survival horror games such as Dead Space are the closest reference point.
This impression is reinforced by the in-game prompts floating around the game world, and by the tight reins that are kept on the player. It's a controlled experience, with the player's input limited to a degree that's initially galling. Lara's path seems strictly defined as she pushes her way through slim crevices or finds herself wading through flooded passages.
It's a restriction that's deliberate, though Ė by taking away control from the player, Crystal Dynamics reinforces the message of helplessness. This isn't yet the free-running and athletic Lara. According to Stewart, it's all part of an attempt to completely reverse the series' ethos: "It's about getting out of tombs as opposed to going into them," he says.
Cinematic scenes tell the story of Lara's escape, often plunging our heroine into danger as she flees from the dark caves. At one point she's pursued by a crazed survivor who's promptly crushed by a falling rock. The action unfolds via quick-time events, requiring the player to tap the shoulder buttons furiously in order to scale walls in a panicked swirl of limbs.
Despite all the novelty there are hints of the Tomb Raider of old. Lara's escape is punctuated by one large, cunning puzzle that requires explosive barrels to be transported through a complex mechanical system, in order to blow apart a gate. A new Survival Mode feature highlights pertinent objects in a dim yellow glow - although its use is limited to when Lara is standing perfectly still.
There are even stronger hints of the old formula in a later section which shows Lara as she begins to unlock her athletic potential. A beacon flashes at the top of a hill. Lara stands below, amongst the rain-lashed rooftops of long-abandoned dwellings. She is looking for a survival pack to aid Roth and must work her way to the summit. The action that ensues is vintage Tomb Raider.
A slight awkwardness pervades her movements, though these will likely disappear as the game progresses. New for this instalment is a strong Metroidvania influence, with new equipment and new abilities allowing new areas to be reached.
After the confines of the early escape sections the game will consist of small mini-hubs to be explored, with base camps dotted around. These will offer a place to rest as well as fast travel across the island.
If there was any doubt that this is a Tomb Raider game there's a strong dose of animal cruelty to prove otherwise. Once the beacon is reached Lara explores a small, dark cave, guided by the persistent blip of a transistor on the survival pack she must retrieve. A wolf abruptly attacks. Lara responds by stabbing it savagely and repeatedly in the face. It's a cold and very violent death, far removed from the flippant tiger slayings of the past.
Such fleeting glimpses of the old Tomb Raider are visible throughout this new, gritty reboot. The old staples are being retold and re-tooled in new and surprising ways. It's a deconstruction carried out with surgical precision by a developer with intimate knowledge of its subject. This might end up being not just Crystal Dynamics' very first Tom Raider, but the very best in the series.