Lara couldn't be much farther away from the Parisian night if she tried. Some of us may be in Leipzig, but Lara's in Africa. And, just as they said she would be, Lara is back to her old tricks - leaping from ledge to ledge, solving ancient puzzles and dancing through traps that would've claimed Indiana Jones many times over. She's not just clinging on any more; she's clinging on, hauling herself up, jumping and tumbling past circular blades and then using her new multi-purpose grapple hook to smoothly swing across a spike trap with a rope - all in one fluid motion. Those of you hoping for something closer to the Prince of Persia may yet be satisfied.
Of course, the Tomb Raider: Legend team have been very vocal about wanting to take Lara Croft back to her roots. Out of the random European city and back into the caves. Back to what she's good for. Their determination for the game to stand apart from recent versions is obvious from the name alone. None of this "Lara Croft Tomb Raider Angel of Darkness" pin the colon on the run-together-game-names nonsense - just simple and memorable. Today, we got our first chance to see just how far Toby Gard and Crystal Dynamics have lead Lara - and the only slight disappointment was that we did have to journey to a random European city to do so.
Having got to Leipzig without feeling stronger or killing any helpful professors en route, Eurogamer's Patrick Garratt was one of the first to take in the new-look Lara one-to-one, and phoned through his observations earlier this morning.
The demo focused on a level set deep in Africa. Running on PS2, the code at Leipzig apparently constitutes a quarter of one of eight huge levels that make up the game, which the team reckons will take 12-15 hours to finish. And "huge" is the operative word. Starting in a cave, Lara surveys the area and makes her way out through an entrance to be greeted by a gigantic waterfall - likely to be the one seen in the screenshots - and the sense of scale is said to be overpowering. Birds are flapping around, and Lara can be seen fiddling with an earpiece.
At this point we were told about Lara's new body. Crystal Dynamics wanted to give her "the look of action and athleticism, and retain her beauty and sensuality, but without making her look creepy". (Good grief.) They've certainly achieved the former by the sound of it, with a slightly more muscle-bound heroine - almost cartoon-esque, but still very identifiably Lara. In terms of getting back to her roots, she can take the literal path if she likes and wallow in the mud - the dirt clinging to her until she next takes a dip in nearby water. After that her clothes will be sodden, and water will drip off - she may even wring out her hair during quiet moments. Beyond making her look like a more advanced, athletic Lara, the team has tried to give her a broader range of animations - and she won't always be wearing her trademark shorts, green top and backpack either.
Having caught our attention with a gigantic waterfall, Lara pulls a lever and opens a gate behind it. It won't be long before she's leaping and, of course, fighting. One of the other things Crystal Dynamics wanted to do with Legend was modernise the control scheme - and that's obvious in various areas, including the way the combat works in a manner that's unlike any of the previous Tomb Raiders. Combat is said to be 35-40 per cent of the whole game, and a lot of work has gone into it. A health bar and individual ammo stocks for your weapons spring up to remind you of the conditions as you fight. But instead of just giving you a gun and having you point, a new "combat lock mode" allows you to lock onto various enemies so that each is assigned a face button - in a manner not dissimilar to Sony's The Mark of Kri. Lara then uses her individual handguns to take shots at the enemy corresponding to the button you're hammering. As you dance back and forth trying to evade them, you can focus your attention without having to juggle the third mental ball of cycling through targets. A clever move.
Clever moves will be a common theme, by the sound of it. Solving puzzles demonstrated that Lara not only solves problems in various ways, but is also hugely versatile in terms of getting around and, crucially, not dying pointlessly and easily.
One puzzle involved starting a water wheel, where one of the paddles was obstructed. She surveyed the scene with binoculars first (these will apparently have different uses, but you can guess which was the only one we saw), and then got to it. The first option was to use her magnetic grappling hook - and this tool will serve her very often in Legend, from what we could make out. In this case, she found a way to swing toward it, Indy Jones' whip-style, and kick the obstruction. Another option, it turned out, was simply to chuck a grenade to clear the paddle's path. Another still involved clambering up the opposite side of the room and taking advantage of a stationary gun emplacement. The possibilities sound inviting, even if the early example is quite mundane - the idea of finishing a platform-puzzle game, starting over and saying "right, I'm not going to use any of the means I did last time" doesn't just appeal to us, it practically has our pants off. But back to Lara...
With the water wheel now clear, Lara can grab hold of the paddle and use it to reach higher platforms. Not the first time, mind you. The first time, she screwed it up. And this helpfully illustrates the point about not dying needlessly. In past Tomb Raiders, missing a ledge could be fatal and cost you lots of progress. Heck, walking down a corridor without watching your feet left you impaled on spikes - missing a ledge was like being told you were dead, and the developer had gone round your parents' house and told them about the time you stole ú10 from your Mum's wallet and used it to buy pornography. Not so in Legend. Hanging from the paddle, Lara swung but failed to catch the lip of the ledge and tumbled - only to spring athletically back toward the paddle and not just grab it but actually stand up on it too. Like many recent platform games, Lara won't just fall off ledges either - she'll turn around and grab them if she stumbles off; the idea being that you'd have to make the game think you really wanted to leap off if you were to fall.
Having navigated this section, she started encountering traps. In the dark, her shoulder-mounted flashlight turns on automatically, and the red flares she can toss into deep pits add grim highlights to the darkened spikes at the bottom. With dynamic light and shadows, of course. Simple traps are like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark - spears hurtling forth from every crack in the wall and Lara having to time her run to avoid them - while some of the latter traps and puzzles are said to involve water currents. And we can't imagine they mean she just gets her phone wet and swept a bit off course.
Overall, Tomb Raider: Legend is looking like it could be focused in the right areas, smoothly pieced together and actually capable of proving the doubters wrong. After the farce that was Angel of Darkness, this was always going to be a critical moment for Lara, and early impressions are hugely positive. They even seem to have the camera right - it's automatic, and "loads" of work has gone into it, but during our demo it never became an issue, and could always be tweaked with the right analogue stick. With so many good ideas flowing into it from various sources - not just the first Tomb Raider - the signs are very positive. Just as the developer has worked hard to hang on to ideas that work and scrap the things that don't, their latest incarnation of Lara is equipped to grab hold of anything in her environment - an environment that she seems more than adequately equipped to navigate quickly, fluidly and beautifully. Hey, we don't know about the sensuality part yet, but we still left disappointed we couldn't take her home with us.
Tomb Raider: Legend is due out on PS2, PSP and Xbox in Q2 of 2006.