Tomb Raider is my favourite game of all time. Of course, this is mainly because it allows me to live out fantasies of being intrepid, acrobatic, clever, rich, posh and chesty. But it's also because of the classic third-person action-adventure gameplay, the emphasis on puzzles and exploration over gunplay and explosions, the detailed visuals and the sweeping vistas. Most of all it's the atmosphere - the feeling you're all alone in these lush jungles and echoey chambers, just you and Lara.
So, two minutes into Crystal Dynamics' demo of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, I want to cry. The game on screen doesn't look like any Tomb Raider I recognise. The viewpoint is isometric and the camera is fixed. Lara, who appears as a small character model, is too busy shooting enemies to pull any switches. And she's got a mate with her - some tall bloke who carries a spear, sports a ponytail and wears a loincloth. Together they run around a pokey temple, guns blazing, pausing only to smash the odd crate. 'Oh Lara,' I think, 'What have they done to you?'
Little do I know that the next 28 minutes will change my mind completely. By the time the demo's over I'll have understood much more about Guardian of Light - that it's a bold attempt to offer something different, that it's being put together with real care and attention, and that it might well not be rubbish. But most of all, that it's not meant to look like any Tomb Raider I recognise.
The clue is in the title. As brand director Karl Stewart explains, the decision to leave out the words Tomb and Raider was made early on. "When Underworld was finished, that was an end to the trilogy, and kind of the end of a whole era for us," he says. "We took a step back as a studio and spent a couple of months experimenting, trying to make a decision on how to go forward."
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is the end result. It's a digital download game in development for PC, PSN and XBLA, due out this summer and set to cost around $15. "We have these big pillar releases for Tomb Raider and there's never anything in between," observes creative director Daniel Neuburger. "I've tried hard to capture the essence and spirit of Tomb Raider, but give players something different to do in between major releases."
The Guardian of Light has a standalone storyline that takes place in the Central American jungle. Back in the olden days, there was a great battle between Totec, leader of the Army of Light, and the evil Xolotl. Totec won, banished Xolotl and entombed himself in the Temple of Light with the magical Mirror of Smoke to prevent it from falling into the Wrong Hands.
Cut to the present day. Lara discovers the temple and finds the mirror. However, she's been followed by a bunch of mercenaries who nick it from her. They awaken Xolotl, who kills the lot of them and runs off with the artefact. Totec wakes up, realises what's happened and blames Lara for the whole fiasco. After a bit of banter they realise the only way to retrieve the mirror and defeat Xolotl is to work together.
Which is where Guardian of Light's big idea comes in. It's been designed as a co-op game, one you can play online or offline. "This is something completely new for us," Stewart says. "It gives us an opportunity to take Lara into a new space and show her as a more humanistic character. People have played Lara in single-player for the last 15 years, and now all of a sudden we're giving fans the opportunity to go on leaderboards and talk to each other."
Lara is still recognisable - she carries those trusty dual pistols, wields a grappling hook and wears a nice tight vest. But having Totec at her side gives her new options. He can use his shield as a portable platform, allowing Lara to jump on top and reach high areas. He has a stack of spears which he can throw into walls, and which she can then balance on. As the game progresses Lara teaches Totec how to use modern weapons like rifles. Presumably she'll go on to steal all his gold and give him cholera in the next game.
Getting around and solving puzzles requires a bit of give and take. Totec can't use his own spears as platforms without them breaking under his weight, so Lara often has to do the honours. In one puzzle, Totec uses Lara's grapple line as a tightrope to access a time-delay switch before it sinks back into the floor. In another, she jumps on his shield to reach a high ledge, then throws down her grapple so he can scale the wall.
As the game progresses the characters become more and more reliant on each other. "Our story is about building a relationship and building trust," explains Neuburger. "I really wanted the two people sitting on the couch and playing the game to have to deal with those same issues, so a lot of our co-op mechanics are trust-based."
To demonstrate this, Neuburger shows us a section where Totec must take a leap of faith and jump into a chasm - trusting that Lara will catch him with her grapple and pull him to safety. "We have a lot of things like that, where you have to rely on your buddy to take care of you."
It's not all one big love-in, however. When enemies are killed point scores appear above their bodies - red or blue, depending on whether Lara or Totec did the damage. Plus there are score-boosting pickups, such as gems, scattered throughout the levels.
"The points are a way to put a little bit of competitiveness into the game," says Neuburger. "There are only so many enemies and gems in the world, so you have to beat your partner to kill them all and grab them all. Plus you get cool unlocks for getting high scores in each level."
What if you don't have a partner? Neuburger confirms there is a solo play mode, but says the dynamics are slightly different: "We've actually enhanced Lara's abilities and we've hand-tailored the puzzles for our single-player experience - so we designed for co-op, and we used that as inspiration for the single-player."
That could be worrying news for Lara traditionalists who are all about solo adventuring and the sense of isolation. Isn't Neuburger concerned about alienating them? "It's something I do enjoy about the Tomb Raider games, that isolated feeling, but that's where our game is different," he says. "The situation Lara's in here is different to situations she's normally in, but she's still Lara - it's about how she would act and what she would do in this situation. Through and through, this is a Lara Croft experience and it is made for Tomb Raider fans, but it's an experiment. That isolation won't be lost in future Tomb Raiders to come, I'm sure."
Stewart point outs that everyone working on Guardian of Light worked on the previous three Lara games. "They know how to make sure the experience is there. We eat, sleep and breathe Tomb Raider. This game is about showing puzzles, exploration and combat in a unique way."
Which brings us to the question of how those three pillars are balanced in Guardian of Light. "We've tried to make it an exact split, or as close to that as possible, where you really get an even amount of them all," says Neuburger. "Legend was probably a bit more combat-heavy, Underworld was pretty combat-light, Anniversary was somewhere in-between. But this one's definitely more towards the even split."
The combat shown during the demo looks arcadey and simplistic. Lara and Totec use heavy waves of bullets and spears to despatch enemies, which include glowing troll-like creatures and giant hairy spiders. Most of the puzzles shown are familiar - here's a switch to pull, here's a fire to put out, here are four holes in the ground which must be filled with four similarly shaped objects you'll find hidden in various corners of the level.
The difference is you need your partner to help you reach that switch, extinguish that fire and find all those objects. This is the other big idea in Guardian of Light - the co-op dynamic doesn't just improve your chances in combat, but changes the nature of exploration.
There's plenty to explore. The isometric viewpoint and the enclosed sections we're initially shown suggest the levels are cramped, but it becomes clear this isn't the case. Neuburger brings up a map so we can get an overview of the entire area. "You can see this is a really large, sprawling space. The gameplay here is completely non-linear, so you can get out and do whatever you want and along the way there are tons of puzzles, traps, surprises and rewards."
The view gets even more impressive later on. Lara and Totec are crossing a high, narrow bridge, and beneath them we see layer upon layer of bridges and platforms descending into the abyss. "You actually work your way down this space in a big spiral," says Neuburger. "The verticality in our game is more than just a vista in the background. It allows for really cool Tomb Raider-like vistas, but it's more than that."
This section brings to mind St. Francis Folly from the very first Tomb Raider, but it's prettier and more detailed. Neuburger explains Guardian of Light is being built with the same engine used for the last three games, so it has "all the next-gen trappings" when it comes to visuals. Plants move when Lara walks through them just like they did in Underworld, for example. There are real-time lighting effects, realistic shadows and "tons" of physics-based objects.
Which is all very well but with our demo drawing to a close, it's time to ask the most important question of all - just how big will Lara's tits be?
"Haha! Yes, I have been in some very bizarre meetings and I have to say I'm a bit more of a realist," says Stewart. "Over the past 15 years it has been a focus of attention, and I think although that's a big part of the heritage, our goal is to make sure this is the most compelling... Whatever shape, size..."
"So we're looking for compelling breasts, not necessarily large or small?" says Neuburger.
"Haha! Let's say we've been very, very fortunate that it's an isometric viewpoint, so it hasn't been a focus of attention as much." The focus is on the arse now, then? "The one thing I can say is we have the same artist doing our Lara art as we had on our last game."
With that burning issue dealt with it's time to say goodbye and to say the game looks great, which it does. What about the diehard sceptics, though? Those who don't want Lara to go changing, to try and please them, ever? The people who do want clever conversation, and who do want to work that hard?
The good news is there's another game on the way. The Guardian of Light is an additional offering, not an alternative one, confirms Stewart. "That's been the biggest scepticisim amongst people since the announcement - 'Oh no, it's not Tomb Raider any more.' But Tomb Raider and Lara Croft are in our DNA. Lara will be in the next big epic adventure, and it will be called Tomb Raider."
Not that he'll reveal any further details today, of course. "Right now, this is our focus. We're trying to show that we're willing to look at the franchise and make sure the heritage is there, but also take risks," says Stewart. "It's exciting."
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is in development for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 and is due out this summer.