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.