Tomb Raider is well known for its carefully orchestrated thrills, yet it's not the daredevil leaps, walls of spikes, or angry squid that tends to makes me nervous. Instead, my perennial fear is that the next time I attend an Underworld preview, I'll have to survive an awkward meeting with one of the Lara Croft models. I can handle the lava floes and the shoot-outs and the prospect of being clotheslined by a zombie Viking - living in Brighton, I deal with these things every day - but the thought of grimacing through a photo op that could be entitled, "Beautiful woman meets socially-awkward pumpkin-head" fills me with real terror. It hardly sounds like the high point of her life, either.
And in a way, it also points to a misconception that lies at the heart of the series: the notion that the appeal of Tomb Raider lies almost exclusively with the design of Lara Croft herself. If that were true, wouldn't rival developers have an easier time churning out pneumatic knock-offs? Wouldn't the worryingly titled Wet be headlining everyone's Most Wanted lists for '09? And wouldn't the (cruelly-neglected) P.N.03 be holding on to the top of the charts, fighting off a cadre of anatomically problematic sexpots with a taste for adventure and hotpants?
None of this is to say that Underworld and its star aren't looking lovely. With the game just weeks from release, the latest hands-on session reveals the final pass is making a considerable difference to what was already a stylish design. Croft's animation is pretty astonishing, seamlessly flowing between running, leaping, swimming, climbing and kicking a tiger in the teeth, with never a frame out of place or an awkward arrangement of limbs, and the world she moves through has gained a fresh level of polish even since our last visit to Thailand. Ruins are suitably craggy and time-weathered, the water, as they say, is lovely, and everywhere you look in the game's environments, there's a wealth of detail: rain trickling down a temple's walls, an uncomfortably large spider's web snagged over some rocks, or moss-speckled statues providing crumbling guard duty in front of a forgotten tomb.
But it's the experience, not the looks, that pushes you forward: the promise of secluded locations, precision gymnastics and quiet exploration. And as the tumbledown palaces and tropical jungles we've seen so far suggest, Underworld yanks the series away from the skyscraper rooftops and military bases and plunges it into the ancient wilderness for another muddy scramble over old stones. The waves of machine-gunning enemies are conspicuously absent, a handheld tape recorder and on-the-spot field notes from Croft replaces the in-ear chatter of buddies as a means of exposition, and Underworld, like Anniversary, is clearly a thinking game as much as an action game.
But Legend isn't entirely forgotten. If you've been paying attention to the plots of recent Tomb Raider instalments, from the genuinely intriguing cliff-hanger of Crystal Dynamics' first title, to the careful smattering of hints scattered throughout Anniversary, there's good news: the team are promising that some, but not all, of your questions will be answered this time around, in a narrative that sees Croft exploring Viking myths and searching out Thor's Hammer as she travels the world, clinging to walls, probably screwing around with some old water wheels and pressure plates, and blowing up sharks with amusing underwater explosives.
Underworld certainly kicks off in brilliantly bewildering style, the first moments thrusting you into the depths of a burning Croft Manor, with no idea what's happened. It's a bold start, and a uniquely poignant one for fans of the series. As long as there has been tomb raiding, there's been the Manor: calm and secluded, home to speed runs, Easter eggs, and the occasional control system refresher session. While the games have shifted dramatically in graphics technology, and even a little bit in basic approach, the layout of the Manor has remained relatively consistent - the grand hall with its split staircase, the gym and swimming pool and gardens beyond. To see the place in flames is a powerful trick, and, with the help of a few expertly staged minor set-pieces as ceilings threaten to cave in and sudden backdrafts burst through doorways, makes for a surprisingly pacy tutorial too.
Leaving the Manor behind, it's off to the jungles of Thailand and Mexico, for an all-too-brief look at how the animal-killing and block-pulling are shaping up. A chance to check out combat on three unsuspecting tigers reveals the addition of new melee moves alongside the enhanced gunplay, with Croft able to use certain in-game objects to smack the wildlife, or unleash a range of nasty flying kicks. This new repertoire is about creating space for yourself rather than getting a kill - you will be able to kick the tigers to death if that's your bag, but it's going to take you a while, and with three against one, success is never guaranteed - but the animation is filled with flourishes, and the sense of connection as boot meets fur is surprisingly brutal.
Advance warning: Terry Nutkins - I'm struggling to think of a more relevant wildlife personality, but my brain appears to be wedged in 1986 - is not going to enjoy this very much, but presumably he didn't enjoy any of Tomb Raider's previous PETA-offending outings either, and at least this time he gets the optional use of a tranquiliser gun.
Elsewhere, the promised dual targeting system is working well, and seems for the most part to take care of itself, choosing its lock-ons fairly intelligently. It's tempting to argue that the famously iffy Tomb Raider aim has been tightened up somewhat, although the reticule does still twitch around like a methadone addict when there's a lot going on. Besides that, the Adrenalin Moments are returning for this outing: slo-mo bursts with a timing twist, they allow you to take out enemies quickly with suitably cinematic grace, or fail spectacularly and end up back-flipping painfully into a wall instead.
With the combat looking promising, it's on to the world of locks, keys, and movable blocks, where the improved range of moves, and a few handy gadgets mean that Underworld is promising a much tighter blending of puzzle and environment than previous games have been able to offer. From an item that allows you to manipulate huge pieces of the scenery, including entire walls, to freshly devious implementations of the grapple, the challenges are looking balanced, mysterious, and quietly sadistic.
And at least one of them looks like an old friend, too. Towards the end of the demo, I'm shown a puzzle from the Mexico section of the game, a fresh take on the legendary St Francis' Folly sequence from the very first Tomb Raider. A multi-key fan favourite, it consists of a handful of themed rooms, all with a deadly surprise inside, leading out from a central hub.
The easy referencing of an aging classic seems to suggest that, if there's a flaw in Underworld's design, it may be that Crystal Dynamics are offering up a kind of platforming Greatest Hits. But exploring the puzzle itself confirms that there's far more at work than simple homage. Each room provides you with a clear target, and then swiftly scuppers your initial strategy for reaching it, often rather unpleasantly. The twists are often brilliantly unexpected, and while they feature series staples like rotating blades and falling rocks, they put the old machinery to use in surprising new ways.
The eventual solutions are often disarmingly simple, but extremely hard to reach - either due to precision timing challenges, tricky combinations of moves, or those familiar logic roadblocks where you simply can't see a way of progressing until you realise the answer's been staring you in the face all along. You're going to tear some of your hair out on Underworld, and you're also going to be squished, chopped in half, and impaled a fair few times, too, but you're going to end up doing some heavy-duty problem-solving along the way, and the fact that there are now multiple ways of tackling most puzzles means, despite the challenge, there's significantly less likelihood that you'll be sent scampering off to the nearest FAQ.
Building on its existing template, providing a handful of new features and a great deal of calculated nastiness in its puzzle design, Tomb Raider: Underworld seems to be coming together in a very promising fashion. With LittleBigPlanet and Mirror's Edge providing fresh new directions for platformers this Christmas, it's only fitting that one of the stalwarts of the genre should be on hand to prove that there's plenty of fun to be had with the classic template. The most surprising thing about Underworld then, might not be the plot twists or revelations, but the suggestion that the traditional platform game may not be dead just yet - and even if it is, you can still have a pretty good time in its tomb.
Check back next week for our most recent impressions of Tomb Raider: Underworld, which is due out for Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PC, PS2 and DS on 21st November.