"Ah, the lovely Lara. With your penchant for raiding tombs, your amazing acrobatic skills and your honking great tits, you've been entertaining us for years now. You're like a female Indiana Jones! With big tits." © Almost every article written about Tomb Raider in the last 10 years. Including this one.
But for many of those years there wasn't much more to say. This one's got a speedboat. Oh look, a motorbike. This one's too hard. Oh look, her tits are bigger. By the time Chronicles came along no one could be bothered to say anything at all.
Then came Angel of Darkness, about which there was much to say. Things like "Why did they do that?" mainly. The game was so late and so poor Core lost the Lara licence to Crystal Dynamics, who set to work on TR: Legend.
They made the decision early on in the design process to take Tomb Raider back to its roots - beautiful, atmospheric environments, greater isolation during exploration, a control system that worked. As a result the game was a solid, if not stunning return to form. The Anniversary remake of the original Tomb Raider was more impressive; "The best Lara Croft adventure to date," as Kristan put it.
Now the series is at a critical juncture. Legend was good, Anniversary great, but Tomb Raider: Underworld is the game that needs to push the series forward. It's time for Crystal Dynamics to really show what it can do.
Show and tell
This process begins at a screening room in central London. Eidos has invited us here to see Underworld in action for the first time. Disappointingly, no one from Crystal Dynamics is present. "Obviously, they're making the game," says publishing designer Bill Beacham. "But we're here to act as consultants and keep an eye on what they're up to."
The demo is being presented by Underworld's senior producer at Eidos, Sarah Van Rompaey. The fourth level of the game, she explains, is set in Mexico. We're going to see the final section of it being played on Xbox 360.
There stands Lara, larger than life. She's swapped her plait for a ponytail but her clothes are still very small. She's standing in the jungle surrounding a great stone temple. It's raining and her clothes are soaked through. The level of detail on the building, the gloomy lighting and the raindrop animations are all very impressive.
So impressive, in fact, that one gaming publication recently described Underworld's visuals as looking "altogether photo-real". Does Eidos think that's an accurate assessment? "Underworld has a level of fidelity and realism not seen in a Tomb Raider game to date," Van Rompaey says. "However, there is a certain level of stylisation which is synonymous with Tomb Raider. Realism isn't our goal."
The improved graphics are generated by a brand new engine. New materials and an improved shader system mean multiple textures can be blended together. A new piece of lighting technology called Spherical Harmonics is being used to make Lara appear connected with her environment; if she walks through green foliage, for example, her skin will take on a subtle green cast.
Vertex shading makes objects move realistically - think trees swaying in the breeze and bushes rustling as animals move through them. There are contextual animations, so if Lara walks through long grass she will automatically use her hands to clear her path. If one hand is holding a gun at the time she'll only use her free one to do this.
In addition there are dynamic environmental effects and each level has its own weather system. In the level we're being shown today, that means storm clouds moving across the sky, trees shaking in the wind and the occasional lightning flash.
On the move
But the best thing about what we're seeing on screen is the fact it looks like a Tomb Raider game should. Ancient temples, lush jungles, Lara alone and with a great expanse of environment to explore. And she hasn't even started moving yet.
But as two panthers burst out of the undergrowth Lara leaps into action and the first of her new combat moves is revealed. She can dual-target, shooting one panther with the pistol in her left hand while simultaneously taking out the other with her right. She can also perform new moves while shooting, such as a swan dive.
Objects in the environment can be used in combat now. To demonstrate this, Lara finds a large pole and whacks the panthers with it to finish them off. In previous Tomb Raider games you'd expect their bodies to disappear, but they don't. Underworld's environments are persistent so if you kill something or move an object it will remain as you left it for the entirety of the level. You could say it's about time, but still.
Time to show off Lara's new acrobatic moves. "Each one creates new exploration and combat scenarios," says Van Rompaey. "Every move has been expertly animated using motion-capture of an Olympic-trained gymnast, and the results are some of the best ever seen in a videogame."
Lara can not only balance on beams but vault and backflip along them. She can rappel down vertical surfaces, perform wall kicks and melee kicks. She can shoot while clinging from ledges and hanging onto ropes. She's got a new sprint move, which allows her to run so fast it's almost funny. All of these moves are performed with spectacular grace and fluidity, making you wonder why that gymnast was only Olympic-trained and not a medal winner.
The most exciting-sounding new feature is the ability to "free-climb". Without being able to try this out first-hand, however, it's hard to gauge how it works. You can see Lara's no longer constricted to pulling herself along ledges; she uses her arms and feet to traverse a section of wall like a rock climber would.
But it looks like she's constrained to using the lumps on the wall which stick out and look brighter than the rest of it. This doesn't seem like free-climbing, more like following a set path but with a new animation. We're also told Lara can now move around concave and convex surfaces, but this isn't being shown in the demo.
Lara can now use objects in the environment to create new paths. "This is very exciting for us. It's not used in any other game," says Van Rompaey. "It really does change the way you think and play Tomb Raider." Lara grabs the pole again and slots it into a hole in the wall, turning it into a pole she can swing and jump from. We're told Lara can also destroy or manipulate objects in new ways to establish routes, for example burning trees to clear a pathway.
The grapple hook is back, but Eidos has listened to criticisms the catch points in Legend were "too bling". Now they blend quietly into the environment and it's up to you to spot them. The grapple won't detach if a solid object comes between Lara and the catch point. This means she can exert force on the grapple line and use it to, as is being shown here, pull a large stone block off a pillar. The blocks in Underworld are physics items, so they won't fall into the same position each time.
The falling block smashes open a pair of stone doors and Lara retrieves the relic she's after. It's only one in a series of objects she's had to obtain in this environment. "The levels are of a scale we haven't seen before," explains Beacham, adding that you have the freedom to decide what order you solve puzzles in.
According to Van Rompaey, "Underworld features large-scale mechanisms and challenges which span entire environments rather than just being restricted to a particular locale in order to open the next door. Each environment is a formidable adversary that the player will have to overcome."
This particular bit of the environment overcome, Lara heads outside the temple and across a Mayan ballcourt. She stops at a turnstile above a pair of giant gates set into the floor. The relics she's collected will allow her to open the gates - which, it turns out, are the gates to the Mayan underworld. This is what the game's subtitle refers to; not thankfully, any nonsense about Lara "going dark" and dealing with mobsters or drug dealers.
"Underworld has nothing in common with Angel of Darkness," says Van Rompaey. "If Tomb Raider: Underworld comes across as darker it's not deliberate. It's more to do with the fact that she is travelling to underworlds, places of the undead. Therefore it has a more mature tone and naturally will feel darker."
Eidos's Kathryn Clements says she doesn't want to give too much of the story away, but "it's safe to say Lara will be going to multiple underworlds throughout the game". Not just real-world locations, then? "No. The guys at Crystal have let their imaginations go. They're taking Lara to places she's never been before, places people will find surprising."
According to Bill Beacham, "Underworld is more mythology- than archaeology-based. I think it's important to have a grounding in reality; you can see that with the Mayan temple. But you have to go beyond that."
On her bike
This is where things get really interesting - with the potential for exploring fantastical environments and fighting off mythological creatures. Unfortunately, this is where today's demo ends. There's only time to show us Lara's new motorbike, said to be much improved and more useful.
It's got gears and can do everything a real motorbike can, including donuts and wheelies. It's also "much more integral to the levels", says Beacham. "It's one of the tools Lara has in her arsenal of gear now. If you want to get from A to B quickly, that's what the bike's for. It also has other functionality we'll be revealing later."
And that's it, almost. We sent Eidos a Q&A after the event, and you've just read many of their answers. However, they declined to answer quite a few of our questions. So we can't tell you whether Underworld will be longer than Legend, whether there will be episodic releases, why there's no PSP version or whether they're considering a Tomb Raider II remake.
Nor can we tell you why, oh why they made the T-Rex bit into a quick time event in Anniversary. (QTEs will be back in Underworld but "not as we knew them", according to Beacham. "It's going to be a new system. More flexible, more natural, a bit more freedom, more rewarding to the player.")
We can tell you this: what's been shown of Underworld so far is impressive and intriguing. It looks beautiful, it looks fresh, but it still looks like a Tomb Raider game. Crystal Dynamics appears to be focusing on why fans love the series as much as how to push it forwards, and that can only be a good thing.
There's still much more to be revealed, and it will be intriguing to see the new mythological environments Lara will get to explore. But so far, Tomb Raider: Underworld is looking spectacular. Much like Lara's tits.