"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.