Underworld's first trailer may have suggested total revolution, with Croft Manor blasted into dust while Mozart's Requiem shriekingly heralds the end of the entire world, but Eidos' slow striptease reveal of Tomb Raider's next instalment suggests that very little of the fundamental experience is going to change much.
And why should it? Legend provided much of the retooling the series required, losing the grid system, ditching aging animations, and - nobody's going to complain about this - bringing in Keeley Hawes, albeit in voice alone. Alongside the detail work, there was a different approach underpinning the whole experience too: levels were brisker and had far less backtracking, physics played an interesting role in the game's puzzles, and in-ear chatter from a cast of lovable stereotypes allowed a more assured manner of storytelling to unfold without breaking up the action too much.
In the light of that friendlier but more linear game, Crystal Dynamics' subsequent reworking of the original Lara Croft title in the form of the Anniversary package looked like a pleasant yet bewildering throwback. On the plus side, the expansive sense of loneliness and isolation that characterised the series for so long made a welcome return, but so did the faffing about with elaborate junction points, heading back and forth to look for multiple keys to work a single piece of machinery. Legend's levels may have been a bit too much like straight-ahead racetracks for some players' tastes, but Anniversary's return to a more mazelike structure could be just as divisive.
From what we're seeing of Underworld, Crystal Dynamics is now trying to bring the two approaches together. And so the striptease continues. Having previously focused on giant squid and Croft's lovingly-crafted arse (pray you never meet the demographic who delights in that particular combination), Eidos is now taking us to Thailand for a familiar jaunt through some jumping, swinging and puzzle-solving.
Even when Lara was made from a handful of triangles and traversed an environment entirely composed of right-angles, Tomb Raider always managed to summon up a feeling of being on holiday, and Underworld's Thailand retains that, with the added bonus that the environments now look gorgeous. Starting out on the deck of a yacht, Croft swan-dives gracefully into the water before making her way towards a nearby cliff-face. From there, it's a lengthy rock-climb to the top - a major difference being that climbing is far less linear, with a variety of organic paths available to reach the summit.
In keeping with the holiday spirit, a swift insect attack follows, giving the developer a chance to show off the new shooting system. Well, sort of new, because the truth is that Croft still lags rather significantly behind Nathan Drake when it comes to blowing people's heads off. The auto-lock appears to be slightly wiser in its judgements, and you can target two enemies at once (as long as you're using the signature twin pistols, of course), but it's far from perfect. It's an improvement, but shooting appears to retain some of the series' traditional skittishness, and the day you look forward to Tomb Raider gunplay may still be some way off.
Luckily, combat has never been Tomb Raider's emphasis. That's always been spectacle, and as Croft finally reaches the top of the cliff, and we get a slow reveal of a vast, derelict AngKor Wat-styled temple rising out of the jungle, it's clear that Crystal Dynamics is fully aware of the series' strengths, and entirely capable of playing to them.
What follows is a careful mix of old and new, in the form of a quick clamber and hop from pillar to post to crumbling ledge to get inside the ancient ruin, while giving the local wildlife a hard time. Platforming looks as enjoyable as ever - few games can make the mundane task of jumping from one bit of scenery to another quite as satisfying as Tomb Raider does - and there's a gently evolved range of new acrobatics, such as wall jumps, which were cut from Legend. Astonishingly, this is also the first time Croft has been mo-capped, and it's a credit to the animators on the previous games that you can only very occasionally tell the difference.
The most striking development is that Croft can now shoot while otherwise engaged - clambering along ledges or hanging from those odd poles that seem to be such a feature of temple design whenever Eidos is involved. This gives the developers a lot more scope to mix up running and gunning compared to the fire-fights of the previous titles, where the simplistic AI and limited targeting options meant that your best strategy was almost always to run in a circle shooting backwards (which says Benny Hill more than Indiana Jones), or clambering onto a rock which enemies were too stupid to get onto as well.
With no human enemies on hand in the demo, it's impossible to tell whether their AI has been improved, so Croft is left to contend with the regular motley assortment of endangered species. Even here there are slight tweaks, with the addition of a tranquiliser gun to pacify both the lions and the animal cruelty lobbyists (who will hopefully turn up as last stage boss encounters), and lizards who can scale walls and drop down from above.
Combat aside and temple breached, all that's left is an elaborate puzzle - a multi-armed god statue (if I was smarter, or if the lights hadn't been so dimmed in the preview room and I was able to re-read my own notes, I'd know the name of this particular deity - I think it's Shiva), which has to be carefully manipulated by finding various objects around the temple and wedging them into the correct sockets. Business as usual, in other words.
At moments like this, there's always been a slight danger that Tomb Raider might turn into an exotically-styled postman simulator, but despite the necessary trinkets being located all over the sprawling temple, the game seems to offer variety in the way they can be collected - setting up a pattern with one piece, altering it, often rather nastily, with a second. This is Anniversary-style play rather than the speed-running of Legend, then, but it's folded into the level with skill, wit, ingenuity, and a minimum of backtracking. And Croft's far more dextrous when carrying objects now - able to take out a lion while carrying a staff, and then insert the staff into a rather convenient gap in a wall to propel herself to higher ground.
It seems schizophrenic to demand sweeping change from some games while preferring others to evolve more cautiously, but Tomb Raider has had a major reboot relatively recently, and the core elements - not just the platforming and the graceful animation, but the seductive isolation of the environments and the genuine sense of adventure the game exudes - mean that this kind of educated refinement to the series seems strangely appropriate.
There's still no real excuse for the clumsy gunplay, but even with titles as accomplished as Uncharted: Drake's Fortune looking to move in on Croft's territory, Tomb Raider's lonely take on exploration remains an agenda that separates it from almost every other adventure game. The marketing may play to the likes of Zoo and Nuts, but the core experience is often thoughtful, peaceful, and surprisingly devious. From what we've seen, Underworld is building on that precious framework in careful increments.