Eidos won't thank us for bringing it up, but let's go back to 2003, and Angel of Darkness. It's just come out - plunged from the development womb into the amniotic fluid of fiscal desperation - and someone's called up Crystal Dynamics and asked them to step in. That must have been a heck of a call to answer after half a dozen Tomb Raiders, and we only bring it up because we're trying to think of a good touchstone for our present situation, trying to come up with something good for Eurogamer's fourth preview of Tomb Raider: Underworld, due out this time next month.
After all, our first preview by award-winning Ellie has already covered Lara's new sonar (for sniffing out usable ledges), camera (for sniffing out solutions) and bum (not for sniffing), along with her smaller bag (so she has to drag bigger stuff around like a normal person), and the controversial adrenaline events, which are QTE-style scenarios, like fast-moving trap blades, navigated in slow-motion with regular controls.
Less award-winning but just as cuddly, Christian then took a couple of virtual trips to Thailand, first to contemplate the auto-lock weapons, shooting two people at once, stupid insect enemies, wall-jumping, and shooting while climbing, and then returning a few weeks later to consider the story (Croft Manor in flames! Thor's hammer! The Legend story revisited!) and, well, flying kicks. He also wrote some beautiful things about the puzzles and referenced Keeley Hawes a few times, which should keep him in work.
Fortunately, despite having to suffer the indignity of sitting in my flat for the demo because I left the PS3 debug at home, the latest Eidos Man to show us round Lara's Underworld had a new level to explore, and a whistle-stop tour of the levels we've already seen offers us a chance to present new facts. For example, you can fight dolphins, and throw sticky bombs at tigers. And using Lara's multi-use camera (photographs can be transformed into hints about how to solve the puzzle), it's also possible to insert our heroine into the pictures by setting up a timer and then jumping into frame. Given the option to upload stuff to the internet, and the inclusion of blood for the first time in a Tomb Raider game, we can't wait for all the pictures of Lara swan-diving onto spikes or toeing the kraken.
But onto more serious business. We've seen Thailand before, so instead we head out to sea for another of the game's levels, this time set aboard a ship. Lara pulls alongside in a cracking little boat with a widescreen TV in the cabin (Tipping the Velvet no doubt in the DVD player) and then we take over and climb up the anchor, emerging onto a deck full of shipping containers. We've got to get down into the bowels for reasons we'll leave out to preserve the surprise.
As with all ships in videogames ever, none of the doors open, so Lara has to climb the containers, but not before a shootout with some, it has to be said, thoroughly stupid and predictable identikit henchmen, one of whom stutters back and forth on the spot as we pop him repeatedly with one of Lara's iconic twin pistols. Grenades make for a more interesting battle, sending enemies ragdolling everywhere, and flying melee kicks and roundhouses are the perfect finisher as you race along the deck after taking chunks out of a bad-guy's segmented circular health bar.
Then it's below decks, past a few close-quarters encounters and into a large, round room, seemingly built to house a gigantic glass cylinder. On a balcony above there's a familiar face whose every breath was a gift from Lara in the first place, and inside the glass there's another character you may remember. Lara points out she's a hard woman to kill. And, again, we'll leave it at that, because some of you don't want to know what happens. (Perhaps we can distract you by noting that there are 80,000 lines of dialogue in Underworld, most of which is from Keeley Hawes. We've also discovered that you can hire Keeley for a few thousand quid a day, but sadly not like that.) Suffice to say, Lara is told she needs to go somewhere else to find what she's looking for, and Thor's hammer comes up again. We're also told during our demo that Lara will encounter a number of relics and temples around the world that are in the wrong place...
Before Lara can be on her way, though, her renewed acquaintance is hoisted clear by a helicopter (rather more obscure than it sounds, given her enclosure and physical appearance), and it becomes apparent that the ship is not in the best of health. It's listing at pace, and things are starting to disintegrate. Lara scampers back the way she came, as time aquaplanes on explosions and forces her to manoeuvre past flying crates in slow motion, and the corridors rotate until she has to climb rather than run back the way she came. Bulkheads and loose flaps become handholds, debris tumbles past her and the line between the regular ledge-hopping and Assassin's Creed-style free-climbing elements is blurred sufficiently to disguise some of the seams. It helps that the scene is dynamically lit, and has no difficulty struggling with the ship's plight.
Eventually she emerges, and that's it for our latest look at Tomb Raider: Underworld. Deus Ex fans, tangentially, can draw some comfort from how well the Crystal Dynamics engine copes with diverse scenes - whether it's the oil-painted landscapes of outdoor Thailand and the amazing textural depth of the much-improved interiors, or the sterile industry of a container ship. Tomb Raider fans, across almost as many previews as there are massive levels in the game, can look forward to some refined mechanics, interesting puzzles with multiple solutions, and getting to the bottom of all that Avalon business from Legend. Should they care to, they can also seek out around 300 new hidden objects, some of which are so intricately concealed behind optional, corner-of-the-eye platforming that we were told it would take around 25 hours to uncover them all in the process of finishing the game.
As Christian remarked in one of our other previews, Tomb Raider's recent reboot - albeit now three games ago - goes some way to shielding it from criticism that it hasn't moved on a great deal. Our latest spell with the controller reveals a few reachable edges that aren't interactive, and it's hard to argue that the changes to the weapons combat elevate that element of the game to equal footing with the generally sublime platforming, but a few creaks here and there are tolerable blemishes on an otherwise promising, increasingly old-school game concept: walk into a room, collect things, and climb all over the place until you trigger the way out. A refined, updated extension of Legend would be welcome, and that's what Underworld resembles.
Anyway, we'll now shut up about Underworld until it comes out. And we'll never mention Angel of Darkness again.
Tomb Raider: Underworld is due out for Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PS2, DS and PC on 21st November.