Tomb Raider Underworld
Thai another day.
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.