Tomb Raider is well known for its carefully orchestrated thrills, yet it's not the daredevil leaps, walls of spikes, or angry squid that tends to makes me nervous. Instead, my perennial fear is that the next time I attend an Underworld preview, I'll have to survive an awkward meeting with one of the Lara Croft models. I can handle the lava floes and the shoot-outs and the prospect of being clotheslined by a zombie Viking - living in Brighton, I deal with these things every day - but the thought of grimacing through a photo op that could be entitled, "Beautiful woman meets socially-awkward pumpkin-head" fills me with real terror. It hardly sounds like the high point of her life, either.
And in a way, it also points to a misconception that lies at the heart of the series: the notion that the appeal of Tomb Raider lies almost exclusively with the design of Lara Croft herself. If that were true, wouldn't rival developers have an easier time churning out pneumatic knock-offs? Wouldn't the worryingly titled Wet be headlining everyone's Most Wanted lists for '09? And wouldn't the (cruelly-neglected) P.N.03 be holding on to the top of the charts, fighting off a cadre of anatomically problematic sexpots with a taste for adventure and hotpants?
None of this is to say that Underworld and its star aren't looking lovely. With the game just weeks from release, the latest hands-on session reveals the final pass is making a considerable difference to what was already a stylish design. Croft's animation is pretty astonishing, seamlessly flowing between running, leaping, swimming, climbing and kicking a tiger in the teeth, with never a frame out of place or an awkward arrangement of limbs, and the world she moves through has gained a fresh level of polish even since our last visit to Thailand. Ruins are suitably craggy and time-weathered, the water, as they say, is lovely, and everywhere you look in the game's environments, there's a wealth of detail: rain trickling down a temple's walls, an uncomfortably large spider's web snagged over some rocks, or moss-speckled statues providing crumbling guard duty in front of a forgotten tomb.
But it's the experience, not the looks, that pushes you forward: the promise of secluded locations, precision gymnastics and quiet exploration. And as the tumbledown palaces and tropical jungles we've seen so far suggest, Underworld yanks the series away from the skyscraper rooftops and military bases and plunges it into the ancient wilderness for another muddy scramble over old stones. The waves of machine-gunning enemies are conspicuously absent, a handheld tape recorder and on-the-spot field notes from Croft replaces the in-ear chatter of buddies as a means of exposition, and Underworld, like Anniversary, is clearly a thinking game as much as an action game.
But Legend isn't entirely forgotten. If you've been paying attention to the plots of recent Tomb Raider instalments, from the genuinely intriguing cliff-hanger of Crystal Dynamics' first title, to the careful smattering of hints scattered throughout Anniversary, there's good news: the team are promising that some, but not all, of your questions will be answered this time around, in a narrative that sees Croft exploring Viking myths and searching out Thor's Hammer as she travels the world, clinging to walls, probably screwing around with some old water wheels and pressure plates, and blowing up sharks with amusing underwater explosives.
Underworld certainly kicks off in brilliantly bewildering style, the first moments thrusting you into the depths of a burning Croft Manor, with no idea what's happened. It's a bold start, and a uniquely poignant one for fans of the series. As long as there has been tomb raiding, there's been the Manor: calm and secluded, home to speed runs, Easter eggs, and the occasional control system refresher session. While the games have shifted dramatically in graphics technology, and even a little bit in basic approach, the layout of the Manor has remained relatively consistent - the grand hall with its split staircase, the gym and swimming pool and gardens beyond. To see the place in flames is a powerful trick, and, with the help of a few expertly staged minor set-pieces as ceilings threaten to cave in and sudden backdrafts burst through doorways, makes for a surprisingly pacy tutorial too.
Leaving the Manor behind, it's off to the jungles of Thailand and Mexico, for an all-too-brief look at how the animal-killing and block-pulling are shaping up. A chance to check out combat on three unsuspecting tigers reveals the addition of new melee moves alongside the enhanced gunplay, with Croft able to use certain in-game objects to smack the wildlife, or unleash a range of nasty flying kicks. This new repertoire is about creating space for yourself rather than getting a kill - you will be able to kick the tigers to death if that's your bag, but it's going to take you a while, and with three against one, success is never guaranteed - but the animation is filled with flourishes, and the sense of connection as boot meets fur is surprisingly brutal.
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