Fact: Lara Croft is a cultural icon. Apparently, she's still recognised by over 90 per cent of the general public - yes, even the ones who hang about outside TK Maxx. Try asking those same people to pick out Far Cry's hero Jack Carver from a videogame character line-up though, and you'll probably just get the blank look that dogs give you when you fire questions at them.
Unfortunately for license-holders Eidos, developer Core Design made a pig's lug of The Angel Of Darkness, producing a buggy, sloppily-executed Tomb Raider title that nearly drowned our favourite pistol-wielding heroine.
The result was that the job of developing the next Tomb Raider (and effectively saving the franchise) was given to the US-based Crystal Dynamics, a company with an excellent track record of good third-person action games in the Soul Reaver/ Legend Of Kain titles, as well as most recently, decent Deus Ex-ey shooter Project: Snowblind.
Then one of the original creators of Lara, Toby Gard, fresh from his work on the great-but-late action-adventure Galleon on Xbox, was brought on board to oversee the rescuing of Lara from her spiky pit of despair. Now, I'm never one to be too optimistic about how games will turn out months before completion, but after my recent exclusive presentation of the new Tomb Raider: Legend, I can confidently say that fans of the posh bird with the dual-pistols can start getting excited again. Lara is coming home.
If you've been a semi-decomposing mummy in a crypt for the past year, here's a quick catch-up on the new game. Basically, everything crap from the last game has been thrown out: the terrible hyper-accurate platformjumping based on a tile movement system; the character attributeupdates; the piss-poor camera; the wandering about empty Paris streets; that second rubbish playable bloke; the dearth of tombs to actually raid.
In their place is a redesigned Lara who retains her curvy videogame features but with a less cartoon-like blow-up doll look, plus a stunning graphics engine, new traps, new intuitive moves, new gizmos, a decent targeting system, physics-based puzzles with multiple solutions, fully driveable vehicles and - yes - bloody big tombs. In a nutshell, Tomb Raider: Legend looks fun.
ROLL OUT THE BARREL
The level we had exclusive access to was called Flashback, when Lara travels to Peru to visit a place where 'something very bad happened' when she was younger. In a dusty, deserted shanty town, she meets up with her childhood friend Anaya, after receiving directions from an unnamed male associate's voice on her headset.
Suddenly, a truck full of goons skids into view and we're given a full gunsblazing demo of the new combat system.
Targeting is auto-lock-on (although this can hopefully be toggled on or off for the PC version), and you can switch targets easily, allowing Lara to back-flip, forward roll and jump around, while simultaneously shooting bullets into various militia men's faces and jumpsliding them off their feet. So-called 'flair moves' allow Ms Croft to perform silky bullet-time kills, as well as, for example, double-jumping off an enemy's shoulders and blasting them from behind.
In addition, the levels use full physics, so barrels will roll when shot and ragdoll bodies will crumple to the floor, plus 'objects of opportunity' present you with precariously placed explosives for seeing off foes with fiery chain-reactions. Lara's default weapons are the dual-pistols, but you can also pick up an extra firearm such as a shotgun or grenade launcher, and use grenades strapped to Lara's belt - a visible inventory that shows what items are available (there'll be no more pulling out a rocket launcher from an ever-expanding rucksack). An over-theshoulder fire mode for more accurate shooting finishes off the rest of the bad guys, and Lara is finally free to traipse further into the Peruvian jungle.