Man, it feels good to be writing about Lara again without the nagging impression that the old girl was so past it she ought to have been embarking on a Saga holiday rather than another jaunt to ravage the hidden tombs of Peru and Nepal.
See, Tomb Raider is officially good again. Actually, scratch that, not just good - brilliant. While Legend introduced us to a high-octane Lara, Anniversary led us by the hand back into the nostalgic caverns of our youth for some of the best platforming and puzzling of our lives. Now, in her exclusive properly next gen bow, Lara faces her gravest challenge yet... a journey into the depths of hell itself.
Sitting with rapt attention in a plush conference suite in Mérida, Mexico, we were treated to a pre-alpha demo of Underworld's fourth level - the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal. Lara, as per, is on the hunt for an ancient artefact that she believes is located in the mythical realm of Xibalba - fabled, deadly underworld of the Mayans. Turns out the key to the mystery might well lie right beneath her size five Doc Martens, as we were about to find out.
Wet 'n Wild
As thunder and lightning crashed and raged in the broody skies above, pouring rain soaked Lara through to her dreamy olive skin. In addition to getting wet (ahem), Crofty will also get caked with mud during the course of her scrapes - though a quick dip will soon have her looking spanking clean again. For this presentation, a decidedly tougher-looking Lara dressed like she meant business, decked out in a sexy black number not unlike her Angel of Darkness garb.
While Creative Director, Crystal Dynamics' Eric Lindstrom, confirms that Underworld will pick up Legend's baton - "we're not delving into the past this time at all; this Tomb Raider is set firmly in the present" - we didn't see any sign of Excalibur, the mystical sword that our Lara was last seen twirling above her head at the climax of Legend. We're guessing that, for the time being, all that business about Avalon, backstabbing best pal Amanda and her missing Mummy are on hold.
Enormous, sprawling levels far in excess of anything Raider fans have ever experienced before will mark Underworld as Lara's most ambitious adventure yet, seeing as they're built around finding disparate elements and wracking your grey matter to work out how they all fit together. Also, the critical and commercial success of Anniversary convinced the devs to deviate somewhat from Legend and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune's gun-heavy territory and instead focus upon Lara's natural hunting ground - exploring and interacting with tombs.
Physically, Lara resembles her Legend avatar, though if anything that (in)famous bust has been ever so slightly reduced and those colt-like legs slightly lengthened for increased athleticism. She's also totally mo-capped now, her notably toned torso moving with a predatory feline grace that's startlingly realistic. And if you're asking - yep, we certainly would.
Technically, the difference between Lara Underworld and Lara Legend is also night and day. An obviously excited Lindstrom waxed lyrical about her packing twelve times as many textures plus a refined lighting/shadow model which catches the light and casts its own independent shadow relative to Lara's location. And when the skies above Uxmal are literally crackling with electricity, it's hard not to be impressed.
Talking about weather, Underworld undoubtedly boasts the best climate effects in any game we've ever seen. Heck, water even dribbles down individual cracks in the scenery... which actually helps play a part in Lara solving puzzles. As a case in point, Lindstrom uses the grappling hook (yep, it's back!) to wrap around a nearby statue, gives it a tug and lets gravity do the rest. Even the ensuing masonry wreckage is dynamically scattered.