Tomb Raider: Underworld

The face that launched a million PlayStations is coming back home this year with a new look, all-new moves and a whole lot of attitude

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As it was, I began the familiar task of shimmying along ledges above chasms, hopping from pillar to pillar, leaping backwards to ledges, swinging acrobatically on poles and generally getting to grips with some of Lara's 1,700 moves. 1,700! She's come a long way since the restrictive, distinctly un-athletic days of the original Tomb Raider.

In addition, the interactive cutscenes introduced in Legend where you pressed random buttons as they appeared on screen have been ditched in favour of new Adrenaline Moments. Here the action slows to a crawl and the camera angle subtly changes to suggest a certain acrobatic move or action is available. Get it right and Lara moves on to the next obstacle or survives. Cock it up and she dies a particularly horrible death, at least in the more punishing later levels.

Off the hook
Lara's grapple hook soon came in handy to topple one of the pillars on a tentacle as well as fix a gear on the other side, which meant the bridges holding the disc retracted. After some more acrobatics, pressing a switch then raised the disc (complete with convenient spikes on the underside) above the Kraken, and Lara then shot the chains suspending it to send the disc plummeting towards the creature's skull. Good work.

Although this early puzzle isn't the most difficult, it would normally still take a bit of figuring out. This is typical of the more elaborate multi-stage brainteasers you'll face later on when Lara journeys to exotic locations such as the coast of Thailand, the jungles of Mexico and the Arctic Sea. Mexico and the Artic Sea also see her new all-terrain hybrid motorbike called into action, which doubles as a snowmobile to scoot across the latter's icy glaciers. Sadly, I never got to see either version of the bike.

Most impressive of all is Underworld's genuine 'next-gen' (or current-gen as the PS3 should be known by now) graphical quality, which adds lots of lovely little touches to make this more than just Lara in HD. There's the way streaky dirt and mud stays on Lara's body and clothes as she bounds around - at least until rain or landing in a pool of water washes it off. Moisture also affects Lara's grip in a number of levels, so you'll always need to be ready to react when she makes a death-defying jump to a ledge.

Healthy glow
Crystal Dynamics also started banging on about various technical improvements to do with light, colour and what it has dubbed 'Spherical Harmonics', which basically means light reflected by objects subtly changes Lara's appearance.

For instance, when Lara swam in the Med, her body turned a pale blue-green hue, while standing next to a flickering flame deep within the ruin gave her skin a warm orange glow. It looks great, and in the context of a top-heavy acrobatic treasure-hunting bit of posh totty just gives her a more realistic, believable look that previous Lara models never quite managed. How the girl has flourished.

As do all her physical animations being motion-captured by gymnast and Hollywood stuntwoman Heidi Moneymaker (yes, that's her real name), who's worked on blockbusters such as Rambo, Spider-Man 3 and Mission: Impossible III. Bet performing those 1,700 character moves took a toll on her body.

The sound too is not what you might expect, relying on some excellent ambient noises for the most part instead of an overblown score. The dripping water that echoed throughout the Kraken's lair and the rumbling of the creature itself were really effective, as were the sudden jolts whenever its tentacles lashed out from nowhere. I even jumped - pretty good going considering I'm a hardened gamer.

With the Kraken impaled, it was game over for now, leaving me eager to see what was on the other side of the door and to find out more about the story. It's fair to say that any new Tomb Raider game these days is probably only preaching to the converted, but in the wake of the brilliant Uncharted the series will still have to raise its game. From what I've seen, Lara is on the right path to fortune and glory.

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