So I've been sat down in this little room within the vaults of the Square-Enix and Eidos offices in South London and what's on the screen in front of me, a screen which threatens to devour most of the room, is worrying me slightly. I can see Lara Croft in front of me, still sporting her turquoise vest and dusty shorts and with her trusty dual pistols by her side, but she's much smaller and further away than usual. I rub my eyes and wonder if I've accidentally stepped into a screening of Diablo III showcasing some wacky guest characters. Lara's joined by a bare chested man who appears to have stolen Mary Poppins' TARDIS-esque handbag and filled it with an infinite number of spears. He chucks several at a bunch of spiders before throwing a few into a wall and allowing Lara to use them to skip across a spike-filled chasm. She then returns the favour by throwing her grappling hook at him from the other side, and impressively takes his weight as he swings across and clambers up the other side.
This doesn't look like the Tomb Raider I remember. But, then again, it's not supposed to.
A quick glance at the title of Lara's latest adventure tells you all you really need to know: this is no Tomb Raider sequel. Forget canon, ignore overarching narrative for the moment, Crystal Dynamics wanted to try something new. Don't worry, there'll be a new 'proper' game coming soon, but in the interim we've got this to tide us over. As CD's creative director, Daniel Neuburger, explained back in March, 'We have these big pillar releases for Tomb Raider and there's never anything in between'. But this isn't just some knock off that the studio has come up with, they've been a part of Lara's story for half a decade now with a trilogy of games to their name. This is something new and exciting: a digital download for PC, PSN and XBLA that will no doubt retail in the region of £10-15 (we got told 12oo Microsoft Points), due out in the next couple of months and part of Microsoft's Summer of Arcade programme.
The first thing you notice is the aesthetic difference. No more staring at Lara's bum, everything's done from an isometric viewpoint this time around. But the game looks absolutely fantastic. As Epic showed with Shadow Complex, there's room in the DLC market for titles with high production values, and people will pay more for them too. Guardian of Light utilises the same engine that poweredTomb Raider: Underworld meaning that ferns will rustle and sway as you brush past them, dynamic lighting casts shadows everywhere and, most importantly, there's a real-time physics engine that's smooth, accurate and highly impressive.
This new direction does affect the gameplay somewhat and, I'll come onto the platforming and puzzling and exploration in a bit, one thing I certainly became quickly aware of is that this game will see Lara fending off adversaries far more frequently than ever before. The new camera angle makes for a new control scheme: move Lara around with the left stick, aim with the right and riddle creatures with bullets with the right trigger. Imagine if the aforementioned Shadow Complex had a love-in with Diablo and Prince of Persia and you get the idea. It works brilliantly though ,and is a lot of fun playing much like the Tomb Raider games on the GBA but with better graphics, more action, more to explore and more puzzles to solve. Just more, really.
However...Lara Croft has been around for a little while. She's more than a game character, she's a gaming institution, and the Tomb Raider series is recognised the world over as being an integral part of gaming's history. She's one of gaming's most loved protagonists, and not just because she has an oversized bust and a love of jungle survivalist hotpants. Nathan Drake owes her a drink at the very least. Tomb Raider has always been about third-person action-adventuring, acrobatic platforming and, above all, a firm emphasis on puzzles and exploration.
With that in mind it's easy to see how some people will react to this game without even giving it a glance. In fact, there are a great many who already have, afraid that somehow this game will tarnish the legacy of Lara and ruin their lives and besmirch her name. Some people will look down upon this game as being something of a bastard child of the Tomb Raider franchise. Those people are ill-informed and highly misguided.
You see, in spite of all of the aesthetic changes, the higher level of combat frequency and the change of moniker, this is still very much a game with Tomb Raider at it's heart. Keeley Hawes is back once again voicing Lara, injecting a bit of steel into those well-educated, upper class tones and providing a nice little bit of character continuity. The story is textbook Tomb Raider, although it's a standalone tale and doesn't fit into the canon. Essentially, Lara goes tomb raiding, finds a magical mirror, loses it to a bunch of mercenaries who've been lying in wait for here, accidentally wakes an ancient evil in the process who naturally kills all of the mercenaries and nicks the mirror and gets shouted at by Totec, the mirror's protector, who's also just been roused out of a 2000 year nap, to help him recover the mirror.
There are puzzles of course too, with the co-op mode really forcing you to work in tandem with your partner to reach certain areas. Lara has her grappling hook and Totec has his spears and shield, the former of which can be used as previously mentioned to make steps and ledges when thrown into walls, and the latter as a higher jumping platform to help Lara reach ledges that would otherwise be out of reach. The Underworld engine also helps out massively here and allows for some excellent physics based puzzles. One room had a giant spiky ball rotating around a large post on the end of a rope, our path blocked by a fire pit. In order to get past we had to place a bomb by the post and detonate it at the right time so that ideally the ball would be flung towards the pit and block the fire. I'm ashamed to say that I narrowly missed on my first attempt. Had I been two pints in, my pool eye would have surely kicked in. Probably.
Exploration is still an enormous part of the game. As our enthusiastic guide at Square was eager to point out, there are a number of puzzles that have multiple outcomes. For example, we entered a room with a vast array of perforated floor tiles, no doubt hiding spikes that would eviscerate Lara should she hesitate on any of them, surrounding two pressure pads. In order to progress to the next room all we needed to do was get Lara and Totec to stand on the pads and open the door. But, as it turned out, skipping nimbly across all of the titles and activating an entire floor of spikes opened up a secret area with a shiny little upgrade. It wasn't critical to the gameplay at all, but the game is littered with loads of rewards, upgrades and weapons to encourage you to take the time to have a bit of a nose around. There's a lovely little mechanic too that gives both players the upgrade or reward should they work together in co-op to nab the item. Crystal Dynamics have really gone all out here to provide a co-op experience that's all about interactive teamwork, not just about someone else being there.
The co-op mode also proves fantastically competitive. Little scores appear over the enemies you've felled and every kill counts. So to, amusingly, does every death. If you die in-game, you'll simply respawn next to your comrade, but you'll be docked a few points. This almost inevitably led to our guide attempting to lure me into the path of a bomb he'd sneakily dropped and certainly when this game goes public, I'm sure 'accidents' will almost certainly happen if the scores are relatively close. If you both die though, it's game over, something that might well lead players who find themselves betrayed as Lara trying to fling their grappling hook towards their treacherous mates to try and bring them down too.
This all changes, though, if you choose to play the game in single-player mode. Although much of the innovation has gone into creating a truly co-operative experience, when it's just you and Lara that traditional feeling of isolation kicks back in. Although the puzzles are broadly the same, CD have gone some way into redrafting how you go about solving them on your own, ensuring that gamers can have the very best of both worlds.
As we neared the end of the second level, our guide Adam warned us of an impending boss fight before cheekily switching off the machine much to my disappointment. I'd been prepared for something different, something new and something potentially divisive, but the hands-on preview actually displayed just how much of what makes Tomb Raider so fantastic is still present in this game. The puzzles, the exploration and the presentation are all there, now with an added energy, pace, thrilling fun and the immediacy that is the reserve of the online marketplace. Crystal Dynamics have categorically stated that this is an extra, additional game for Lara, not a replacement, but I think there's a danger there of underselling it. From what I saw on Wednesday, Lara's latest adventure has the potential to truly light up the downloadable marketplaces this summer.