Lara's come a long way since her inception in the original Tomb Raider. Crystal Dynamics proved there was life in the old girl yet after its impressive performances with Legend and Anniversary, but despite this, we approach every demo of the next iteration in the franchise, Tomb Raider Underworld, with trepidation due to some of the missteps made in the all-too-recent past. However, this game features an entirely new engine, a fully motion-captured Lara, and a number of intriguing new dynamics and mechanics.
We got to see a few of these in action during a brief hands-on with a new part of the game, which we were told takes place about an hour in. Warning: The demo that we played featured something of a plot twist that could be considered a spoiler due to the way it unfolds.
We found Lara on a cargo boat, faced with Jacqueline Natla, the main antagonist from the very first Tomb Raider game. Natla is sealed in a capsule that, after a bit of banter, is lifted through the roof and off into the sky by a waiting chopper. As the cutscene continues, a series of explosions rock the ship, and it becomes very clear that getting out is the only reasonable way of surviving. Running through the cramped hallways of the ship, we came up against one of Underworld's adrenalin moments, which replace the quick-time events that littered previous instalments of the franchise. Unlike in previous games, these don't involve pressing certain buttons as prompted onscreen to perform set actions, but simply involve a slowing down of time during some serious onscreen action. In this case, we needed to dive out of the way of a mass of collapsing wreckage as the entire room shifted around Lara.
An explosion somewhere else on board, in fact, made the situation a whole lot worse, and afterward the entire environment had been rotated 90 degrees, with the ship apparently sinking rapidly into the waves. This completely changed the approach to escape, with previously secure floor panels falling away, leaving us with a long climb up the corridor that we'd only recently been running down. The now-exposed under-floor piping proved an excellent place to try out Lara's new free-climbing ability. The right stick let her scramble across the wall, grabbing on to pipes, valves, and pretty much anything that stuck out enough to get a grip on, without the need for much jumping around.
With falling debris to dodge and an interesting three-dimensional path to traverse, the result was a compelling, if brief, game segment that suggests Crystal Dynamics is really trying to bring Lara back in some style.
We then moved to a later segment of the game to try out the combat in a zone that had a slightly richer selection of wildlife, and we were also pleasantly surprised. Fighting a selection of spiders as we scrambled through some very Indiana Jones-style puzzles in an underground temple chamber was exciting, and we found that the dual-pistol targeting worked very well indeed. Lara's new melee moves also looked good, though they didn't prove to be hugely effective against the larger, armoured, spider-like creatures that were attacking her. The same could not be said about the smaller spiders present in other parts of the level; they did not much care for a swift boot bringing squishy death from above.
A demo of the game featuring the first hour of gameplay has just hit Xbox Live, so you can now check out Tomb Raider Underworld for yourself. We'll keep you posted on any developments on the game as it nears release next month.