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Tomb Raider: 21, Broken, frightened and lost...

Crystal Dynamics rebuilds Lara for a new generation

The Army does it; brainwashers do it; Batman Begins did it. They change people by breaking them down - smashing them to sprays of psychic rubble and the twisted frames of their old windows on the world - then building them back up as something new. Something stronger. And now Crystal Dynamics is doing it to Lara Croft and Tomb Raider.

This is, in their own words, a pre-Lara Lara. Tomb Raider, set for release in 2012, follows a young woman called Lara Croft as she's broken down then built up into the character we all know: the Lara Croft.

And what we saw in darkest, chillest Wimbledon, is looking very promising indeed. Lara is no longer a caricature, her world is no longer a corridor and her experiences are no longer jammed between that epic 1996 debut and the post-Matrix slough of blank faced super-combatants. This is a 2012 game in every way.

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DARKER STILL
The Batman parallels are brought up often, perhaps not surprisingly as Karl Stewart - the rapid-fire, sushi-loving life-force of the new Croft and the man directing the presentation - worked on Batman Arkham Asylum. He was also behind the three Crystal Dynamics-developed Tomb Raiders: Legend, Anniversary and Underworld. For the record, he's officially the Global Brand Director, though we strongly suspect that doesn't tell you anything meaningful at all.

The man himself is the opposite; his words rain on us like the clouds on Wimbledon's diesel-snaked bus lanes. "When Darrell Gallagher, the head of studio, was put in charge we had the vision of going back to the origin story. We started to rebuild the engine and it was a great opportunity to be creative and do something new," says Stewart. "And that's how Guardian Of Light was born. It was about seeing where we could push the envelope a bit, sort of checking out our engine."

Guardian Of Light emerged on PSN just last September. We ask how long Crystal's been working on this reboot. "When we finished Underworld, we made the decision it was the end of a chapter," says Stewart. "The HD Trilogy was kind of our way of saying, that's the end of it. And we made the decision that we needed to go back and do something different, to spend some time researching, start looking at our engine, start making those hard decisions. Do we continue with what we've been doing, or do we be bold and try something new?"

They went with the second one. This new/old Lara stumbles, talks to herself, radiating doubt, screaming in pain and fear and - when finally driven to kill in self-defence - truly feeling the horror of the act.

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TRAPPED
In fact, there are more than a few elements of horror to this game. In our demo Lara awakes bound in a cave and escapes only to find human sacrifice, a stalking predator and a grim, chaotic island. The impressively smooth and detailed engine throws out deep shadows, flickering flame-light, pelting rain, trees falling to bolts of lightning, propagating fire, swirling ash, genuinely concussive explosions and flooding waters. Those visuals work intelligently with rich soundscapes, too - both in gorgeously layered ambient detail and in clever 'noises off,' the scufflings, knockings and howlings of unseen threats.

Her escape from the killlers' lair is as dynamic as anything we've seen, as unstable tunnels and shadowy murderers mix with clever cinematography - the camera slicing close for intimate looks at her fear, zooming out to amplify chasing danger or even switching viewpoint for emphasis. It's not intrusive, though; it's sly. The final few yards of her escape, as she scrabbles towards a tiny circle of light under roaring, spitting rock while falling dirt clouds the screen, is a stunner.

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