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For a series that was left practically dead after the horrifying Angel of Darkness, Tomb Raider has been revived so well by Crystal Dynamics that it's now got people who've never played the games hopelessly falling in love with it. Having first taken the spunky, extremely well-endowed Lara out for a spin in 1997, and having gone back to where it all began with Anniversary, this deranged, maniacal, slack-jawed Tomb Raider nutcase has seen it all. Having made Legend and Anniversary the best damned games in the series, Crystal Dynamics looks set to pull out all the stops in the upcoming Tomb Raider: Underworld, which already has a quite a bit of fans going "Drake who?"

We sat and dug through the first preview on the PLAY magazine, and we've got all the dirt on Lara's latest adventure. Directly continuing from her adventures in Legend, Tomb Raider: Underworld (as the name suggests) will see Lara explore vast labyrinthian areas around the world, in addition to doing all the monkey stuff that she does in one of the largest, lush areas seen this side of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. While it is not entirely sure how the story will tie in to Legend's and all that is hinted at in Anniversary, fans might want to look closer into Lord Richard Croft's words in Anniversary, and at the deeper connections between Jacqueline Natla and Amanda Evert (as in why do they look so much like each other and why Amanda's operation in Bolivia has crates with Natla Technologies logos on them) to figure out where the story is heading in Underworld.

If we were to take a guess at the story based on Legend and Anniversary, Lara should be going back to her father's writings, which tell of some impending doom and how it may be stopped, which should end up with her exploring the Mayan Doomsday prophecy and the interdimensional portal between our world and Avalon. Which, as Legend fans will remember is where her dear mother went thanks to Excalibur and good ol' Amanda. Amanda and Natla may yet have some sinister role to play, considering they are both left alive at the end of the games. It is even hinted that Lara herself may end up taking a trip to Avalon, said to feature a zero-gravity environment. And who knows, even the Atlantean myth may have a deeper connection to the story, considering Qualopec woke up just as Lara left Vilcabamba and Tihocan's tomb was empty beneath St. Francis' Folly.

Coming back to hard facts, Lara herself seems to have undergone a good amount of change from Legend. While she has dropped that "Hot Meaty Mom" look, she seems to have aged gracefully from Anniversary, looking more like how we've always pictured her - as a sexy adventurer in her late 20s with a firm, toned body and err, "sensibly large" breasts. And what's more, even her outfits are supposed to be a lot more sensible, made out of GoreTex-like breathable fabrics and a backpack that is supposed to be more "flexible" in what it can store. Like Legend and Anniversary, however, you will be able to see all of Lara's weapons and accessories on her at all times. Of course, for fans who want to see her attired differently, a number of unlockable costumes will be available as usual, which we hope will include the black evening dress and the swimsuit from Legend, maybe even some sort of a snug neoprene suit. (Yes, we know we're sexually frustrated perverts, thank you. We're sure you're one too, especially when it comes to videogaming's No. 1 pin-up girl!)

While we're not sure if Karima Adebibe is still the new Lara Croft (looks like it, though), what has been confirmed is that Lara will be a lot more photorealistic than ever before, moving very fluidly thanks to extensive motion-capturing as well as some exquisite hand-drawn animations for all those death-defying moves. Underworld will also improve upon Lara's melee and hand-to-hand combat, allowing her to deal out a couple of well placed kicks and punches (and dodge them nimbly) before she's able to draw a bead on her foes with the guns, hopefully without those fugly red target markers around their heads. We're not sure if the BulletTime and Adrenaline Dodge moves will feature in any form, but we hope to see the interactive cutscenes return. One thing that has been confirmed is that while there will not be a lot of new moves, hundreds of improvements have been made to the animation system to make Lara a lot more believable, like, for example, shielding her face with her arms while running / falling through foliage.

While all this is great, any Tomb Raider fan knows that the environment is a bigger character than the Countess of Abbingdon could ever be. Reinforcing this fact, Underworld will feature areas much larger than what players encountered in Anniversary and Legend. Which are, of course, populated by predators usually found in such places, along with a whole bunch of inhuman monsters that all want to tear our pretty girl up into not-so-pretty pieces. And while there will be human enemies, there won't be that many of them, considering Crystal D wants this to be a lonely, dangerous expedition for the intrepid adventurer. In fact, they stress that the areas in Underworld are so huge, it is extremely easy to get lost and run around in circles for hours. To help save you from endless backtracking, the bodies of the enemies that you kill will lie where they fall, serving as markers that will let you know you've been here before. The environments themselves will be destructible to a certain degree (again, serving as markers) and even though Crystal D insists that getting to point B from point A will require quite a bit of figuring out on the players' part, people have noticed that the glowing ledges, which were thankfully absent in Anniversary, seem to be back. Whether this is a temporarily feature that will be removed as development progresses, or is something that will (annoyingly) be back in the final build remains to be seen.

Having learned from all the acid criticisms placed on Legend's lackluster puzzles, the developers have said that Underworld will focus more than ever on exploration of the game world and solving deep puzzles. They even seem to be drawing inspiration from the Prince of Persia games, and more importantly, Assassin's Creed, in that Lara should be able to use the environment around her to get from one point to the other in a number of ways, which dictates how long (or short) the game experience will be for each player. And this time around, Lara's Ducati, which previously served as a rail shooter vehicle of sorts, will actually serve to solve puzzles as well, although we're not really sure how. Another thing that's yet to be clarified is how Lara is going to heal herself after getting injured, since the developers seem to have removed the handy health packs that everyone seemed to drop in Legend and the conveniently-placed medkits from Anniversary. Whether this will involve, as the fans are saying, Lara hunting for medicinal herbs and berries in the environment or using some stupidly placed otherwordly healing fountain is something we will have to wait to find out.

Bringing all this to life is a new engine, which will allow for photorealistic lighting and shadowing effects, along with changing weather patterns. In fact, the developers have said that they have been out photographing real world locations to recreate them in the game, with their look changing with each change in the weather. While it's not confirmed if Underworld will run on a heavily improved Legend engine or use a new one, we should even get to see Lara's look changing with every little change in the environment. She could be exploring a forest, sweat dripping off her (yes, sweat) and end up falling through foliage, caking her face with dirt before landing Trinity-style in mud, in which case, only one foot would see mud on it. Two minutes later, a storm may set in, the rain cascading over her body and washing all the dirt off her, along with her footprints in the mud. But the deal is, turning her squeaky clean and dripping wet (yum!) isn't all the rain will do. Climbing ledges and navigating treacherous surfaces becomes even more difficult when it rains, and Lara may slip very easily if the player isn't careful.

With some great music pieces making their presence felt in Legend and Anniversary, it looks like Crystal D and the music team behind Underworld are taking much more cautious steps this time around. We hope Legend and Anniversary composer Troels Folmann is back to work on Underworld as well, since we hear that the game will deliver an orchestral piece one minute and then submerge you with ambient sounds the next. Which is great, as long as we can hear that Batman Begins-ish theme that we've come to love after hearing it over and over during Legend's final, spectacular cutscene and Lara's high-flying Matrix-elevator stunt in Anniversary. And in case you're wondering, Keeley Hawes will indeed return to lend her sexy, sophisticated voice to Lara in Underworld. Yay!

Tomb Raider: Underworld is set to appear on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC sometime in 2008, although we'd love to see a Wii version as well, complete with the new archaelogy tools we saw a couple of months back in Anniversary. And honestly, I can't wait.

First Look: Tomb Raider: Underworld


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