Tomb Raider preview

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It's 2011. A young woman is covered in mud and blood, and she's staring at you from a beach.

It's 1996. Lara Croft, eh, lads? Eh? That Lara Croft, she's a bit of alright. I'd let her raid my tomb, right lads? Hah, yeah lads! Phwoar, eh, lads? She's got a lovely pair. A lovely pair of pistols! That game she's in isn't bad either, is it lads? Not that I played it much, right lads? Too busy playing with something else, am I right lads? Ha ha!

Back in 2011 again, and the beach girl is nothing like that hyper-breasted polygon beast, but still very obviously Lara Croft. She's younger than she was in 1996's Tomb Raider, but she shares that woman's aristocratic air and long dark hair. Years of gaming's growth as a medium have reduced her once pendulous breasts and widened her too-thin hips; years of graphical refinement have removed her sharp edges – a change Crystal Dynamics are welcoming with this prequel. They call Lara 'softer', and reference a layer of 'puppy fat' (though you'd be hard-pushed to find it on her leggy character model). Instead of a bladed object to be jabbed into unwilling tombs, new Lara is – according to the game's art director – 'an aspirational figure', and a 'character you want to believe in.'

She won't be the same wisecracker, but she's still got the spark of someone who'd willingly put herself in harm's way to nick the mystical X of Y. The reboot sees Lara shipwrecked on an island, stuck without means of escape after her boat – the Endurance – is torn apart at sea. She'd joined the crew to make her name searching for treasure with an ex-Royal Marine, aiming for a spot off the coast of Japan. Waking up in a straitjacket hanging from the ceiling, it quickly becomes obvious that her new home is otherwise occupied by a range of nastier people. I'd also expect – if the series lineage is to be respected – the island to be packed with an entire biodome's worth of endangered beasts and creatures to murder.

Lara's 'softness' has been reinforced by her palpable vulnerability. As the screenshots show, the island's no haven. Nearly every image that we've seen of the game shows Lara in some sort of pain; those that don't cover her in blood and mud, that is. There's an emphasis on cruelty: Lara's trials on the island are set to be 'physical and emotional torture', and her first act, freeing herself from captivity, involves burning her restraints and falling rather clumsily onto a metal spike. It won't just be inanimate objects out to shiv Lara, either. One of the island's more homicidal inhabitants accosts her early in the game with whispered offers of help: if Lara lets her guard down and stops struggling against his grip, he sinks a knife into her heart and yanks her to the ground, continuing to creepily coo in her ear. In island terms, imagine it less like a resort paradise, and more like being stuck in Ibiza with a stag party. With less stabbing.

As in Ibiza, survival is the prime concern. Tomb Raider drops the traditional linear mission route familiar from the older games in the series, favouring an expansive, open world. Base camps are dotted over the island, each providing access to upgrades of various flavours. New weapons are an obvious addition – the game's story allowing Lara to nick them from unsuspecting enemy encampments or dredge them from the boat's wreckage. The combat will be one of Tomb Raider's biggest series shifts, dropping the over-helpful auto-lock system that turned battles into ungainly backflip marathons, and instead gaining a challenging free-aim system that better befits a third person viewpoint.

Most interestingly, Crystal Dynamics have also promised that Lara's acrobatic skill can be increased. Potentially, this could point to the existence of multiple routes through the game: those choosing to hone Lara's gunplay may have a distinctly different route to those bouncing around the open environment, keeping out of bullety harm's way. Each area won't necessarily bring a fight. Already a few of the game's puzzles have been detailed, including one that demands a gun-less Lara set a pile of explosive barrels on fire to make an escape route from a crumbling catacomb. There's a torch nearby, but transferring its flame to the blue touch paper on the barrels proves impossible thanks to an interfering waterfall. Blunt force is the way to go instead, and Lara is able to jury rig a metal cage, forcing it to whack into the barrels and clear a path to safety.

These puzzles don't look to have multiple solutions, but will force players to consider the island's basic elements and its physicality in solving problems. So, too, will you have to consider its ecosystem. The need to collect food and water in order to survive gives the island a primal, realistic and dangerous feel. It's taken 15 years and a painful puberty, but this is Tomb Raider, grown up.