Sacrificing your darlings. That's basically what the new Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider game is all about. Some reboots dare to meddle with the beloved memory of a franchise. Some go so far as to rework the aesthetic for older audiences, gritting up wholesome, family-friendly colouration, dunking a few swears into the script, messing the lead character's hair.
But none, to our knowledge, have ever kicked off with a gaming icon strung up to die in a cave, obliging her to swing into a fire to burn off her restraints, before dropping her onto a rusted spike with a screech that sends our pen skidding off the surface of our notebook. At times during Square Enix's E3 showing, it's hard to work out whether the aim is to help Lara Croft grow up, or to stop her growing up at all.
The new Tomb Raider chronicles Lara's coming-of-age, detailing both the development of her renowned athletic abilities and the shaping of her hesitant undergraduate persona into something approaching the objectified obscenity we all know and love. That entails a tighter degree of control than you'll expect even after playing the fairly linear Tomb Raider: Underworld: while the game takes place on an island with several "hubs", held together by a fast-travel network, Crystal is careful to emphasise that we aren't dealing with an open world. Fleshing out a back-story takes focus, after all, and focus is hard to maintain when players keep trotting off to slaughter random wolves.
At its broadest, Tomb Raider 2012 tasks you with negotiating warrens of handholds, monkey bars, climbable surfaces and other Assassin's Creed flavoured environmental bric-a-brac, plotting your own route through or around obstacles to a single destination. Later in the demo, Lara scampers over the boards and slats of mysterious abandoned towns in heavy rain, calling on an audio-diffusing "Survival Instinct" hints system to blanch key objects for easier interaction. Physical skills, upgraded at campsites (the aforesaid hubs), allow Zelda-style rinsing of areas for secrets on subsequent visits. Our handler Karl Stewart points out a radio mast, saying that later on we'll be able to take in the view from its peak.
At the game's most constrictive, however, you'll be fumbling through a flooded passage in queasy close-up, Lara fighting to keep a guttering torch above water, patting at the roof to steady herself as she glances frantically back at an unseen pursuer. Dynamic grunts and gasps - Lara's unannounced voice actor has certainly earned her dinner - accompany each wobbly stride, and light flickers over her harried, dirt-crusted features. Even at this stage in development, running on a build a few months old, Crystal's graphics engine is rather awe-inspiring, hammering Lara's vulnerability home in the form of some wince-inducingly detailed scratches and bruises.
The girl who will eventually become action-platforming's queen is indeed out of her depth. She arrives on the island by way of the Endurance, a salvage ship ripped apart by equatorial storms, along with alleged hardy northerner Captain Conrad Roth (Lara calls him a "Yorkshire bastard" in a fit of desperation at one point, but his voice actor doesn't sound like any Yorkshireman we've met).
For much of the story, the objective is simply to escape. There's no trophy-hunting, no treasure-gathering and, from what we've seen, relatively little combat, though Crystal Dynamics has yet to tell all on the latter front. The older Lara may be in it for the glory, but her younger self just wants to survive, and the effect this has on certain of the franchise's staple mechanics and features, still visible through the murk, is drastic. Puzzles, for instance, are no longer goofy George Lucas flavoured abstractions constructed by some long-dead pharaoh: they're compellingly plausible, even at their more extended and intricate.