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As we get closer to the dawn of a true next gen Lara Croft, Eidos released a tasty Tomb Raider Underworld demo via Xbox Live. While the demo proved far too short for a veteran raider, fans were getting a look in at the new Lara and how this adventure proves so different from past titles.

After reading around on various Tomb Raider communities one thing is clear - This will be a love it or leave it title. While new fans to the series seemed to enjoy the faster control of Lara, old fans found the new motion cap animations too edgy to deal with. I myself have always been fascinated with how previous Tomb Raider titles have been hand animated so to see how mo cap has ruined a good flow between running around, combat and exploring is particularly disappointing.

You start off on a boat near a Thailand temple. A cut scenes starts and you can see where the motion capture has really come into play. Laraís lips look gorgeous as they talk locations and artefacts and all you can see is sit back and enjoy the delicious visual display on hold in from of you. So graphically Tomb Raider Underworld has a fantastic start, truly next gen and so breathtaking. The style and environments have always been a very important and popular aspect of Tomb Raider and to see it like this is a dream come true. I can only hope I can afford a better TV to run this on soon as I feel I am missing out so much on my tiny 19″ W/s monitor.

The sea water was so impressive that not only does it looks beautiful below, the ambient blues and green drowning the screen, but above was just a sight to behold. The waves a great addition and the reflections from what's beneath really felt like underwater adventure will have such a key part in this game. I canít wait to just swim around for hours in this beautiful blue sea. Ledges and pathways look natural rather than obvious and Lara just looked amazing. She has ages wonderfully and itís great to see her new look hands on.

Animations though are a huge draw back. During the demo, for example, Lara is climbing across a large pit on small thin platforms that require her to keep great balance. Meanwhile she is also being attacked by spiders on the walls but instead of the combat feeling natural and difficult on the balance platform, her arms stretch out in all different directions in seconds making the whole process feel robotic and busted. Her body couldnít keep up with the speed of her arms buzzing around to different targets and the whole act looks ridiculous.

The same can be said during general running around, the sensitivity and speed is just too high if you choose to turn around quickly and it looks like Lara seems to be on some kind of steroid trip. One good thing about Laraís new control is that small obstacles that one would normally vault over no longer requires us to stop against the wall and vault over. Laraís new AI allows us to just hold forward and she will hop over the wall with ease. This looks wonderful and is especially helpful during combat when you just require some distance between you and your target.

She has a huge selection of new moves available. The demo only really showed the new wall jumping skill in which Lara can reach higher ledges by jumping up between two pillars. Timing is key with these moves and Lara usually gets short second grip onto the wall giving you chance to react. This brings out so much more to the exploring aspect of Tomb Raider. Previous titles had really obvious ledges and jumps that after learning the basics pretty much proved the rest of the game a matter of time. The new environment and ways to use it in TR:U are so impressive that even for a veteran TR fan like myself, I had to really think about how I was to get from A to B. Her balancing act is also been tweaked to make it more difficult to just walk forward, previous titles usually had a timer where you would have to straighten Lara up. Now the only reason Lara would waver on the pole is if you are not keeping a straight line on the controller.

Most of her climbing/vaulting animations, minus a few demo bugs, are great and natural. The only one that I did not enjoy was the wall climbing. Her legs stretch out and her robotic style of climbing turns her into this rather creepy looking spider. Itís actually quite a shock at first to watch, I just didnít know how to react.
Combat has never been an important part of Tomb Raider. The run and gun tactic as well as auto targeting has been a simple but enjoyable break from the exploring and puzzle solving. Laraís jumps feel unnaturally fast and her quick targeting skills are a sore sight when stood still. While running around however combat feels much more enjoyable and round house kicking tigers in the face is a fun move to pull off. The slow down from previous legend and anniversary titles has been improved upon once again with a head shot system where while shooting you can press another button to slow the action down and gain a head shot at the right moment. This time to slow down is not as extreme so combat doesnít feel separated into special move sets. New features include dual targets and shooting from walls. While I didnít experience much of either, I can say it works pretty much the same as normal combat. Itís nice to be able to shoot a few pesky critters from afar.

The last section of the demo offers a short puzzle using the new Pole system. You can pick up objects from the environment and use them to help climb ledges for example. You can also use the pole to attack enemies as well which will be interesting to see what kind of objects will be available to use as potential weapons during the course of the game.

It all ends abruptly after solving the puzzle and pulling the leave however. Just as I was getting used to the new controls and animations the game fades out to the start screen. Initial impressions? I am not sure. I have been waiting for this game for a long time but I am not blown away. Itís just the animations that have put me off and if they can be quickly tweaked I will be a happy lady. Until then I can only grind my teeth during the irritations and enjoy the puzzle solving action that will hopefully unfold in front of me.
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About atheistiumone of us since 3:30 AM on 11.13.2006

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