Tomb Raider hands-on preview: The first three hours of play

It's been five years since Lara Croft last occupied our screens - just enough of a hiatus to give the Tomb Raider franchise a much needed break and turn the game on its head.

We don't just mean figuratively either: the latest Tomb Raider opens with our heroine hanging upside down dangling from a rope, bound and tied. It's no attempt to reverse 17 years of ill-effect induced by top-heavy, er, assets either - yup, it's been that long since the first title launched in 1996 - as 2013's take is no joking matter. Not one bit.

A gritty cinematic setting certainly weaves an immediate strength throughout the latest title, but it's the new Lara that wields the most strength of all because, finally, she's portrayed as a real, proper person. One who, dirtied, injured and blood-splattered, doesn't look too far short of losing it all in the opening scenes.

It's an obvious take really, but one not explored before: Tomb Raider in 2013 immediately grips because it connects you to the character with emotion. It matters what happens to this three-dimensional character on screen because her tale is also three-dimensional, largely thanks to Rhianna Pratchett - daughter of the Terry - who has taken up pen-and-ink duties to deliver an engaging plot. And, as we'll come to later, an unflinching one at that.

Not sure quite the same can be said for new Lara's tally-ho proper-proper British accent - courtesy of Camilla Luddington, take note Californication and True Blood fans - but simultaneously it's got that nail-on-head heavy twang that perfectly fits the bill and backstory.

Uncharted Territory?

The preview build of the game that Pocket-lint handled took us on a three-hour epic journey that begins with escaping from tied-up capture. The game is a melting pot of genres - think Heavy Rain meets Uncharted - yet never loses sight of being a third-person platformer meets puzzler at its core.

But it does throw in handfuls of FPS-esque shooting, Metal-Gear-like stealth, hunter-gatherer tasks to help advance weapons and abilities in an almost Fallout fashion and even a pinch of Matrix-inspired Max Payne-like "bullet time" slow-mo combat.

Fortunately Tomb Raider doesn't feel like a patchwork of cherry-picked goodies from those other top titles. It succeeds in its own style that, while not 100 per cent original all of the time (but what is these days?), is engrossing to play. There are natural stoppage points in the form of camp sites too, which helps break up the play. It's not the level-by-level norm.

The Xbox 360 version we previewed uses the dual analogue sticks to balance up well between character movement and camera adjustment. But the title also boldly throws up specific scenes with fixed camera angles or wildly adjusted ones - claustrophobic close-ups in water-filled tunnels; wide pan-outs while climbing up rock faces and plenty more besides.

Such fluid camera movement gives the game an even more cinematic feel than it already has from the second Lara surfaces from the initial horrors of her captive pit into the thunder and lightning drama of the world above. It also gives her more face time to camera, pained expressions fully visible.

Wolves And Weirdos

That world, stumbled upon by shipwreck as the unfolding scenes reveal, has all the promise and fear of the island from Lost. Well, imagine it back in time from the first series as Tomb Raider's managed to avoid all the clap-trap nonsense and - at least we hope - any ludicrous ending.

The "others" - ie, the human enemies - in Tomb Raider have all the creepiness of the weirdos in The Hills Have Eyes, hauntingly captured in scenes of apparent human butchery and, more harrowing still, another scene of attempted rape. Bash those buttons in the right order and Mr Nasty - we made that name up, of course - will promptly get those testes serviced by nothing more than a pointy knee and a facelift courtesy of a 9mm pistol.

Despite the controversy we think it's an engaging section that's suggestive rather than explicit - if anything it's only explicit in the way it further enhances that emotional player bond with Lara.

It's not just other humans you'll need to worry about of course. The wolves - a Tomb Raider classic which seems to have a real taste for posh Brits - are not only a nod to the series as a whole, they can also be downright terrifying when they pounce unexpectedly from the shadows. In a particular nook-and-cranny cave scene the flickering fires cast shadows on rocks that mingle with that belonging to a particularly prominent furred foe. It builds up genuine tension. The rest, well, we'll leave that for you to find out...

Weapons are fairly few and far between, which gives each its own particular value and importance. You'll want to find those special crates dotted around the landscape which, collected in the right numbers, can be used to upgrade weapons to become all the better. From silent bow and arrow through to pistol and meatier automatic, we look forward to seeing which other bullet-expending treats are in store in the final game.

Pleased To Puzzle

Of course Tomb Raider wouldn't be Tomb Raider without its share of puzzles. There are moments when it's hard to know where to go next, while other more-staged puzzles will have you jumping through hoops to open the path to the next section.

What is initially trial and error expands into more-connected thinking as the game progresses. However, we're bound by oath not to reveal exactly what some of these are or how they're solved until the game's released - the best way, really, as it'll keep the game all the more fun when you come to play it.

The combination of all these elements adds up to what we think has the makings of one of 2013's top titles. Cinematic style, emotional character connectivity, a dash of controversy, the need to think before pulling the trigger and a gorgeous landscape for it all to unravel in.

Tomb Raider in 2013 takes the generation of pop-tastic Girl Power and coats it with a thick, treacle-black storyline that's more reminiscent of a Christopher Nolan epic. It's edgier and more contemporary than the predecessors that its severed itself from… we can't wait to invest ourselves into more of this tale.

Tomb Raider is due for worldwide release on 5 March 2013, available for PC, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.