The rain is absolutely chucking it down. It's pounding the grass, pounding the cobbled stone of the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal and it's pounding Lara Croft herself. Every so often a blinding flash of lighting crackles somewhere in the distance and, soon after, a rumble of thunder reverberates around the courtyard. And yet our Tomb Raiding heroine is a picture of concentration. You see just up ahead a pack of poachers and some panthers are having a bit of a scrap - and Lara's about to join in on the fun.
We're watching an early pre-alpha version of Tomb Raider: Underworld on the Xbox 360 in a packed London cinema, which is apt, given Lara's popularity on the silver screen. With the lights off, the sound booming and the screen huge, it's hard not to be impressed by what's going on. Lara herself looks tremendous, and you can no doubt see from these brand spanking new screens.
Some might say she's grown up slightly. She looks more mature, and not in an old, ageing way, but in a more serious way. She looks more realistic (she's fully motion captured), moves more like a human being, she has smaller breasts, a slightly bigger waste and more athletic arms and legs. As she begins her approach towards the melee, we notice her ponytail moves realistically, the rain making is wet and greasy. Mud sneaks its way up her legs, her stomach and her iconic green skin-tight top as she rolls and jumps about. And then, standing still for a few seconds, the torrential rain washes her clean. This is Lara engaging with the environment, moving through it, living and breathing it like we've never seen before.
Combat, of course, is an essential part of what makes Tomb Raider fun. As Lara engages the poachers and the panthers, we can see this in practice. She is dual targeting, firing pistol rounds at multiple bad guys at the same time. She's running about with a pole in one hand, a gun in the other, with complete control over both. She's lobbing sticky grenades just to mix things up. She's jumping, rolling, dodging, kicking and sprinting (via a new animation) just like she's done for years, and it's not long before the poachers and the panthers are face down in the mud, dead (they will remain there, we're told, and not disappear). Lara's experienced in this sort of thing after all. We're also told the bad guys and animals have all new super-sophisticated AI. Delivering a verdict on the validity of that claim is difficult without a proper hands-on of course. Look out for our verdict on that soon.
Why would Lara kill a bunch of poachers and panthers in a rain-soaked Mexican jungle? Because she's bored with the local club on a Friday night? No. She's here, late on in the game's fourth level, to find a key in a hidden temple. Plot detail is thin on the ground, but what we do know is that she's after a key she believes will open the gates to hell itself (hence the Underworld game title). It's here, in this mythical Mayan underworld realm of Xibalba, that Lara hopes to find an ancient artefact. What that artefact is, we don't know. Nor do we know why she's after it. But it must be bloody important, given what Lara's about to put herself through.
On to the temple then. Lara can't see any obvious way in, so she has to improvise. And we all know what that means - acrobatics. She makes her way towards some Mayan-looking stone structures, pushing away dripping wet leaves as she moves through shrubbery (looks hugely impressive, Crysis-like even). Remember that pole from earlier? Lara sticks that into a hole in the facing stone wall and uses it like a gymnast to climb higher. She then tip-toes to the end of the pole, slipping at certain points because of the rain (we're told the weather will have a real effect on the environment - Lara wouldn't have slipped if it had been sunny). Once at the end of the pole, she launches herself towards a tall stone beam structure. Over the next five or so minutes, we're treated to a gymnastic master class as Lara cartwheels, wall kicks (a new move) vaults, lifts and generally makes a mockery of all those tiny bendy Russian girls who regularly win the Olympics.
The most impressive thing here isn't what Lara is doing; it's how she is doing it. Everything looks incredibly fluid. That will have a lot to do with the skill of our demo guy, but it's also down to the new free-climbing system which allows Lara to use stone walls and the like as a real rock climber would. Crystal Dynamics has obviously had one eye on Assassin's Creed while developing Underworld.
One of the things we were worried about going into Tomb Raider: Underworld is that the exploration, gymnastic sections would treat us all like idiots, with great big white bits of wall screaming out: "use me to get higher!". From our demo, while it was never blindingly obvious what to do or where to go, you could see where you were supposed to free climb by a subtle difference in surface colour. Part of the fun of these types of games is in figuring out what to do and how to do it by yourself. Here's hoping Crystal Dynamics doesn't try to hold our hand too much when the game is finally released.