If you're a fan of Spyro the Dragon, then you'll already have heard that in The Dawn of the Dragon, the latest in the decade long Spyro series, the cute purple winged one finally grows up, a game developer Etranges Libellules is attempting to make as fun for the hardcore as it is for the kids it's traditionally been targeted at. But you don't know how it's doing all that stuff, right? Well wonder no longer. Following a trip to Etranges Libellules' Lyon studio in France we scored exclusive hands-on time with levels you won't read about elsewhere, landed exclusive video footage and exclusive screens. Now, we've got the answers to those questions and more.

God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, The Legend of Zelda and Jak & Daxter - all games the 'hardcore' know and love. They're also games we see elements of in The Dawn of the Dragon, however improbably. "When you see all the next gen games they are really dark and all the same but they are really well done," says Edith Protiere, executive producer, as we begin our play test. "We wanted to have that level of quality but have a very colourful environment. But not too cartooney."

The Dawn of the Dragon, apart from sounding like a particularly bad 70s martial arts film, is actually the final game in a Legend of Spyro trilogy (the original PlayStation only trilogy was developed by Resistance developer Insomniac - now seems like a very long time ago indeed). Fans will know that at the end of the last game, The Eternal Night, Spyro and Cynder were left frozen in crystal underneath a collapsed mountain following the death of Gual. The Dawn of the Dragon picks up the story 10 years later. The two dragons are helped by Hunter, a cheetah voiced by actor Blair Underwood, who explains what's become of the Dragon World during their slumber. Not only that, but the dastardly duo are charged with saving it once and for all from the Dark Master Malefor.

The game is part redemption story - Cynder used to be a bad girl dragon remember - and part climactic showdown with the big bad dude - the last level sees Spyro and Cynder travel to Malifor's home to sort him out. "We're telling a story with emotion," Edith explains. "At the end the Spyro story is finished. Some known characters will die."

We're playing the 'next gen' versions - Xbox 360 and PS3 - and not only does Spyro look older but the gorgeous HD graphics give everything a more modern look. We're thinking Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, that kind of saturated but high quality feel. But it's not just the graphical improvements which will pique the interest of the more discerning gamer, it's the new free flying mode, the enjoyable two-player co-op play and the God of War - that's right, we said God of War - style combat that'll get you hyped.

Let's start with the free form flying - Spyro and Cynder are able to fly wherever they want when above ground - the game will see a mix of indoor levels and open environments. "Our flying works differently to many games with flying," says Edith. "Superman or Lair were not very good. We understood why."

Certainly the flying in Superman and Lair were "not very good", but it's still a confident, bullish claim. Indeed, creating enjoyable flying in a game is a feat many developers have struggled with, something Edith acknowledges early on in our chat: "When you come to level design if you can fly and go everywhere what do you do? And co-op flying was a big concern."

Thankfully flying feels great, especially when you have the freedom of the open environments to explore. There's a wonderful sense of freedom, almost as if you can feel the air flowing through your hair, and there's a small element of open worldness to it all too. Pressing A or X will set you off, but you have to almost rhythmically time your subsequent presses to keep you in the air and build up momentum. It takes a while to get used to but once you do it feels great. And, of course, on the PS3 version you'll be able to use the Sixaxis controller's motion-sensing technology to fly, Lair style, if you fancy that.

Puzzles are incorporated into the flying sequences, too. Spyro will be forced to carry items in his mouth at certain points, items which weigh him down and restrict his ability to fly. The player will have to work out alternative routes when this happens. A magical chain also binds Spyro and Cynder together, which has been incorporated into the gameplay. In one sequence, one player needs to grip on to a boat while the other pulls by flying.

The God of War references come from the revamped, more complex combat system. Both Spyro and Cynder have four elements at their disposal, which consume elemental energy gathered from orbs. Spyro has fire, as you'd expect, ice, electricity and earth. But it's Cynder's elemental attacks which we're most interested in - poison, wind, fear and shadow - all nice and dark and evidence of Etranges Libellules' more mature approach with the title.

Each element has two separate attacks, one heavy and one light. Spyro's earth element, for example, fires an earth missile attack or, alternatively, brings an enemy-clearing earth boulder attack from the sky. The elemental attacks can be upgraded up to three levels - blue crystals you collect through the game act as in-game currency, which you can spend on these upgrades. And there's loads of armour items to collect, helmets, tail armour, bracelets and the like, each with offensive and defensive properties, which should keep customisation fans happy.

Spyro and Cynder's basic controls are the same. On the 360 pad X and Y is used for light and heavy attacks, A is for jumping and flying, B grabs, LT switches control between the two dragons (the two-player co-op uses seamless drop in and out technology), and RB and RT are used for heavy and light elemental attacks respectively. You'll need to keep an eye on the enemies you're fighting, too, because each has its own elemental weaknesses and resistance, with some elite enemies proving particularly tricky (you won't have to take on the elite bad guys - they're for advanced players only). This time you won't be fighting cutesy monkeys, either. "We wanted to have enemies that were made from existing materials," explains Edith. "Each of our enemies is made from a different element. They are destructible. Some of them even have elemental shields."

During our studio visit we were shown some beautiful concept art for the bad guys. Some of the enemies look like they would be more at home in Team Ico's next game, not the latest casual cartoon romp. The slave Shadow Apes, for example, were created by Malifor from the monkeys in the previous game because he wasn't too happy with their failure. They're half spirit, half real, wonderfully designed and darker than anything we've seen in a Spyro game before.

Perhaps Spyro's most impressive foe, however, is an enormous golem so huge it's got a small town on its back. Think PS2 classic Shadow of the Colossus but even bigger. In the game's fifth level, Attack of the Golem, Spyro takes on this humongous beast, made from earth, lava, rock and grass, (and with a stone tower arm torn from Dragon City itself) via God of War-style quick time events. You need to stun him by attacking his huge hands, while dodging huge fireballs and attacking enemies, and then, via QTEs, climb up his arms and jump onto his head, all the while he is trying to swat you off like an annoying fly. The golem has an exposed piece of crystal embedded in his face, which must be destroyed to defeat it. It's heart-pounding stuff, and rekindles memories of some of the more spectacular boss battles seen in Capcom's recent action game Devil May Cry 4.

We mentioned that the game begins with Spyro and Cynder being rescued from the frozen crystal by a cheetah - they're actually about to be sacrificed to the golem in the Catacombs, the game's first level, the escape of which sets up the rest of the game. The second level, the Twilight Valley, features impressive vistas of the Enchanted Forest at night. The third level - the Valley of Avalar, thrust us in a fight to save a village from being burnt to a crisp. The village itself has a health bar, displayed at the bottom of the screen. If it runs out you've failed the level and need to start over. We actually struggled a bit with this level - moving from hut to hut and dealing with the enemies proved quite difficult. But we did manage it, triggering powerful Fury attacks when our purple bar displayed in the top of the screen was maxed out (filled by performing combos).

The game's fourth level, which we got hands-on time with exclusively during our studio visit, is set in Dragon City itself. Spyro and Cynder are defending the city ramparts from Malifor's forces, Lord of the Rings style, from a side on view that gives you a full view of the descending horde in the background. You spend your time repairing catapults and escorting artillery moles so that they can be fired into the incoming invasion force. It's actually quite intense - you need to keep the artillery moles alive so that they can fire the catapults by defeating the baddies that make it over the wall.

Despite Spyro's new-found Harry Potter-esque maturity, the game has still been developed with 10 to 12-year-old boys and girls firmly in mind. It'll take roughly eight to 10 hours to complete its 12 levels (including an hour of cinematics), and probably won't be of interest to the kind of gamer who pumps hours into Gears of War, Call of Duty 4 or Halo 3 online. But it's still shaping up to be a fun and at times refreshing action game that's well worth keeping on your radar. The game sees Elija Wood and Gary Oldman reprise their roles as Spyro and Ignitus respectively, with some new additions - Wayne Brady replaces Billy West as Sparx, Mark Hamill plays Malifor and Cristina Ricci takes on Cynder, which adds extra a-list Hollywood spice to the mix. But it's the graphics and the flying which stood out for us during our time with the game. Some of the enemy designs are truly amazing, and the free-form flying sections are wonderful fun. The Dawn of the Dragon looks in great shape and should round the trilogy off nicely.

The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon is due out for Xbox 360, Wii, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo DS later this year.