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Hands-on with Tomb Raider Underworld, pre-alpha build

I was treated to some of Lara Croft's new motion capture-generated acrobatics. Brilliantly, she gets covered in dirt when she's climbing around filthy walls and mud-streaked floors

I was lucky enough to be given a preview of the brand-new Tomb Raider game yesterday -- Tomb Raider: Underworld -- due for release this November. As a pre-alpha build it was a long way from being finished, with only one level playable. But on a debugged Eidos Xbox 360 and a massive HDTV, I got to see the game in action.

Underworld is Lara's latest outing, the ninth main game in the franchise, and the third to be developed by Crystal Dynamics, the developer responsible for Tomb Raiders Legend and Anniversary. It follows Lara into the Mediterranean, where she uncovers proof of the Norse underworld and the mythical hammer.

My adventure began on the second level of the game, with Lara diving elegantly from a small motorboat. After swimming deeper and deeper through a gorgeous blue sea, shooting innocent sharks with a harpoon gun in the process, we landed in an epic underwater temple.

One of the first things I noticed was the terrific use of advanced lighting techniques and environmental detail, such as water that runs down brick walls, glistening with the reflections of flames.

Then I was treated to some of Lara's new motion capture-generated acrobatics, including cartwheels and somersaults. Brilliantly, she now gets covered in dirt when she's climbing around filthy walls and mud-streaked floors. Diving into the ocean acts as something of a bath.

You can't quite tell here, but her knees were filthy. Her mum would have been outraged

Some puzzles couldn't be demonstrated in my half hour with the game, mainly due to them not having solutions yet. I saw a massive chandelier covered in spikes in the centre of one area, precariously hanging above one of the level's main enemies -- a creature that looked like an oversized octopus -- and I was told he'd eventually be killed after flicking some switches that caused the chandelier to land on his head. Fortunately for him, I wasn't able to see him decapitated, and Eidos may move the chandelier before the game is published. Rest assured, he'll still be there to un-head in November.

In the previous two Xbox 360 titles, a ported PlayStation 2 graphics engine handled the games' graphics and mechanics. In Underworld a brand-new, next-gen engine is being used, and it makes the game look so much better than even Anniversary -- which is hardly unimpressive anyway.

My time with Lara only increased my excitement for the game's release later this year. It's set to be a terrific and beautifully designed sequel to Tomb Raider Legend, while remaining faithful to the themes of the Tomb Raider series we've come to love. From what I've seen today, your excitement is well placed.