The Army does it; brainwashers do it; Batman Begins did it. They change people by breaking them down - smashing them to sprays of psychic rubble and the twisted frames of their old windows on the world - then building them back up as something new. Something stronger. And now Crystal Dynamics is doing it to Lara Croft and Tomb Raider.
This is, in their own words, a pre-Lara Lara. Tomb Raider, set for release in 2012, follows a young woman called Lara Croft as she's broken down then built up into the character we all know: the Lara Croft.
And what we saw in darkest, chillest Wimbledon, is looking very promising indeed. Lara is no longer a caricature, her world is no longer a corridor and her experiences are no longer jammed between that epic 1996 debut and the post-Matrix slough of blank faced super-combatants. This is a 2012 game in every way.
The Batman parallels are brought up often, perhaps not surprisingly as Karl Stewart - the rapid-fire, sushi-loving life-force of the new Croft and the man directing the presentation - worked on Batman Arkham Asylum. He was also behind the three Crystal Dynamics-developed Tomb Raiders: Legend, Anniversary and Underworld. For the record, he's officially the Global Brand Director, though we strongly suspect that doesn't tell you anything meaningful at all.
The man himself is the opposite; his words rain on us like the clouds on Wimbledon's diesel-snaked bus lanes. "When Darrell Gallagher, the head of studio, was put in charge we had the vision of going back to the origin story. We started to rebuild the engine and it was a great opportunity to be creative and do something new," says Stewart. "And that's how Guardian Of Light was born. It was about seeing where we could push the envelope a bit, sort of checking out our engine."
Guardian Of Light emerged on PSN just last September. We ask how long Crystal's been working on this reboot. "When we finished Underworld, we made the decision it was the end of a chapter," says Stewart. "The HD Trilogy was kind of our way of saying, that's the end of it. And we made the decision that we needed to go back and do something different, to spend some time researching, start looking at our engine, start making those hard decisions. Do we continue with what we've been doing, or do we be bold and try something new?"
They went with the second one. This new/old Lara stumbles, talks to herself, radiating doubt, screaming in pain and fear and - when finally driven to kill in self-defence - truly feeling the horror of the act.
In fact, there are more than a few elements of horror to this game. In our demo Lara awakes bound in a cave and escapes only to find human sacrifice, a stalking predator and a grim, chaotic island. The impressively smooth and detailed engine throws out deep shadows, flickering flame-light, pelting rain, trees falling to bolts of lightning, propagating fire, swirling ash, genuinely concussive explosions and flooding waters. Those visuals work intelligently with rich soundscapes, too - both in gorgeously layered ambient detail and in clever 'noises off,' the scufflings, knockings and howlings of unseen threats.
Her escape from the killlers' lair is as dynamic as anything we've seen, as unstable tunnels and shadowy murderers mix with clever cinematography - the camera slicing close for intimate looks at her fear, zooming out to amplify chasing danger or even switching viewpoint for emphasis. It's not intrusive, though; it's sly. The final few yards of her escape, as she scrabbles towards a tiny circle of light under roaring, spitting rock while falling dirt clouds the screen, is a stunner.
Crystal Dynamics' genius is to use things we already fear. This opener is beautifully claustrophobic - all nose-high air gaps in flooded tunnels, coffin-sized holes with visibly sagging roofs and hold-your-breath slots in thick curtains of rock. Lara Croft's newly lithe movement works brilliantly here, as her body bends around utterly solid granite and her hands trail across rough surfaces, sighing as they go.
Even in this escape there are pauses for puzzles, and while there's only one solution there are now various ways to achieve that result. 2D prompts float in the world (very Heavy Rain) near usable, burnable or destructible things, but it's likely they'll disappear after the 'tutorial' stage is over.
And this is the very beginning we're seeing: Karl Stewart makes it clear this is not 'the combat' we're looking at. This quick-time button-press stuff is confined almost exclusively to the game's opening. Gunplay (and arrow-play) will follow later when we've all got used to seeing the newly vulnerable Lara struggle.
It's only 65 percent complete and not due until next year, but we can already say without doubt that Tomb Raider can fight, and possibly beat, Uncharted 2. But that's been out for a year and half. What about Uncharted 3, surely TR's only natural predator? "I think we can coexist," says Stewart of the pair, echoing George W Bush's famous proclamation about humans and fish, which was of course wrong.
"They're out this year, we've already announced we're not coming out in 2011, so it's not like we'll be going head to head. And [Uncharted] is a different experience, more of a pulpy, adrenaline driven experience where you're... more drawn through the story than with the elements of choice we're going to give. We'll be a very different experience to that."
This is, we feel, Stewart's polite way of saying Uncharted is linear. Tomb Raider is not open world, but nor is it linear like before - it's based on a series of vast 'hubs,' where the only things between you and any given point are the gear and skills you have. 'Gear-gating,' they call it.
Consequently, as you explore you develop more talents and can reach areas you couldn't at first, leading you into an intimate knowledge of the island. As much as we love Uncharted, its beauty is untouchable, its detail incidental - it constantly passes by. Tomb Raider's approach (borrowed from Arkham Asylum, which borrowed it from Nintendo's Metroid before that) offers far greater immersion and, consequently, meaning. The island is stuffed with collectibles, salvage (for crafting new weapons) and secrets, too.
Tellingly, Stewart cites influences beyond gaming. "We look at many things," he says. "Things like Lost - Lost was great way to have a blank canvas of mystery and tell this emotive story of characters and how they interact. Movies... you look at the escape sequence of Descent with the girls fighting to survive, there are emotions there people feel close to.
"The other side to it is real situations, the Alan Ralston (127 Hours) type - he put himself in a very precarious situation and had to chop his arm off. There's something a human being shouldn't have to go through. We're trying to put the player in a situation where they feel an attachment to a character, so there's a psychological aspect where you feel like, wow, even she's battling with it. So would I."
On this evidence, we think you'll want to as well. Anniversary and Underworld were great, but they were born in 1996. This rebirth is strikingly a product of 2011. It's taken 15 years to truly break Lara Croft down and build her back up, but having seen Crystal Dynamics' work, we can say she's already infinitely stronger