Jeff Jensen
November 25, 2008 AT 05:00 AM EST

Celebrating her 12th year of virtual existence, Lara Croft, the hottie heroine of the Tomb Raider franchise, reigns as queen of immersive adventure games, pop culture icon, and geek pinup girl. Swollen lips, teeny waist, ginormous boobs — all the better to keep boys happily playing with their joysticks. Recent games in the series have fleshed out her blow-up-doll visage with something like actual flesh. But in her newest outing, Tomb Raider: Underworld, the globe-trotting bombshell is utterly ? re-dressed. Bye-bye drab khakis, hello midriff-baring black vest thingie. In the opening sequence, Lara reveals herself as she obliterates her dusty old English manor. Subtlety is not an art form Tomb Raider has yet mastered.

But it pretty much rocks in every other way. The graphics are rich, the gameplay more dynamic than ever. The story has great heart?Lara goes searching the planet (Thailand, Mexico, the Arctic) for her long-MIA mom, who may be trapped in a Norse mythological hell — that keeps you invested even when the tasks get hard. For me, the capture-the-imagination moment comes when you make Lara dive toward underwater ruins guarded by sharks. As hazy objects come into focus, genuine dread intensifies. Still, for all her eye-popping new polish, there remains a hint of moldy-oldie wafting off Lara Croft, a certain eau de Indiana Jones that suggests a relevancy problem. Last week, EW wondered if the recent election portends a shift in the cultural zeitgeist away from bleak, brooding fantasy. If so, whither Tomb Raider? A?

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