Writing this is going to make me feel old, but here it goes: Lara Croft has been raiding tombs for some 14 years. In over a decade of adventures she’s seen her highs and she’s seen her lows (Angel of Darkness, anyone?). Over the past few years, developer Crystal Dynamics has done its damnedest to reinvigorate the franchise, with games like Tomb Raider: Legend and Tomb Raider: Underworld gaining generally favorable reviews from gamers and critics alike.
Its latest installment, while not a Tomb Raider game proper, is its biggest departure yet -- an isometric cooperative downloadable title called Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. While sticking true to the Lara Croft character, Crystal Dynamics casts off the “Tomb Raider” moniker in this completely fresh take on the series.
But does taking a chance and ditching a 14-year-old formula pay off, or is this just a temporary and unnecessary distraction while fans wait for the next "real" Tomb Raider title?
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (Xbox Live Arcade [reviewed], PlayStation Network, PC)
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Release date: August 18, 2010 (XBLA), September 28, 2010 (PSN/PC)
Price: 1200 MS Points/$14.99
Guardian of Light finds Lara on a solo mission where she unearths the Temple of Light, her tomb raiding ways leading her to uncover an ancient artifact called the Mirror of Smoke. When she’s ambushed by a mercenary who steals the mirror, an ancient evil known as Xolotl is released, prompting the relic’s long-dormant protector, Totec, to awaken. The story is told by way of a mixture of in-game cut-scenes and attractive, striking hand drawn comic book style animatics. But mostly, it’s secondary to the real reason for it existence -- to justify the game’s cooperative gameplay, a convoluted excuse to have Lara team with Totec to solve puzzles, hop platforms, and shoot the crap out of a Xolotl and his evil minions to save the world.
At its core, Guardian of Light is a classic and familiar isometric shooter, with players using the analog sticks to move and shoot seemingly interminable streams of baddies. But Guardian of Light expands on this idea, adding platforming verticality to the mix along with nail-biting platforming sections across the game’s 14 massive, explorable environments. Guardian of Light is equal parts arcade action shooter, platformer, and environment puzzle solver, with each as fulfilling as the next.
It's the games cooperative aspects that lend itself to some astoundingly entertaining gameplay scenarios, with both Lara and Totec bringing something different to the table with unique and notable abilities. Each player can use basic firearms (the ancient Totec picks up on automatic weapons rather quickly, it seems), along with an unlimited supply of bombs that can be placed on the ground and then detonated at a distance. Lara, for instance, is equipped with a grapple line which has various uses, including being able to create “rope bridges” for Totec to walk across or used to catch the ancient warrior before he falls to his death.
Totec’s pretty useful himself, with a shield that can be used to block incoming enemy fire, and even put above his head to give Lara a boost. He also carries a endless supply of spears (don’t ask where he keeps them), which can be used as weapons, as well as to help Lara access new areas. By throwing the spears into walls, Lara can then stand on them reach ledges she normally couldn’t reach. (Don't try it as Totec; he's too heavy and the spears will break.)
Because of each of the character’s unique abilities, the cooperative play -- especially when presented with environmental puzzles and obstacles -- is a dream. There are few games that can get this right (and make it fun), and Crystal Dynamics has nailed it perfectly with Guardian of Light. Working together with a friend to solve some of the game’s trickiest environmental riddles is a blast, with some puzzles requiring quick communication and timing that will demand both players to use their heads as well as fast fingers.
While it’s advisable you take on the adventure with a buddy in tow, Guardian of Light’s single-player game shouldn’t be written off. You’ll be exploring the same areas, but the puzzles will be tailored for one explorer, in this case, Lara Croft. Going solo, Lara will have access to Totec’s spears, proving herself as a strong, independent raider of tombs. Everything about cooperative play applies here, from the fun, satisfying combat to the clever puzzle design. It’s so much fun, in fact, that even after completing the game with a friend, it’s likely you’ll go back to explore on your own.
And there’s plenty to keep you coming back, as well. First playthrough you’ll probably see all of the game’s 14 stages (some of them are just boss battles) in about six hours, which would already make the $15 game an incredible value. But each level features a number of optional objectives, including hidden red skulls, scoring goals, sometimes brutally difficult challenge rooms, and more. Each unlocks something new, like a fresh weapon or an ability-enhancing relic or artifact. Unless you’re a savant (or extremely determined), it’s unlikely you’ll collect everything in one run, which could theoretically double the amount of time you’ll spend with Lara and Totec.
Guardian of Light also looks phenomenal for a downloadable title, running on the same engine that powered Crystal Dynamic’s full retail title, Tomb Raider: Underworld. This means you’ll see all of the fancy particle effects and lighting that you’d expect from any current-gen title, and some of the best in the download space to date. Even more importantly, it's the engine’s physics -- especially with the abundance of rolling balls and crumpling floors -- that enhance that truly enhance the overall gameplay experience.
With its first downloadable offering, Crystal Dynamics has come out swinging, with easily one of the best titles this summer -- digital or otherwise. More to the point, I feel comfortable saying that Guardian of Light may be the most fun I’ve had with Miss Croft in 14 years; it’s that good. Guardian of Light covers a lot of bases -- solid action, clever puzzles, nail-biting platforming, and remarkable cooperative play; it’s not to be missed.
[Note: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light for Xbox Live Arcade will not ship with online cooperative play functionality, as recently revealed by Crystal Dynamics. The title will receive an update on September 28, when the PC and PlayStation Network versions of the game are released.
While much fuss has been made about this late omission, you shouldn’t in any way let it color your purchase decision. If anything, think of it as a reason to call up that friend you haven’t seen in awhile or get your significant other sitting on the couch with you for some single-screen cooperative play. Failing that, Guardian of Light still features six hours of an incredible single-player experience, certainly worth your time and money.]
Score: 9 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)