My friends know that the Tomb Raider franchise has always had a special place in my humble gaming career. I have indeed completed all the episodes on PS1, Dreamcast, PS2 and Xbox 360/PS3, yes even Angel of Darkness, the last episode developed by Core Design. Thankfully, since 2006, Crystal Dynamics has been in charge, and with such pedigree as the Blood omen and Soul Reaver series, the Tomb Raider games have all been pretty good since then. This new adventure of Lara Croft comes as a bit of a surprise though, as it is this time only available on Xbox Live Arcade (the PS3 and PC versions are to be released later, in about a month or so). The game mixes action, exploration and platforming sequences and uses an isometric view that is completely new to the franchise. Such a choice will probably remind you of a combination of the first Legacy of Kain and its top down view and the last game in the Raziel versus Kain story, Legacy of Kain: Defiance, which chose to propose a fixed camera for the first time. So what about Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light then? Come on inside and find out!
Let's put things straight right now, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is not about following an engaging scenario where the story is staged from beginning to end like a cinematographic masterpiece. Here things are indeed pretty basic: an evil god known as Xototl is set free by accident by a bunch of petty treasure hunters and Lara is to kill him before it is too late to protect the world of the living from darkness. That's pretty much it, but don't be mistaken, the story may not be what keeps the player on his toes, but you will get hooked anyway. For once, we will start with our First 10 Minute video so those of you who have not paid attention in the past few months can see what the game is about.
As you must have noticed, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light seems to be very similar to games like Diablo or more recently Baldur's gate Dark Alliance on PS2. The number of foes you have to face is indeed a nice reminder of the hack and slash days and it does not feel bad at all. Combat is even a lot more fun and appealing than it's ever been in any other previous game of the franchise. Although Lara's new adventure cannot be mistaken for a Role Playing Game per se, there are a few elements that are a bit reminiscent of one, like the weapons you can find/unlock on your way along the 14 levels, the possibility to upgrade Lara's abilities with the lost amulets or artifacts she can equip, and of course the health and ammo kits that can make your health (green) and ammo (blue) bars bigger. Expect many firearms of different types to take care of your enemies and ease your way to Xototl, but in single player, Lara will also be given a spear by Totec, who will not be on your side should you choose to play on your own.
The enemies you encounter are rather varied, though you will obviously find several monsters of the same kind with a minor difference here and there depending on the level. Using magic or melee, they will give Lara a hard time, especially if you choose to play in hard mode. That being said, I advise you to play in the hardest difficulty setting as the game is not that difficult to beat, thanks to its many checkpoints. You won't get any specific achievement for beating the game that way but it will last a bit longer so it is worth it. Combat is pretty easy to handle: you can dodge attacks by pressing the X button while aiming is done with the right analog stick and firing is assigned to the right trigger. The Y button lets you drop a remote grenade you can trigger whenever you want by pressing Y a second time. Like I said before, the good news is that it combat is very enjoyable because you actually need to aim, dodge more precisely than in the previous titles and make quick decisions as to which monster is the most immediate threat to you. No more jumping around like a Kangaroo on meth while shooting in every direction anymore.
But Lara and the Guardian of Light is obviously not just a hack and slash and there will be some jumping around involved along with some puzzle solving. In the great tradition of all Tomb Raider games, boulders will have to be pushed to unlock some mechanisms but there is enough variety to keep it interesting until the end. The grappling hook will sometimes help you get your hands on some of the collectibles, and even weapons can be used for that purpose. In each levels, upgrades and artifacts are waiting for you, either hiding somewhere or basically taunting you in special chambers where a puzzle must be solved.
When it comes to the platforming sequences, I must say I have been pleasantly surprised as I feared the isometric viewpoint might make them more difficult to apprehend. Pressing the A button will have Lara jump instantly and the fixed camera angles will almost never be a problem. Don't get me wrong, you will still fall to your death from time to time but it is after all part of the Lara Croft experience, wouldn't you say? Overall, no need to be a psychic octopus to survive the many traps that are scattered throughout the 14 levels of the game.
To make exploration even more fun and to give the player some incentive to search the environments and replay the completed levels, Crystal Dynamics decided to add some optional objectives to each of them. For example, you will be asked to reach a certain score, find the 10 red skulls, complete the levels in a given time, pass through a dangerous trap at the first attempt and much more. What is the point? Well, it simply unlocks some precious items to make Lara stronger, some new outfits to make her prettier, and, last but not least, a dedicated achievement to make Lara prouder of you than ever. There is then a very good replay value, even more so as playing the game co-op will bring new gameplay mechanics into your experience, which means you are not about to get bored.
Let's now talk about the multiplayer mode, as most of the communication around the game has been mainly focused on it. First things first, however surprising it may sound, the co-op mode can only be played with a friend on the same console, online play is not available for now. If you want to share Lara's new adventure with a friend living at the other end of the country, you will have to wait until the end of September (which means PS3 and PC players should not have to wait too long). On the one hand, it is legitimate to be very unhappy about it as one should expect a 1200 point game to offer all its content when it is released. On the other hand, the local play option, something that has become very seldom these days, could be taken as a small compensation (or should I say consolation?) to ease the wait. As it is however, the game still has a lot to offer, but it is a shame nonetheless.
Although the game does not change dramatically in co-op mode, you soon realize that puzzles and situations cannot all be taken care of in the exact same way than in single player. It allows those who have already completed the story to see the levels with a fresh eye thanks to some new interactions between the two main protagonists : Totec can cross a threatening gap by walking on the rope of Lara's grappling hook, Lara can jump on Totec's shield to reach new heights or even save him from a certain death by stopping his fall with her grappling hook. Combat is made a little easier so, to enjoy it to the full, I think you'd better choose the hard mode (especially if you've already completed the single player campaign with a fully upgraded Lara, as her new abilities and weapons are all available in multiplayer). To conclude, the co-op mode is a very good addition to the game, it is undeniably fun and it requires the two players to communicate and coordinate their actions.
Despite what we could almost call a tragic - though momentary - flaw, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is truly an excellent downloadable game that completely deserves its place among the other good titles of the franchise. The graphics are nice, with good lighting effects and interactive environments - some structures can be destroyed, plants sway as Lara touches them etc -, the framerate is very smooth and the soundtrack is solid - the fans will be pleased to hear the familiar sound effects of the franchise. Add to that a good longevity as it should take you at least 9 to 10 hours to finish the game in single player the first time. Needless to say that, if you are in to finding all the collectibles and achieving all the optional objectives, you will need a good amount of free time. Co-op should also give you a good reason to play the game at least a second time after completing it. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is then a very good choice to spend a few hours with the British adventurer until her true return in the next Tomb Raider game to come.