The Tomb Raider franchise has seen a steady decline in popularity over the past few entries in the franchise, but Square Enix is banking that Lara Croft as a gaming icon still has legs (ahem). With a shift from 3D, third-person puzzling and tiger shooting gameplay to a new isometric run-and-gun style, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light aims to take gaming’s most storied treasure hunter in a whole new direction.
After getting some hands-on play time in both single-player and multiplayer modes, I’m ready to share my impressions. I have to say that while this new entry in the Lara Croft universe might not revolutionize gaming in any discernible way, it looks to offer a fun experience in a new vein. I’ve got my eye on this title moving into the Summer of Arcade season for XBLA.
Lara Croft: GoL is a departure from the Tomb Raider franchise in many ways. First and foremost is the length and format. Instead of a full length retail game, Crystal Dynamics has opted for a smaller downloadable model. My guess is that this is for one or both of two reasons: 1. They want to provide a more episodic feel to the franchise moving forward; an XBLA release gives the proper structure for smaller stories set in the Lara Croft universe. 2. They don’t know if the new direction will take or not, and a smaller release lets them bow out more gracefully if things don’t pan out.
But you’re not interested in all that, are you? You want to know how Lara’s new look translate into gameplay. The first thing to know is that the game has shifted from a third person perspective with the camera focused over Lara’s glutes shoulder, to an isometric view.
Thankfully, this makes for more entertaining combat than in previous Tomb Raider games. Guardian of Light is essentially a dual-stick shooter in this regard, with the exception that the right analog stick merely determines the aim; the player must still pull the right trigger to actually fire.
Combine these combat controls with the top-down point of view and the fact that you will encounter waves of baddies to take out, and the Diablo feel is thick and palpable in a very comforting way. My time with the game was limited, but my experience was much less adventuring or platforming, and much more of a dungeon crawl. There is some minor problem solving in the game, but puzzle points are not the focal point and can be solved by simple collaborations with either your co-op partner or the enemy AI.
I played through the demo level with another member of the press, and this gave me a real taste for the puzzle and traversal elements in the latest installment. While he controlled Lara, I took the reigns of Totec, a spear-wielding companion. When the game was first shown in previews, many scoffed at the spear being used as a primary weapon. While the spear can be used as a default weapon, Totec is perfectly capable of using conventional weapons as well — I was lighting it up with an assault rifle for most of my run.
The spear is primarily a tool for traversal. Totec can throw the spear into certain walls to create an ad-hoc stair step for Lara to reach an elevated area. Once up on a new platform, she can then use a grapple rope to help Totec climb up to join her. If you end up playing the game single player, however, there’s no problem. Rather than rely on what usually ends up being wonky friendly AI, Lara will be able to throw spears herself if there isn’t a player 2 to control Totec.
With the Uncharted franchise taking the action-adventure treasure hunting reigns from the beleaguered Tomb Raider, I think this move by Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics is well advised, and I had a good time with the short demo I played. It remains to be seen if the final product will have enough depth in traversal, enemy types, puzzling, and stories to justify the projected 1200 MS Point ($15) price tag. The game title on the kiosk bore the XBLA Summer of Arcade logo, so it shouldn’t be long before we know for sure; I’m looking forward to finding out.