If I had to pick one console gaming trend in the last three years to preserve while all the others faded away Back to the Future-style, it would be downloadable games. The rise of XBLA, PSN, WiiWare, etc. have allowed all manner of glorious experiments to reach the masses. From creative new IPs that would never have been green-lit for a full AAA development cycle, to fun bite-sized games at a reasonable price, to existing franchises looking for a new avenue to play around and reinvent themselves, there’s no denying the impact this development has had on the industry.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light falls into that third category: IPs looking to reinvigorate themselves by adopting a new style. Despite the last few Tomb Raider games being much better than many were prepared to admit, Eidos and Crystal Dynamics were wise to recognize that the name doesn’t carry the excitement it once did. They’re looking to breath some fresh air and energy into the Lara Croft character with this latest installment, and I’m of the opinion that they’re very much headed in the right direction.
Read on for the official verdict!
While the Tomb Raider branding has lost much of its juice in a post-Uncharted landscape, the character of Lara Croft seems to be alive and well. The challenge was to innovate without losing what is iconic and fundamental to the franchise; mainly shooting, platforming, puzzle-solving, exploration, and an adventure game mentality. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light succeeds in this pursuit for a number of reasons.
For starters, the story of GoL is equal parts old and new. For the old, all the Indiana Jones-ish trappings you’d expect are there. Lara discovers an ancient mirror, but a greedy warlord shows up to claim it for himself. Of course, the removal of the mirror releases an ancient evil by the name of Xolotl (it turns out the ‘Xo’ is not for ‘kisses and hugs’), and also awakens Totec, the aforementioned Guardian of Light who joins Lara in recovering the mirror and fighting Xolotl.
The new part comes from the style of presentation – the production values present here far exceed the expectations of a $15 title. Lengthy cutscenes and narration are replaced with short comic panel bits and shorter cutscenes that serve to get the player up to speed and back into the action as quickly as possible. It’s efficient and effective, and the sense of urgency carries over into how the game plays.
Lara Croft abandons the old visual conventions of Tomb Raider in GoL, instead sporting an isometric view with a twin-stick shooter mentality for its core gameplay. This makes the title much more arcade-like, which works really well for both the character and the pacing. You’re always doing something as the game is constantly transitioning from combat to platforming to puzzle-solving and back again.
Combat is simple and satisfying, with a wide variety of weapons to acquire and play with over the course of the game. The more powerful weapons will eat up your ammo meter (which can be replenished like health), but Lara always has unlimited ammo for her trusty twin pistols, as well as a bomb which can be triggered remotely. Her trademark acrobatic ability also translates well here, with leaps and rolls to help you avoid damage and position yourself to tag the right enemies at the right time.
On the puzzle-solving front, the usual switches and pressure plates make their obligatory appearances, but are varied enough in their use that they don’t become stale. For some, the rolling ball puzzles may be a bit repetitive by the end of the game; for myself, I never felt that they wore out their welcome during the compact six hour run of the game.
Special challenge rooms will provide bonus items and added puzzle/platforming gameplay for those who want it, but can also be ignored for those looking to plow through the story mode more quickly. My favorite element was a grappling hook mechanic that played heavily in the platforming, but was also used in some very inventive ways in the puzzle design.
The isometric view makes the platforming in Lara Croft both more exciting and more precise. Leaps are easier to eyeball from the overhead perspective, and it allowed the developers to include some great set-pieces. Racing across crumbling walkways, navigating hallways of traps, and other such challenges are well designed and resulted in more than a few exciting “holy crap, I just barely made it!” moments for me.
Puzzling and platforming both take on an added dimension when another player joins in for co-op. The second player takes on the role of Totec, and he and Lara must work together to solve puzzles and traverse the environment. Totec packs a spear that he can throw into walls: while he’s too heavy, Lara is light enough to jump on the spears and reach new areas. Lara can use her grappling hook to help Totec climb or survive long jumps, while Totec can use his shield to protect Lara while she performs other tasks. While combat is still a free-for-all with two players, the other gameplay really benefits when you’ve got a buddy parked next to you.
Don’t worry about the game taking a hit in quality if you don’t have a co-op friend on speed-dial; single player play has been meticulously crafted to compensate for this difference. Lara gains access to Totec’s spear, and the puzzles have been subtly altered to balance for one player. Even the cutscenes are slightly different for both modes, so there’s no continuity lost in the story with Totec’s absence.
Much ado has been made about the fact that only couch co-op was included with the initial launch, and I certainly can’t absolve the game for the apparent bait-and-switch with the absence of online play. That being said, the single-player mode and local co-op provided more than enough enjoyment for me to warrant a purchase, and the online play will be patched in less than a month from now.
There’s an extremely high level of replayability present here – score challenges, time challenges, collect-a-thon challenges, and other more creative tasks give you reasons to revisit levels even after you’ve finished the game. Better yet, completing challenges give you tangible gameplay benefits like relics, artifacts, weapons, or boosts to your health and ammo meters. If you’re the kind of gamer that looks to get as much gameplay as possible for your dollar, you’ll likely be happy with Lara Croft‘s bounteous offering.
With sharp graphics, varied gameplay, great pacing, and strong value for the price, I’m not at all hesitant about recommending this title. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a highly successful divergence from the old Tomb Raider formula, and a strong closer for the Summer of Arcade line-up. I, for one, hope that we see more like it sooner rather than later.
I was not expecting such a polished product when I booted up the game; I was happy to have my expectations broken.
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Moving seamlessly from combat to puzzling to platforming, the smooth and well-designed gameplay stays fun and fresh throughout the entire run of the game.
A solid score and good sound effects help carry the sense of arcadey urgency that pervades this title.
Between single-player, co-op, and all the challenges built into each level, there's a lot of game here for the money.
A great new direction for the franchise and a great experience alone or with a friend -- purchase recommended.