Lara Croft’s newest adventure is unlike anything you’ve seen her in before, and I’m happy to say it’s one of her most fun to play. Up until this point, all of the Tomb Raider games have been traditional 3D platformers, but The Guardian of Light brings the aging series into new and welcoming territory – it’s an isometric, top-down puzzle platformer designed to be played alone or with a friend – right now co-op only works if you’re sitting in the same room, but even without online features we all take for granted these days, I can’t recommend it enough.
Critically speaking, the Tomb Raider games have been getting a hard time lately, and unfairly so if you ask me. The Angel of Darkness was atrocious, yes, but the three newest Tomb Raider games by Crystal Dynamics have been excellent examples of the contemporary platformer. Legend rejuvenated the series with a brand new engine and style. Then they remade the original game in the form of Anniversary, which has some of the best examples of environmental level design ever, and then last years Tomb Raider Underworld rounded out a very solid trilogy. Sales had been slowly decreasing, however, so much so Crystal Dynamics were almost forced to abandon the series altogether.
It appears that they decided (or were told) to try something new in an effort to save the franchise, and so we have the first download-only Lara Croft game available on Xbox Live Arcade. The likes of Steam and PSN versions are on their way, and will bring online co-op along with them. The core idea of what the Tomb Raider games have been doing all this time remains – you are still navigating your way through huge, ancient ruins-turned-obstacle-courses, but with the new top-down view, and the obvious addition of an ally to help you along, it feels much more fun, and far less lonely. Co-op is an excellent addition, and having a friend to share the puzzles with works so well I can’t believe it hasn’t been done before.
I played through the entire game over a single weekend with some friends, and we each took turns with the controller, though everyone in the room would happily offer advice (and abuse when things went hilariously wrong) and we all agreed it was more fun than any of us were expecting. In multiplayer, one of you controls the series’ long-running busty heroine, Lara Croft, and the other takes on the role of ancient Mayan warrior Totec. The intro sets up the story, with Lara doing her usual thing in using some relic to unlock some ancient god of some sort and then setting out to fix it all. Totec is conveniently resurrected to help Lara defeat the evil mummified dude hell bent on destroying the world. The story sucks, but it’s adequate enough to justify the journey.
Clambering around ancient caves and temples (yeah, and tombs), avoiding booby-traps, and shooting swarms of monsters takes up the majority of the gameplay. The game is filled with environmental puzzles and they are consistently challenging and satisfying to figure out in equal measure. You have to rely on each other to solve most of them, utilising each others unique abilities. Totec’s primary weapon is lobbing spears, which stick into walls and allow Lara to use them as stepping stones to cross large gaps, or he can use his shield as a platform for Lara to stand on and reach higher places. Lara has a grappling hook which she can tether to carefully placed metal rings, to form a makeshift tightrope for Totec to walk across. She can also use it to wall-run, which works the same as it does in Underworld and Anniversary. Both characters can use any guns that you might find, and it’s quite amusing to see Totec mowing down enemies with an uzi in each hand.
Scattered throughout the game are optional challenge rooms which are easily spotted thanks to a glowing blue hue around the doors. These are just one of the numerous optional objectives you get while playing, and are well worth having a go at. They’re quite varied, and range from simple puzzles which you can solve in a matter of seconds, to relatively challenging obstacles that test your speed and agility skills. Each one rewards you with a relic or artifact of some sort which boosts one or more of your skills. The more you collect, the more you can customise your character – we opted to boost Totec’s bombs and defense, while focusing on speed and weapon damage for Lara, but you can swap and change them over on the fly to suit individual scenarios. For example, when being chased by a hungry mutant fish monster, it’s good to equip some items that’ll boost your running speed.
There’s a few missions that differ slightly from the rest, in the form of boss fights and chase sequences, all of which are adrenaline-fueled set pieces. Some memorable moments include sprinting out of a tomb that’s collapsing all around you as you make a desperate sprint to the exit while the floor crumbles beneath your feet. There’s a couple of variations on the infamous t-rex boss fight, which combined with the mad rush to grab all the collectibles in the area whilst fending off swarms of minions, makes for an exciting confrontation. Combat was always the series’ weakest aspect, but here it’s been polished and tweaked to suit the new isometric view, and the result is a series of satisfyingly chaotic gunfights with simple controls. There’s loads of customisation too since there are plenty of different weapons to unlock, and you can have any combination of 3 guns equipped at any time.
As I understand it, if you play it singleplayer, the game changes all of the puzzles slightly to counter the fact you no longer have a buddy watching your back. Co-op is designed in such a way you need each others help to proceed, and some of the puzzles would simply be impossible without being altered in singleplayer. I didn’t play it this way and probably never will, since co-op is clearly what the game was made for. People will complain about the lack of online features, but frankly it doesn’t need them. Grab some mates and plenty of munchies and huddle round the TV for some old school fun. You’ll find yourselves battling it out for all the numerous collectibles, all of which help to unlock new weapons and relics, which thankfully get shared out between the two of you. The game went on for a lot longer than we expected, and even though we managed to finish our first playthrough in about 8 hours, there’s plenty of replay value, because there’s so many optional objectives that are nigh on impossible to get first time, especially the speed runs.
The game uses the same engine as Tomb Raider Underworld and so, graphically, Guardian of Light is a very good-looking game for the most part. There’s lots of variety in the levels, ranging from overgrown temples and ruins, to foggy swamplands, to burning fiery lava-filled chasms. There’s a fantastic sense of scale, you really feel like you’re climbing through huge ruined structures and the game often lets you see previous areas explored in the background (or teases you with glimpses of what’s to come). The game has a great physics engine too, with lots of pushable objects that genuinely feel heavy and can be used as weapons as well as solving various puzzles. There’s also a great variety of unique monsters to fight each with different abilities that keep you on your toes and require you to adapt your tactics as you proceed through the game’s 14 levels.
Crystal Dynamics have to be commended for this effort. It’s a rejuvination for the iconic series, and a risk well worth taking. I just hope enough people buy it to warrant a sequel, because it could only get better from here.