Crystal Dynamics Saves Lara From Irrelevance (Again)
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light marks the second time that Crystal Dynamics has rebooted Lara's image during this console generation, but this new face lift is a much bigger departure for the heroine. Although industry vets generally seemed excited for this new adventure, I thought that setting a Lara game as an isometric co-op title sounded a little crazy. Fortunately, my concerns proved unfounded, and GoL turned out to be the fastest, freshest adventure yet for Lady Croft.
Due to the change in perspective, GoL ends up playing out like a cross between Geometry Wars and Crystal Dynamics' other recent Tomb Raider games. It sounds odd, but it turns out this marriage of disparate gameplay mechanics is a happy one. Movement, strafing, and shooting are handled with the left and right joysticks, respectively. The aiming feels tight and accurate, while the movement is fast enough to make it feel like you're flying through the game, even when you spend half an hour on each level. An empowering arsenal of alternate weapons such as shotguns, flamethrowers, and grenade launchers make Lara feel like a real badass this time around, and it certainly doesn't hurt that the game is constantly throwing new guns your way.
In another departure from the norm, Lara and her tomb raiding buddy Totec can both upgrade their abilities with aftifacts and runes found throughout the world, often located in challenging bonus tombs. These upgrades range from increased speed to regenerating health, but each of them have a downside to counter their strength. This means that characters never become overpowered, so the game stays nicely balanced. All of the new toys and abilities are necessary, because combat has (again) received a pretty serious overhaul. The frantic enemy rushes in GoL bare more resemblance to Left 4 Dead than they do previous Tomb Raider games, and this is a very good thing. It gives the battles a much-needed shot of adrenaline. It also serves to balance out the platforming and puzzling sections, which are always quite satisfying. The puzzles never felt very difficult to solve, although some of them require quick thinking and good timing, but that just serves to complement the fast pace that the game has set up for itself.
As mentioned earlier, Lara has a new partner in crime named Totec. This all stems from some generic storyline about an ancient evil god, but it's all glossed over within the first two minutes of the game. The real reason for Totec's appearance is to allow for co-operative play with a friend. The words "co-op play" aren't exactly the first thing that come to mind when I think "Tomb Raider," or at least they weren't before, but this new gameplay style works beautifully within the structure of GoL. Totec and Lara both have distinct abilities that play off each other naturally, so while Lara can fire a grappling hook, Totec rocks a nifty spear and shield combination. These abilities can be combined to cross big gaps with the grappling hook or create makeshift platforms by chucking the spear into a wall, to name a few basic examples. Experimentation is a big part of what makes the co-op so much fun, as the weapons and items can often be combined in some surprising ways.
While the game is designed with co-operative play in mind, the single player game doesn't suffer as a result. The game adds different dialogue to many of the cutscenes when playing in single player, and the story feels kind of forced due to the absence of a companion, but this isn't a big issue because nobody is going to be playing this for the story anyway. It's still funny, though, how all of the cutscenes have been reworked so that Totec will just pop in and say "Hey, be careful of the ancient evil god" and then kind of just slink away until next time.
The story may be a bit fractured when flying solo, but the gameplay luckily remains intact. Lara will be granted access to Totec's spears (but not his shield,) so it doesn't feel like she is limited by the lack of a partner. Sure, it seems like some of the puzzles and levels were designed more with co-op play in mind, but the wealth of collectibles and massively addictive side quests for each level will still keep players coming back for more, with or without an ally.
Lara's newest adventure is as easy on the eyes as it is on the thumbs, with some gorgeous and colorful graphics backing up the smooth gameplay. Character models and environments look quite nice, especially for a XBLA game, although they definitely contribute to the game's huge two gigabyte download. The audio is pretty much the typical Tomb Raider exotic exploration music, coupled with some decent voice overs. All in all, the presentation is quite solid and contributes to the overall feeling of polish that the game exudes.
Although I was initially skeptical of this huge change in direction for Lara, her tomb raiding antics are well served by all of the additions. With smooth gameplay, a great presentation, and some highly addictive side goals, this game could keep players busy for a long time. Hopefully the core Tomb Raider franchise can take some hints from this offshoot, because this is honestly the best adventure Lara has starred in since her Playstation premiere.