canuckeh's Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (Xbox 360 Games Store) review

Untitled (the original title for this review was pretty crass)

So I was in the Best Buy parking lot talking with my brother about things that brothers are want to talk about. Important issues included women, cell phones, the revelation of a secret mission in Starcraft 2 whose existence completely invalidates my Starcraft 2 review for some reason. And why I haven’t played Starcraft 2 online in several weeks. Avoiding the real reason (because I suck at using supply depots to block entrances to my base), I suggested the reason was to move on to other games, like the new Lara Croft title.
“Lara Croft? You mean Tomb Raider.” He asked.
“No, no, it’s just Lara Croft. This isn’t a real Tomb Raider game.” I retorted.
“But it’s got Lara Croft. So it’s a Tomb Raider game. I’m confused.” He said to me.
And it was that moment that I realized that this naming convention really doesn’t make any kind of sense. Apparently, downloadable games do not count as canon Tomb Raider releases, hence the title of “Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.” The naming convention confuses me because 1. The Tomb Raider games aren’t some kind of sacred treasure that needs protection from the taint of the Xbox Live Arcade, and 2. Because this release is several miles better than any of the so-called real Tomb Raider games. 

 The game's isometric perspective. Like Mario RPG without the shitty platform jumping.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light quickly burns through what I’m pretty sure are all the major beats of a typical Tomb Raider story. Lara enters tomb filled with perilous deathtraps and challenging puzzles. Lara overcomes traps and puzzles to find artifact she should not be trifling with. Evil tomb raiders ambush Lara after she does all the trap-solving for them to take the artifact. Evil tomb raiders trifle with artifact and unleash evil demon. Lara must untrifle the evil demon. It's all as dumb as you think it is, but at least it’s all dealt with in the introductory cutscene, leaving the rest of the game as a chase after the cackling demonic force of the month.
The one major difference of note is the introduction of Totec, the aforementioned guardian of light. He awakens from his centuries-long slumber to aid Lara with such magical powers as “bombs” and “automatic weapons.” Or at least he would, had I played the intended co-op mode. That co-op mode that seems to be the reason for the game’s existence. In playing single player, his sole purpose is to lend Lara his infinite-ammo spear and remind her that he is scouting ahead and conveniently out of sight.
You see, this game is intended to be played co-operatively with an amigo. My presumption is that Lara and Totec have different abilities that must be used in tandem to overcome the assorted puzzles and platform jumps of varying levels of peril. The game is modified to function as a solo campaign, but I constantly felt berated for taking this loner route, like the game resented me for not having a friend nearby. Puzzles that would seem like complex tests of wit suddenly became modified for simplicity’s sake. I remember one puzzle where a giant pillar covered in spikes rest atop a bottomless pit. Fortunately, whatever burden I had to overcome with Totec was easily bested with the flick of a switch that made all necessary platforms appear.
 In the solo campaign, Totec lends Lara his long hard spear.
But the patch to enable online co-op won't be released until September 28, and you can probably skip this paragraph if you’re reading this after September 28. As of August 31, 2010, I sit and ponder. “Who plays through an entire co-operative campaign?” I'm not talking about Resistance 2-style one-off missions where a random group of players can play medic and muscle through each mission on sheer force of healing love. I mean elaborate teamwork based campaigns like Army of Two or Resident Evil 5 or now this game. With no online play, the appeal here becomes limited to a select group of people with access to another readily-available player, such as: dedicated gamers that room in the same apartment (in my past experience a volatile environment filled with negative emotions and beer bottles); Co-workers of a certain video game website; Maybe classmates who come over to Jimmy’s house after school to play games the ESRB deems them too young to play. I know I don’t belong in any of these groups, so I’ll never finish this co-op aspect of the game for myself.
This review feels lop-sided. I’ve griped perhaps too much on what I would consider to be the game’s only real flaw. Rather, I should admit that the rest of the package of UnTomb Raider is surprisingly strong. Like Limbo, Tomb Ra…Lara Croft works because there is a decided lack of filler. There are no long stretches of running or clunky block puzzles (dated Soul Reaver reference) and only a scant occasions of being trapped in a room battling respawning demons. You are almost always progressing, and almost always doing some kind of puzzle, exciting leap of faith or ass-shooting. The difference between Limbo and Lara Croft is that Lara Croft is about 2-3 times as long a game as Limbo.
Gunplay takes the slow and dated shooting mechanics of Tomb Raider games and transitions them into a top-down, dual-joysticks shooter. You are still firing dual pistols and barrel-rolling your way out of adversity. The big difference is that there are demons sticking their demonic heads at you from multiple directions. So now the game becomes an exercise in both crowd control and barrel rolling. The ability to drop an infinite supply of remote-detonated bombs is also a plus. The game does manage to hand you various firearms. Like many things in life, Lara likes them as big as possible, and I found that the Gatling gun was sufficient for weed-whacking the forces of evil.
 Of course you fight a giant T-Rex. Why wouldn't you?
Likewise, the game does a great job of throwing one mini-enigma after another. Most of the puzzles involve light switch-flipping, deathtrap-evading and impossible jump-making of some degree. You’ll toy with your bombs, grappling hooks and spears, both with infinite ammunition that all fit within Lara’s box. Of tools. There was never any single puzzle that stumped me to such a degree that I need spend time on a FAQ, or even more than about two minutes. But they occur at such a prevalent pace that I felt the many neurons flow back through the part of my brain that does complex thinking intelligent person thingys.
Running through the campaign takes a solid 5-6 hours. But each of the many levels are laden with optional challenges to revisit. These vary from score-based objectives and time-based objectives for you to speed-barrel-roll through each level to individual goals like “make this ludicrously pointless platform jumping sequence with no mistakes.” Rewards include stat-boosting artifacts (because wielding a Clay Owl biologically makes you a stronger person), new weapons and health/ammo upgrades. These are all optional, and I kind of wonder if a few of the score-based challenges are even outside the realm of possibility in the single-player campaign. But as someone who scarcely attempts optional side-quests in any game, that I kind of want to revisit some of these goals here is some degree of pretty amazing.
I think the best way to describe NotTomb Raider is that this game is enthusiastically playable. Sure the whole co-op ordeal strikes a bit of a sensitive spot with me. But I think I got a lot of that bile out of my system. There’s a lot of quality play-time for a game that costs about $20, and some decent incentive to revisit it afterwards. And who knows, maybe I’ll be open to forgiveness when that patch comes out.
4 stars  

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