Lara Croft is back and she's raiding tombs in an all new way.
The Tomb Raider series is a franchise that needs no introduction. Pretty much everyone who is a gamer knows of the game’s heroine, Lara Croft. She’s probably more remembered for her famous ever-growing breasts every time a new Tomb Raider game hit the original Playstation in the nineties. Also not to forget the legendary nude cheats that gamers would desperately try to input only to find out it was bogus and break their hopes of ever seeing a polygonal Lara bare all.
Enough of the history lesson, the heroine’s back in a new but very different approach to the series. It’s such a different approach that Crystal Dynamics have decided to remove the Tomb Raider brand name from the title and simply have it be called Lara Croft. This doesn’t mean the Tomb Raider name is dead; it’s simply a title change to let people know that this latest game isn’t a title in the Tomb Raider series, but more of a spin off from the franchise.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light’s story is a little thin on the ground. The game starts out with Lara explaining about a battle that took place 2,000 years ago between the Guardian of Light, Totec, and a dark spirit named Xolotl, who wants to take over the world with his evil presence. Xolotl is beaten by Totec, and then sealed away by a mirror.
Fast-forward to the present day and Lara has found the mirror, but some local mercenaries remove it from its pedestal, which in turn releases Xolotl back into the world, simultaneously awakening the Guardian of Light. It’s now the job of Lara and Totec to beat and seal Xolotl back into the mirror, if not, the world is doomed.
As soon as you start playing you’ll notice that the typical third person view has been replaced by a fixed isometric camera point, similar to titles like Diablo, Titan Quest, Torchlight and pretty much all those hack and slash loot collecting RPGs. The controls have also been changed to work with the new camera view, with the right stick acting as 360 degree aim and shooting performed with the right trigger. In this respect it feels a lot like a twin-stick-shooter.
A new focus for Lara is cooperative play, with players taking control of both Lara and Totec. You’ve probably heard of all the talk about the online cooperative play being delayed until the end of September, but if you’ve got mates that can hang out in the same room then it shouldn’t make that much difference to you. It’s not like you’d get a better view because you’re playing online, unlike split screen shooters like Modern Warfare 2 and Lost Planet 2.
It’s pretty obvious that this is a big departure from the norm for the series, but fans shouldn’t start hating because Guardian of Light is a brilliant little gem. Why? Because even though it doesn’t look like a general Tomb Raider game and doesn’t particularly play like one, it takes the Tomb Raider gameplay and implements it into the isometric style exceptionally well.
Platforming is something that isn’t often done with an isometric view because it can be awkward to judge jumps from the camera angle. Crystal Dynamics didn’t seem to have a problem with moving Lara’s jumping antics into this game as I never felt robbed or frustrated jumping from ledges and poles. There’s a little auto correction going on for when you jumping to staffs, but overall it works fantastically well as it seems you’re never obstructed from view when a jump needs completing.
Most of Lara’s signature moves are featured. She can grab on the end of ledges, use a pulley to hook onto rings, swing or pull herself up and blast things with her pistols. These are used in conjunction with Totec’s abilities for some cooperative puzzle solving.
Totec can throw his staff into walls so that Lara can use them as extra leverage. Totec also has a shield that can be used to block against arrow traps. This helps Lara to travel behind Totec for protection. The shield can also be stuck above Totec’s head so that Lara can use it as an extra platform as well, a replacement for using the staff to get to easier to reach platforms. Lara’s pulley system is put to work too as Totec can walk on the rope between Lara and the golden ring the pulley is attached to. Once Totec is across he can then act as a weight for the pulley so that Lara can pull herself up.
Both characters can use convectional weapons such as machine guns and shotguns, these use secondary ammo which is represented with a blue bar. The more powerful they are the more they use up the ammo bar per shot. All weapons use this ammo bar apart from Lara’s pistols and Totec’s staff. Both characters can also drop remote bombs which are detonated with the press of a button.
Since Totec is heavy he can’t use his own staff to climb walls. Also, since he has no sort of pulley or rope to cross gaps, he has to rely on Lara to cross hazardous pitfalls. Binding these handicaps between the characters results in some forced cooperative play, but its cooperative play that is implemented well and feels rewarding when you’re working together.
If you’ve got no friends then all of the levels can be played in the single player mode. Levels range in size and can take between five ( for bosses) and forty minutes to beat. Nothing really changes as such. Lara receives the staff to use herself so that she can reach some of those higher ledges. Usually trap switches that require two people are given a heavy boulder so that Lara can use the boulder as extra weight to release the trap. No matter which mode you play in you’re going to get a top experience, it’s just that playing with a friend is a bit more dynamic, and of course you have someone to talk to while blasting away at enemies.
That’s another departure to the series. Guardian of Light has plenty of enemies to kill. It’s all due to the faster nature of the game. I think a good description is calling it an Arcade Tomb Raider experience. Everything about Guardian of Light is sped up compared to the usual Tomb Raider title. The action, exploration, puzzle solving all feel as though Crystal Dynamics knew people didn’t want to spend too much time messing about in one area for too long to solve a puzzle.
It doesn’t mean the game is thin on puzzle solving; there’s plenty of it, certainly with the inclusion of the challenge rooms featured in levels that require solving a problem to gain an item or reward. It’s fair enough to say they aren’t going to compete in scale compared to Tomb Raider Underworld’s puzzle design, but what it lacks in size is made up with some genius design. Examples are using a pivot on the outside of a cage to send a boulder through the hole in the middle, or planting bombs remotely to flip signs that will activate or deactivate spike traps that makes up a floor of a room, while also moving a boulder so that you can activate two switches.
Something that I haven’t mentioned yet is the combat in Guardian of Light. There’s an equipment system in place which allows players to equip two artefacts and a relic to their character. Artefacts act as buffs and debuffs, kind of something you’d expect from a loot collecting RPG. It can alter how much damage you do, your defence, speed, or your bomb power.
Relics on the other hand can only be activated once you’ve filled up a relic metre by killing enemies consecutively without getting hit. As soon as you are hit you lose the metre, no matter if it’s full or not. The relic equipped will automatically become enabled as soon as the bar is filled. These relics grant extra power such as having a spreadshot, faster shooting, buffed-up attack and even having super-bombs for massive blast damage.
Completing Guardian of Light takes around five hours, but you’d be mistaken to believe that you are done once you’ve completed this 1200MSP game. Every level has challenges that can be optionally completed.They are general challenges like a score attack and ‘find the 10 red skulls’, but there are also individual challenges for levels. For example on one level you have to get across the river without touching the water. Unlocking some of the best weapons, artefacts and relics in the game are done through beating challenges.
Crystal Dynamic kept with the Tomb Raider Underworld engine for Guardian of Light, which you can tell in some of the close ups. The levels are made with some highly detailed texture work, and even the character models look really good, although you hardly ever see this detail in the general isometric view because it’s too far out for the most part.
If there’s one problem with Guardian of Light then it’s due to the location of where the game is set. There isn’t much option to change the setting, so you’re always either in a brown tomb, some small jungle, or a lava area. I understand due to the scale of the game that this was a probable necessity, but it would have been nice to see some more-varied locations. There’s nothing wrong with the level designs themselves, they are all of high standards with a mixture of outside and inside exploring. Alas hopefully this will be popular enough to spawn a series of isometric tomb-raiding.
And it should be, because Guardian of Light is a wonderful title to play. Looking back, I always had doubts about how good the game would be. It was the unknown in Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade line up. But as the saying that goes; save the best until last, and it seems Microsoft did that since Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is this year’s definitive Summer of Arcade hit.
Crystal Dynamic went along a dangerous road and took a chance on changing the dynamics of a Tomb Raider game, but that chance has come through successfully as this new vision for cooperative play with Lara Croft and her adventuring buddy Totec is a welcome change to how players should raid tombs.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light should please fans of the franchise while they wait for their next big Tomb Raider title. I also believe that this game will allow people who don’t normally like Tomb Raider games to be finally able to enjoy a game staring one of the biggest females in gaming history.
Note: This review was written for DarkZero in August 2010, a fansite I write for.