Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a new game released as the fifth and final title of Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade on XBox 360 and which will be coming to PC and PS3 users at the end of September. It is a download only title which differs from the traditional Tomb Raider franchise in that gameplay is isometric and features co-operative play with another character. In fact, as the title suggests, it is not a “Tomb Raider” game at all, but that does not stop the comparison!
It is hard to start any review about a new Lara Croft game without reference to her role as an icon of the industry. Her original appearance back in 1996 set new standards for graphics, puzzles, shooting and, of course, female characters in games. We can all debate whether she is simply a male fantasy figure or a force for feminism, but her famous twin assets – athletic puzzle solving and sharp gunplay – have seen the games sell in droves. It is certain that, even without the help of Angelina Jolie, Lara Croft has had a major cultural impact beyond just gaming – particularly so in her “hometown” of Derby.
It is also customary with any recent review, it seems, to make some reference to Tomb Raider’s relative decline with time. I remember cowering in a cave to hide from a T-Rex back with the original, and jumping around Venice in the sequel, but it’s probably fair to say that the failure to innovate has seen the series stagnate to the point of mediocrity – or worse. Developer Core Design was out of the picture by 2003 with Crystal Dynamics taking over the helm for the most recent three games: Legend, Anniversary and Underworld. This was certainly a step in the right direction as these more recent games have seen Lara undergo a reboot and the varied gameplay, excellent graphics and enjoyable plots have all contributed to successful games.
This brings the first good news about Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light: it uses the same engine as Underworld. This means real-time lighting, fancy shadows and lots of physics-based objects and effects. And for a download-only title, coming in at a tenner, this has remarkable presentation. The animation of Lara, other characters and scenery is excellent and the shadows and textures all look stunning – hardly a surprise since the game is a whopping 2 GB download! The initial story is told through comic-style art, but thankfully during levels there are in-engine cut-scenes and Lara (et al.) looks even better from close-up. The sound adds an exciting atmosphere, and voice-acting is pretty reasonable (if spoken in clichés) but the explosions do get a little repetitive over time and the background music, whilst serving to heighten excitement, seems to come from a small score which will becomes very familiar as progress is made and is far too loud on default setting.
Guardian of Light seems to follow a traditional Lara Croft path of jumping around ruins in Central America, looking for an elusive object and killing villains and wild animals. The jumping and climbing business is where the first major detour from the Tomb Raider series takes place and the fixed, isometric view means that, although there are no annoying camera angles, there is also less of a feel of freedom that was afforded by the more traditional approach of previous games. In fact, progress can be linear, with many detours clearly indicated (often named “challenge rooms”, where puzzles must be solved to reach upgrades), but the map can contain a number of different optional areas to explore on each level.
Gameplay is straightforward with a different button for each control: movement with the left stick, shooting with right trigger and directed using the right stick, “A” for jump, etc. Lara starts with her signature pistols and a spear which doubles as a climbing aid, as well as other gadgets including remote bombs (for scenery as well as bad guys) and a grappling hook. Sadly the latter of these is fairly limited in single player, only attaching to “golden hooks” at obvious points in the level, but that hasn’t stopped the designers incorporating its use in some excellent ways.
Combat is okay for the most part, with enemies being relatively varied in style from speedy lizards to hulking brutes, and the fighting certainly adds to the fast-paced nature of the game as a whole. There is a multitude of weapons to choose from including classics like assault rifles and shotguns. Puzzles start as typical Lara fare: jump across this chasm, but that rock on this switch, avoid the spinning flame thrower, etc. But rapidly become ever more ingenious and require serious lateral thought to solve them. Level design consists of various set of ruins – all of which look good if a little similar – but the layout has been cleverly considered by the designers. Collectibles are a major focus of the game and vary from bonuses to firepower or health through to “relics” and “artefacts”. There are about thirty artefacts to collect, and up to two can be “equipped” at any time, offering enhancements such as more firepower at the expense of less defence. Relics are fewer in number and the selected item will give fancy bonuses to firepower as long as the Relic-Meter is full (achieved through killing enemies without taking damage). All of these variations lend themselves to a varied, satisfying combat system and the exploration and loot reminds the player of Diablo-style isometric game mechanics.
The plot, however, is truly abysmal: An evil god (Xolotl) is awoken from a two-thousand year slumber and proceeds to slaughter everyone around him – except Lara, of course. Fortunately his nemesis also awakens: Totec, an ancient Mayan warrior who defeated him two thousand years ago. He then inexplicably decides that he’s got better things to do, so he gives Lara his spear and leaves for most of the remainder of the game! The single player campaign is about 8-10 hours, which from a time-spent-playing perspective makes this a veritable bargain considering the number of full-priced games that can be finished in similar time (and the short length of other XBLA Summer of Arcade titles like Limbo).
Multiplayer is impressive in that each map is completely redesigned to feature new puzzles and fights that require two players. The non-Lara player gets to control Totec and players must work together using a combination of spears, shields, grappling ropes and tight-rope walking to solve the puzzles and defeat enemies. Although the focus is on co-operative teamwork there is a score kept and rewards are given to the player who kills more enemies or collects more of the gems that are dropped. The puzzles in co-op are truly inspired and I have rarely had as much fun in a two-player game, be it from rage at the other player stealing an upgrade or the satisfaction of solving a fiendish puzzle then saving each other from a fatal fall. The co-operative campaign will probably take around 6-8 hours, but players will want to try the other character and it’s so much fun there is inherent replay value throughout.
Sadly, on release there is no online co-op mode. The release date was set some time ago in order to tie in with its (lucrative) role in the Summer of Arcade, and clearly this component was not quite ready. Local split screen is there, and plays fine, but the good stuff will have to wait a month as it will (allegedly) go active as the game is released on other platforms. Although LCATGOL may be a great value game that hasn’t stopped the developer announcing that there will be five sets of DLC between now and Christmas. Three will be full add-ons and two bonus characters – details and costs are yet to be announced so it remains to be seen whether these add-ons will represent as good value as the initial offering.
So this new spin-off is not quite a groundbreaking release with the impact of the original Tomb Raider, but it is probably the best Lara game in a decade and a welcome diversion which represents a fun downloadable number with high production values and strong single and multi-player aspects. It may be worth a wait for online co-op, but this would be a pretty good buy at full retail price let alone the bargain of 1200 MS points – and at that price, it’s a great buy.
Overall Score: 8/10
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