Lara Croft in a New Light
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is an ambitious project. As a non-canon entry in the Tomb Raider franchise, the game breaks with the series’ history in myriad ways, a move that’s sure to surprise and maybe infuriate some fans. But somehow, the developers pulled it off. This is a fun-packed action/adventure title that’s well worth its $15 price tag.
Franchise devotees will realize why the official Tomb Raider name was left off this title: the gameplay has been totally revamped. Lara still does what she’s always done. Like a scantily-clad female Indiana Jones, she grapples and jumps between platforms, shoots supernatural beings, and collects ancient relics while wearing short shorts and a skimpy tank top. The view and controls, however, are completely different. Gone is the over-the-shoulder camera, replaced by a fixed, floating one that provides an isometric view. The controls, meanwhile, make the game feel more like Geometry Wars than like your standard third-person shooter; you move with the left joystick, draw your weapons and aim them with the right joystick, and fire with a trigger. Other buttons let you select guns, jump, and access your inventory. The setup takes some getting used to, but it gives the action a great arcade feel.
You can play by yourself or with a partner, but the co-op play is the game’s real high point. (For the time being, co-op is local-only on Xbox 360. Online co-op will be added via a free update September 28, to coincide with the game’s release on PSN and Windows.) The second player takes on the role of the 2,000-year-old Mayan warrior Totec, also known as the Guardian of Light. Lara has her trademark guns and grapple, while Totec carries spears, which serve both as weapons and as convenient tools that you can throw into a wall and jump on. Totec also has a shield that Lara can use as a platform; if he jumps while she’s standing on it, Lara can reach even higher.
Not surprisingly, the puzzles in the co-op mode require plenty of teamwork. You’ll handle everything from standard switch-flipping problems to more innovative puzzles that require rolling large globes around and manipulating the environment in subtle ways. Between puzzles, you fight waves of enemies and bosses, which, on medium difficulty, are easy until about halfway through the game.
Rather than torture single-player gamers with a bumbling and glitchy A.I. partner (is there any other kind?), the developers simply redesigned all the levels so that Lara, with some extra abilities (for example, Totec’s spear), can complete them on her own. Without the teamwork element, the puzzles are a bit less inventive, but the developers did a great job of rearranging them so that they remain challenging and reasonably interesting.
When you find relics and artifacts, you can equip them to give your character special powers. The relic system in particular is interesting; you can’t use relics until you’ve filled a meter by killing enemies without taking damage. The meter resets to zero as soon as you take a hit. You also have a traditional health bar as well as an ammo bar that depletes at different rates depending on which weapon you’re using. (Totec’s spear and Lara’s dual pistols have infinite ammo.)
The fifteen levels here are straightforward and linear; the first time through, it takes only five to seven hours to finish the game, though you can spend more if you want to beat both the single-player and multiplayer. (We’d argue it’s probably not worth it, especially if you start with the better co-op levels.) However, there’s replay value galore, and completionists will be consumed for days. Each level features optional item rooms, as well as achievements, which challenge you to complete the level within a certain time limit or not take damage during a certain section, for example. The levels are also riddled with collectibles, including red skulls, gems, more than sixty artifacts and relics, extra costumes, and more than twenty-five different weapons.
Even though this title is non-canon and the plot isn’t exactly integral to the gameplay, there is a story here. Two millennia ago in Central America, Totec banished Xolotl (pronounced ZOH-tuhl), an evil spirit, as well as the Mirror of Smoke, a powerful weapon, to the Temple of Light. It turns out that when you don’t want a weapon to fall into the wrong hands, it’s a bad idea to lock it up in the same place as the owner of the wrong hands. When English archeologist Lara Croft discovers the Mirror in modern times, Xolotl and Totec awaken. Mercenaries arrive on the scene and steal the Mirror, but Xolotl kills them and escapes with it. Croft and Totec team up to save the world.
The game’s presentation is nothing short of spectacular, as it should be, given the two-gigabyte (seven on PC) download size. While the floating camera lets the developers get away with a little less detail than they’d need for a full retail release, the game utilizes the full Tomb Raider: Underworld engine. There’s some beautiful shadow work, meticulously crafted environments, realistic physics, and well-done cutscenes (some in full 3-D, some presented as comic-book-style 2-D images with voice acting, which admittedly is kind of odd). We noticed few graphical hiccups, and the loading times are brief and seldom. The dark techno music is unsettling and ambient without being hyper or overbearing, and the voice acting is good, if a overdone in places. In terms of polish, the only complaint we had is that we managed to get ourselves stuck once, and had to restart a level.
Those who enjoy the game should keep their eyes peeled for the upcoming downloadable content; the developers will release five packs from October through December. Three will be typical expansions, and two will allow you to swap in “other well-known videogame” characters for Lara and Totec. We wouldn’t mind seeing a competitive multiplayer mode or two, but we’ll have to wait and see.
In short, Tomb Raider fans, action/adventure fans, and gamers in general would be well advised to grab Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. It is an expertly crafted, addictive experience that, while short, is easily worth the asking price. Especially in such a slow month for video-game releases.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.7 Graphics
The comic-book-style cutscenes look out of place, but the Tomb Raider: Underworld engine makes everything else look great. 4.3 Control
They take some getting used to, but they work fine. 4.4 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The great dark techno music, mixes well with the reasonably good voice acting. 4.3 Play Value
At five to seven hours for a first-time playthrough, this isn’t a long game, but it makes up for it with collectibles galore. 4.5 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.