The Summer of Arcade on Xbox Live recently wrapped up with the release of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, but this isn’t your typical Tomb Raider adventure. In fact, it doesn’t even carry the Tomb Raider name. Developer Crystal Dynamics has gone out on a limb in an attempt to revive the video game heroine’s spiraling career, tossing aside its usual third-person adventure formula in favor of an arcade-style, isometric, co-operative experience. Does the risk pay off? Absolutely.
The game does have a few flaws, however, one of which is the story. In a word, it’s generic. While seeking an artifact known as the Mirror of Smoke, Lara unknowingly leads a band of mercenaries to its location. Unbelieving of the mirror’s curse, the mercenaries carelessly release Xolotl, the keeper of darkness. This tale does have a twist though. The mirror also brings to life the statue of Totec, the guardian of light, who immediately becomes Lara’s ally as the two attempt to stop Xolotl before the light of dawn. That’s as far as plot development goes. The story doesn’t evolve beyond the prologue and the dialogue is so cheesy that Xolotl doesn’t come across as being the least bit menacing.
Uninspired plot and poorly written characters aside, where this game really shines is gameplay. Gone is the third-person perspective that Lara Croft fans have come to know over the years. Instead, we get an isometric view akin to Diablo or Torchlight. Gameplay features a mix of puzzle solving, platforming and combat, all of which are executed brilliantly. The puzzles are environmental in nature and are challenging without being overly frustrating, and gunplay is incredibly satisfying thanks to an intuitive dual-stick control scheme, a smart auto-aiming mechanic and a healthy arsenal of weapons.
There are 14 levels in the game. Some last just a few minutes while others take up to a half an hour to finish. Each level presents Score and Reward Challenges that when completed award Lara with health and ammo power-ups, as well as new weapons, relics and artifacts. There are over 25 different weapons in the game, ranging from handguns and shotguns to rocket launchers and flamethrowers, as well as 40 and 20 different artifacts and relics each to find. Artifacts endow Lara with skill bonuses while relics grant her special powers that are activated when Lara goes on a killing spree untouched. Even after you’ve finished the campaign, which runs roughly 6 hours, there is plenty of incentive to replay levels in order to complete all of the challenges; at least half of which you won’t be able to accomplish on your initial play through.
You can play through Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light solo, as Lara Croft, and have a great time doing so, but it’s pretty obvious Crystal Dynamics designed the game as a co-operative experience. In co-op, one player takes control of Lara while the other controls Totec. Teamwork is of the essence in order to solve some of the puzzles and complete various platform elements. Each character possesses unique items that the other player will have to rely on. Lara has a grappling hook that Totec can use as a tight rope to cross large gaps, while Totec has a magical spear that can be thrown three at a time to create a makeshift ladder for Lara to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Totec also carries a shield that comes in quite handy, and both characters have bombs they can remotely detonate. If you do play the game solo, Totec hands Lara his spear at the beginning of the game for her to use throughout the adventure.
There is one catch with co-op: you can only play offline, in split-screen mode. There is no support for co-op over Xbox Live, at least not yet anyway. Once the game becomes available on September 28th for PlayStation Network and PC via Steam, a patch will be made available for the Xbox Live Arcade version that will unlock online co-op over Xbox Live. It’s disappointing that Crystal Dynamics was content to release this game without online co-op at launch considering it’s one the main selling points.
Even though it doesn’t support co-op over Xbox Live (for now) and the plot and characters are a little weak, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is absolutely worth its $15 price tag. The game looks as good as many retail games (it should, weighing in at a 2GB download), offers a generous amount of replay value and, most importantly, is a lot of fun to play. It’s been awhile since I recommended a Lara Croft adventure and even though it might not be what fans of the franchise are expecting, it’s well worth checking out. It will be interesting to see what Crystal Dynamics takes away from this experience as they put together the next retail Tomb Raider adventure.