I was as surprised as anybody else when Eidos handed over development duties of the Tomb Raider franchise to Crystal Dynamics, but they have had quite a run since their debut in 2006 with Tomb Raider: Legend. With three entries already under their belt, the company is now bringing the franchise into the download circuit with the first-ever download-only release, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Not only a title of firsts it's also the first to support co-op this is a true return to form for the series, delivering an exciting adventure featuring a great combat system and filled with ingenious puzzles.
Lara never troubled herself too much with why she needed to raid tombs, and that blasι attitude serves her well in Guardian of Light. Two thousand years after Totec, the Guardian of Light, battled the evil Xolotl and his minions to a standstill, the Mayan rivals are awakened by a mercenary outfit looking to relieve Lara of an ancient artifact known as the Mirror of Smoke. It just so happened that Xolotl was trapped within the mirror, and now both he and his monsters are roaming the lands. His escape also revived Totec, Lara's newfound comrade, and the second player's character in co-op. While reanimated battling ancient warriors isn't a bad premise for jumping over chasms and blasting away massive spiders, this is actually the story in its entirety; save for a few storyboard sequences and cutscenes, the game is Xolotl moving from one area to another with Lara and Totec in pursuit. Despite the plot checking out early on, I, like Lara, need little excuse to search for treasure and best nasties.
Hunting Xolotl isn't easy. Standing between him and Lara are a few hundred creatures, from demons that hurl fireballs to belligerent minotaur-type creatures that explode in a final burst of rage before death. Fortunately, a healthy arsenal is available to see to it that all are dispatched properly and violently. In addition to the standard weapon set of a throwing spear, dual pistols, and bombs, all with unlimited ammo, there are standard and unlocked upgraded versions of AKs, dual submachine guns, shotguns, rifles, rocket launchers, and even flamethrowers. Character augmentations in the form of relics can also be uncovered and donned, offering special abilities whenever a power meter charges as enemies are defeated (e.g., scatter shot, stronger bombs, etc.), to attribute upgrades. Attributes can also be downgraded by many of the relics, so it is important in the early portion to strike the best balance for your play style speed over bomb strength, defense over offense, and so on. By the end of the game, Lara is a decked-out war machine.
Combat provides only half the danger, though, with the rest coming from the environment itself. Pools of lava, regenerating exploding plants filled with poisonous gas, and bottomless chasms are just some of the dangerous that wait in the wild, along with the usual strange design decisions made by tomb architects: walls of spikes, pressure plate traps, and poorly supported bridges. Navigating around these hazards is a great deal of fun, thanks to some extremely clever puzzles that manage to challenge but rarely frustrate. Weapons also play a role in working around the various traps, with spears used as temporary footholds, bombs used to blow boulders around, and projectiles to flip levers. Using a combination of weapons, tools, and acrobatic feats, including rolling and ledge-grabbing, Lara will outrun runaway boulders, rappel down fire-rigged walls, and make desperate grabs for crumbling ledges. Special challenge rooms are also dotted around the areas offering rewards of permanent health and weapon upgrades, as well as relics, for those crafty enough to get to the treasure. Working out one of the multi-step solutions is very rewarding, though most puzzles, including the challenges, strike a sensible balance: head-scratchers that take a minute to figure out instead of vague roadblocks that halt progression.
Playing through the game solo is a great time, and now a friend can lend a hand. The second player assumes the role of Totec, who always scurries off during single player, and is the only way to control the ancient warrior. He also uses his spears as makeshift steps, as well as a shield that serves as protection against projectiles and as a temporary platform for Lara. He can also use firearms. The interplay between the characters is great as they swap roles between defender, attacker, the hold-up, and the way ahead. The post-release patch that allows for online co-op set to launch September 28, augmenting the single-system setup, will only add to the possibilities.
Even with help, there will be times when a ledge is missed or a trap is stumbled into due to the fixed isometric view. The game has several aids and cues to help make navigation smooth, including slight edges to indicate where a jump can be made and an auto ledge grab, but gauging depth can still tricky enough that it isn't uncommon to miss a seemingly solid landing. Frequent checkpoints mean that a few accidental deaths aren't a significant problem, but it can make some of the timed periods a little flustering. The controls, though, are uniformly excellent, with the right analog stick used to pull out and aim weapons, the left to navigate, and the directional pad and face buttons used to select and use items. Combat just feels satisfying with the setup, and navigating environmental obstacles is arcade-like and involved in a way that few more traditional 3D adventure titles manage.
As strong as Guardian of Light is, what seals the deal is its replayability. Each of the game's 14 areas are bit-sized, with the shortest (about five minutes) being races to an exit and the others topping out at about half an hour. Of course, once their secrets are unlocked from the initial playthrough, it'll be easier to get through them again and you'll want to play through them again. In addition to rewards for completing the game within certain time limits, there are rewards for reaching score milestones, collecting hidden skulls, and accomplishing a variety of other tasks finding hidden tiles, breaking so many vases, etc. The rewards come in the form of in- and out-game items, such as stronger weapon variants, which can then be used in older levels to deal out some delayed retribution, player outfits, relics, and 360 Avatar outfits. Of course, it helps that the controls and world design are so good to begin with, but the extras just make the experience all the better.
It's been years since I've had such a good time with a Tomb Raider title. Although this might not be a Tomb Raider proper, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is one of the best in the series and a must for action fans. At $15, this is a phenomenal value and the perfect example of just what download-only titles can offer.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)