Remember when a new game starring Lara Croft was something to regard with eager anticipation rather than dread or apathy? Probably not. It would be generous to say that our adventures with Ms. Croft have been uneven in recent years, and it would be tough to blame anyone for having written her off long ago. Hopefully you can find it within yourself to forgive Lara her trespasses, if only long enough to try Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. It cuts away everything that's gone wrong with Tomb Raider and strips the series down to its essentials: fanciful enemies, inventive platforming and ancient treasure. The result is unreservedly, unrelentingly, unabashedly fun.
The plot, such as it is, involves the accidentally-resurrected evil god Xolotl vowing to bathe the world in blood, the way malevolent entities are wont to do. Off he runs through the jungle, leaving you with no choice but to follow. As fate would have it, your path happens to wind through several temples and tombs, all stuffed to the rafters with treasure, traps, and monsters of various ilks. Surely the apocalypse will hold off long enough for you to grab a little loot, right? Right.
The core of Guardian of Light is in keeping with Tomb Raiders of yore, but in most ways is pared way, way down. The controls are elegantly simple: everything you do - jumping, aiming, shooting, using your grappling hook - is done with a single button press. The complexity of the game comes from the brilliantly intricate level design and how Lara's abilities can be combined to solve the environmental puzzles. Throwing a spear into the wall provides a makeshift ladder; detonating a bomb in the right spot will send an enormous boulder flying onto a ledge it couldn't otherwise reach.
The game's environments are huge, with lots of tidbits waiting to reward those who take the time to explore, but keep your finger on the trigger, because Xolotl's minions are almost always waiting to eat your face. Combat is reminiscent of arcade shooters; hold down the right trigger to lay down a constant spray of fire while you direct your shot with the right thumbstick. Your base weapon will never run out of ammo, but you can unlock and collect more powerful weapons that consume resources at different rates, too. Stat-altering artifacts and superpower relics are also waiting to be found, either by completing one of the level's objectives or solving one of the game's many optional "challenge rooms." Challenge rooms are typically centered on a single puzzle, while level goals include everything from finding all the hidden skulls to crossing a river without getting wet. Health and ammo-bar upgrades round out the list of items on your "to find" list. You don't have to collect a single thing to finish the game, but you'll appreciate the added oomph they provide. Even better, you keep whatever you've earned when you go back and replay levels, which can make for some very satisfying payback when revisiting sequences that proved particularly thorny the first time around.
Just about everything in Guardian of Light is scaled down, including Lara herself. Rather than trailing behind and watching over her shoulder, this time we're looking at her from on high in an isometric view. While this removes the need to fiddle with the camera, it does make the platforming a bit awkward at times, and you'll plummet to your death more than a few times simply because you misjudged a distance. The view does let you see wide expanses of your environments, however, which helps when you're being swarmed by enemies or are trying to figure out a puzzle.
Guardian of Light is a brilliant and satisfying single-player experience, but its co-op is just as fantastic. Totec - the actual Guardian of Light himself - serves as a worthy companion to Lara, blocking arrows with his shield, giving her a boost to high ledges, walking her grappling line like a tightrope, and taking out enemies with a vengeance. The level design changes slightly to accommodate two players, removing or adding features so that players are forced to work together in order to progress. Often in co-op situations, Player 2 is made to feel like a somewhat useless tagalong, there to mop up whatever Player 1 doesn't feel like handling, but Totec and Lara are partners.
The co-op play is, unfortunately, also home to Guardian of Light's one enormous, glaring flaw: it's local only. Being able to smack your buddy for blowing up the jeep right when you're standing next to it (I'm looking at you, Funk) is loads of fun, but being unable to enjoy such excellent gameplay with friends online is heartbreaking. An update is, hopefully, not too far in the future, but its presence is sorely missed in the meantime.
Bottom Line: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is sensational, offering both fully realized single player and co-op experiences. It's gorgeous, clever, and a brilliant new vision for the franchise.
Recommendation: Grumble about the lack of online co-op while it's downloading, then get ready to enjoy the hell out of it.
Game: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: August 18th, 2010
Platform(s): XBLA (PSN, PC releases scheduled)
Available from: Xbox.com
This review was based on the XBLA version of the game.
Susan Arendt thinks Lara is skinny enough to squeeze through some of those doors with the crazy locking mechanisms. Just saying.