Lara Croft & The Guardian of Light
Although a cultural and videogame icon, the Tomb Raider series has arguably fallen foul of the law of diminishing returns, with the barnstorming – and groundbreaking – original and its solid sequel being followed by a slow and steady descent that culminated in the horror that was Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness. While recent efforts (Tomb Raider: Legend and Tomb Raider: Underworld) saw a return to form, both titles were overshadowed by the exploits of a certain Nathan Drake; just as Lara had taken up the archaeological-adventure crown from Indiana Jones, it had similarly been wrestled away by Naughty Dog and Uncharted.
Whether through circumstance or by design, Tomb Raider found itself at a cross roads, facing up to the very real threat of looking like an old fashioned hanger-on in comparison to Drake’s cutting edge, fresh-as-a-daisy adventures. Rather than attempt to directly lock horns with the competition, developer Crystal Dynamics has chosen to take the series in a new (downloadable) direction. And thusly, we arrive at Lara Croft & The Guardian of Light, a game that turns its back on the series’ trademark 3D-platforming and assumes a (somewhat old-fashioned) isometric viewpoint. This new direction could be seen as an embarrassing retreat away from a genre that the series once ruled, but such an assessment would be inaccurate, as Lara Croft & The Guardian of Light manages to stay true to the series’ roots, while justifying its existence as a new branch on the Tomb Raider family tree.
On paper, the idea of an isometric Tomb Raider doesn’t sound that appealing, no doubt bringing to mind the underwhelming isometric excursions of other much-loved videogame characters (Sonic 3D, we’re looking at you!). Fortunately, in practice it works rather wonderfully for a number of reasons. Most obviously, it’s refreshing to view Lara Croft’s world from a whole new angle; they say ‘a change is as good as a rest’, and that is absolutely the case here. The shift in perspective also has a large impact on the gameplay, enabling remarkably dynamic level and puzzle design as well as facilitating combat to rival some of the best twin-stick shooters out there.
The viewpoint also enables a huge increase in the pace of the gameplay. Lara herself is dynamic as ever (the usual death-defying leaps, finger-tip ledge-hanging, dodges and rolls are present and correct), but gone is the shuffling that the series often demanded to line up precision jumps. While this may niggle with hardcore fans, there’s no denying that The Guardian of Light’s brings a new sense of freshness to the series.
Lara also has a range of gadgets at her beck and call, all of which are intelligently interwoven with the level and puzzle design. Her two main tools are a spear (that can be used as a weapon or driven into walls to create an ad-hoc platform) and a zip-line for abseiling, climbing and swinging across gaps. In terms of combat, there is a surprisingly large arsenal of weaponry available; from the trademark twin pistols to rocket launchers and mini-guns; Lara Croft has always been deftly capable of handling fire-arms, but here she enters army-of-one territory.
The single player campaign is lengthy and varied, with very little dead-wood or flabbiness; it features a constant flow of new challenges and puzzles that stretch your grey-matter as much as your reflexes. While the usual switch and lever puzzles are present, the game constantly demands imaginative and interesting use of your toolset, and very rarely feels stale. Additionally, there are numerous, optional challenge rooms scattered throughout the maps that can be tackled to obtain stat-increasing power-ups. The platforming is also pleasingly varied and demanding.
Structurally, there is very little here to criticise with Crystal Dynamics showcasing an impressive understanding of the isometric viewpoint and the benefits that it can bring. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the plot, which is extremely thin. The game opens with the mythical Mirror of Smoke being removed from its cradle wich unleashes the evil demon, Xolotl, from his slumber. What follows is essentially a drawn out chase sequence as Lara and her new companion, Totec (the Guardian of Light of the title) pursue Xolotl and attempt to prevent him from dragging the world into darkness. It is a hackneyed, unoriginal and uninspiring narrative that fails to live up to the taught design on show in the rest of the game. That being said, we do have a soft spot for the remarkably one-dimensional Xolotl; a character who manages to encompass the full span of Saturday morning cartoon villains and who’s sole raison d’etre is to cackle manically while reiterating that a) Lara will never stop him, b) he’s very evil and c) the world is doomed. As a character, Lara herself as a character is somewhat lost, partly due to the zoomed-out view point and partly due to the fact she features in very few noteworthy cutscenes.
The Guardian of Light’s other big addition to the series is the introduction of co-operative play. Unfortunately, our time spent with this aspect of the game was somewhat limited, mainly due to the fact the much hyped online co-op has still not implemented (nearly two months after the game made its debut on the Xbox 360!). That being said the offline co-op works very well; player 2 takes control of Totec, and the games puzzles and platforming are re-worked to require communication and co-operation in order to over come them. When the online set up is finally introduced, it will round off the package nicely.
Regardless of whether Lara Croft: The Guardian of Light marks the future of the series or if is merely a side-project while the next full instalment is prepped and polished, it remains a remarkably successful experiment, and something of a bench-mark for downloadable gaming. The sumptuous visuals are married to engaging and addictive gameplay and there is enough content and collectibles to keep you playing for quite some time. Playstation 3 and PC owners were no doubt disappointed to find out that they would have to wait to get hands on The Guardian of Light, but now it is available we’d encourage them to take a look at what Xbox 360 owners have been enjoying for some time.
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