The Tomb Raider series has always been a love-hate relationship with me. On one hand, the original Tomb Raider was one of my favourite games of all time on the PS1, while on the other it seems like the series started to get progressively worse as it went on (Im looking at you Angel of Darkness). Every time a new Tomb Raider came out Id buy it like a sucker and always be disappointed, making me wonder what happened to the Lara I used to know and love. To be fair, the last few games have been pretty well done and made me no longer cringe while playing them, but it still wasnt up to par as it was when it first released.
Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix are making a new start for Lara Croft after so many disappointing games. If anyone deserves another change, its certainly Lara, as she was Time Magazines first video game sex symbol; even Angelina Jolie played her in the movie adaptations, so she must have some weight behind her brand.
What makes this new title so different? Well for one, youll notice the complete lack of Tomb Raider in the title. This is also the first digital online downloadable title for the series which seems to fit this new style very well. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (GOL for short) has always switched gears and is made to be a co-operative experience both offline and online, though online will be coming in September which Ill give more details to later on.
The other major change is that its no longer the behind the back thirst person adventure game weve come to expect from a Tomb Raider title, now we are given a top-down isometric viewpoint with a fixed camera that cant be moved. At first glance, it will instantly remind you of Diablo or Dungeon Siege but there are some more mechanics that make it more than a hack-and-slash that games in in viewpoint are accustomed to.
Lara Croft is an archaeologist that hunts down relics and artifacts; the game starts with her finding the long lost Temple of Light. Shes in search for an ancients prized artifacts called the Mirror of Smoke and eventually finds it, but what would a Tomb Raider game be without someone ambushing Lara to steal it away moments later. Vasco is an evil mercenary that holds Lara up at gunpoint and steals the artifact from her which releases an evil entity named Xolotl that was trapped within the mirror itself. Xolotl kills Vasco and during all this confusion, Totec, the Guardian of Light is awakened. Totec and Lara now have to join sides to hunt down and find Xolotl before its too late for world doom. Sure, its a little cheesy for a plot, but the interaction between Lara and Totec is quite entertaining along the way.
The campaign will hurl you through 14 giant environments with many puzzles and platforming sections along the way which many Tomb Raider fans will love. The other half of the game is the equal parts shooter that will have you taking down enemies with Laras signature dual pistols (complete with her infinite ammo) or Totecs spears.
Combat is very simple and is reminiscent of many twin-stick shooters like Geometry wars and many others. You move your character with the left stick, right stick is for aiming, and the right trigger will fire your weapon. Simple to get the hang of since you dont need to worry about the camera at all due to it being fixed at all times. You can also jump and dodge-roll out of harms way and combat in a whole is very simple and satisfying.
Levels design shines through when you start to get to the puzzle aspects of GOL and even though the game as a whole is very linear, it doesnt feel like its linear which is a very challenging to accomplish. Sure you may constantly being going from point A to point B, but the way its all laid out, it give a sense of freedom with all the minor detours you can take to find the many hidden bonuss such as gems for points or upgrade items should you choose to.
There are special challenge rooms that will have you in a small section or room with a puzzle to figure out. They start out easy and eventually get to the point of controller-throwing frustration, but thats part of the charm and keeps the longevity of the title going. Completing these special challenge rooms will grant you with a special bonus or an artifact that can augment your character (almost like perks) in any way you wish. This means you can eventually customize your Lara to suit your play style, such as +speed, +damage, or other options. Some bonus findings will even grant you a permanent boost in health or ammo. Every level also has a checklist of special challenges such as beating a stage or boss in a set time, finding all the secret Red Skulls, or finishing a puzzle in a specific way. Some are quite fun to attempt and I know Ive gone back to some of the levels a few times to try these challenges multiple times. Most of the puzzles are very clever and were quite challenging that took two of us to figure out (hence the emphasis on co-op).
As mentioned before, Lara retains her signature weapons, but he also gets access to her grapple hook as well that will be used for more than just swinging from sections to sections. If youre playing co-op, you can latch onto special rings with the hook and Totec can run across gaps on it. It can even be used to save Totec from falling off the side of a cliff in those dire situations.
Totec has access to an infinite amount of throwable spears (Lara gets these as well in single player) and can be used as a weapon, but they will also stick into any wall they are thrown at. These in turn can be used as steps for Lara to use to gain higher ground, but Totec is too heavy and will crush in his own weight.
Totec also gets access to a shield than can be used normally to block incoming attacks and projectiles, but can also be held over his head so that Lara can jump on top and then reach higher ledges. You can start to see all of the co-op elements coming into play here with all these different combinations.
GOL has been touted as a co-op heavy experience; while you dont necessarily need to play with a friend, I highly recommend doing so as this is where the games structure truly shines. In multiplayer, one player is Lara and the other is Totecobviously. Whats unique about playing co-operatively though is how the level design slightly changes. Puzzles will be different based on if you are playing single or multiplayer, though the level itself structurally stays the same. This means more than just the simple pull two levers at the same time, theres actually quite a difference in some of the puzzles depending on if Totec is playing or not. When you are playing single player, only Lara is in the game (and has access to Totecs spears) because the devs didnt want players to get frustrated having to rely on AI to help them (Lego games are a great reasoning for this frustration).
Much like many co-op games, there is also some built in competition naturally. Do you grab all the health and gems for yourself or do you let your partner share in your findings? Its a fun scoring system that doesnt make you pit against each other at the same time.
The only downfall about this co-op experience? Well, you wont be able to do it over Xbox Live until September 28th, well over a month past the release. This means you are going to have to do it the old fashioned way and call a buddy over to play with you until the patch arrives next month. While I do have to dock it for not having this ready at launch, dont let it deter you from choosing the game or not as even single screen co-op can hold its own.
Crystal Dynamics has already stated that GOL will be getting 5 separate DLC packs which are expected to come out during the fall. Luckily 360 owners will be getting the first DLC pack for free (Im assuming as a sorry for the online co-op delay) and the different DLC packs will contain new maps, puzzles, and even new characters to play.
GOL might not look like a Tomb Raider title, but it keeps the feel intact with the gunplay, puzzle solving, and platforming over dangerous traps. Multiplayer isnt a necessity, but its definitely an advantage and much more rewarding and I strongly suggest getting a friend over to play it with. Surprisingly, a playthrough will take 6-10 hours depending on how much you like to hunt for all the bonus goodies, but many playthroughs exists due to all the puzzle challenges. Im going out on a limb and saying that GOL is this years Shadow Complex in terms of quality and quantity of gameplay (even with the snafu of the online co-op delay).
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light may not have the Tomb Raider brand in the title, but dont let that fool you; this reimagining of the series sets the bar very high and I hope to see more from Lara and can only imagine the possibilities of a sequel on a full disc release. Pick it up and enjoy it and when the online patch comes out late September, play it all over again with your friends.