Title: “Lara Croft: The Guardian of Light”
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Release Date: August 19, 2010
Overall rating: 9.0
Lasting Appeal: 8.5
Overall rating includes additional factors including value
I have to admit, when the announcement surfaced that Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics would release an all-new “Tomb Raider” game only through digital download, I was a bit underwhelmed by the idea. Why not just focus all their attention on the next full-length retail installment of the franchise?
After my first play-through of “Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light,” however, I can safely say that this chapter in Lara’s adventures will easily become one of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences for not only “Tomb Raider” diehards, but also for any newcomer to the franchise.
“Guardian of Light” starts out simply. A graphic novel-style opening cut-scene sets up the “plot” – if you want to call it that – with Lara discovering an artifact called the Mirror of Smoke, only to have it snatched away by a team of mercenaries who unwittingly release the evil Aztec god Xolotl.
And that’s it story-wise.
Thankfully, though, a flimsy plot devoid of development or twists seamlessly segues into a non-stop isometric adventure that couples puzzle-solving with relentless action. What you come away with is an old-school adventure title that feels more like a hybrid of Lara’s original 1996 adventure and Jordan Mechner’s classic “Prince of Persia” from 1989, but with all the high-def trappings of current-gen systems.
Played on a 46” Samsung HDTV, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, graphically, stands out as one of the prettiest games you will find for digital download, with character models as well as foreground and background details reaching a level of quality I have not seen in a digital title since “Shadow Complex.” Each level is massive in scale for a downloadable game, fraught with endless waves of enemies and challenging puzzles. More often than not, you’ll find that the detailed backgrounds are either places you’ve already visited, or portions of the level you are trying to reach. The massive scope created by such clever level design is quite an accomplishment.
The one graphical weakness? Lara and her co-stars don’t have animated mouths. A strange omission on the part of the designers to be sure, but not a game-killer as the cut-scenes scattered throughout each level are shot in such a way that character faces are either angled away from the camera or far enough away that the lack of animation is not noticeable, even on the aforementioned 46” Samsung. I was well into the game before I even noticed the deliberate angling of faces. Only in a few rare instances did it seem out of place, if only slightly. A minor hiccup in an otherwise stellar-looking game.
In the game-play department, Guardian of Light will never leave you disappointed. The controls are simple and intuitive, with combat being handled like any twin-stick shooter but with some of Lara’s signature gadgets and abilities added in. Combat is fast and frenetic, never letting up until the credits roll. A myriad of unlockable weapons enable you to hold your own against larger and more powerful waves of enemies as the game progresses. Special artifacts and relics collected throughout the game can upgrade your abilities and ammo power as long as you can survive combat without taking damage. Puzzles, a staple of the “Tomb Raider” franchise, gradually become more and more challenging the further you progress, but never become so complicated that the game ceases to be fun (yes, I’m looking at you, “Tomb Raider III”). Instead, puzzles feel like a natural progression of the experience, challenging you to use your imagination in certain situations and never leaving you feeling like the game is holding your hand. Instead, the more mind-bending puzzles are relegated to optional “puzzle rooms” that you can keep an eye out for. While these can be bypassed if the player so chooses, taking them on will reap the benefits of special items that cannot be obtained otherwise.
While the game can be tackled solo, “Guardian of Light” truly stands out when taken on with a partner. Player Two, taking on the role of Aztec guardian Totec, has his own set of weapons and abilities. Rather than feeling like a tacked-on second hero, choosing to play cooperatively will tweak the puzzles so that both players have to work together to survive. No lone wolves in the co-op campaign. Crystal Dynamics obviously built this from the ground up to be a two player game, and it shows. The real fun is found in working with a friend.
Most players will clock in their first play-through at around five or six hours. Not a long experience, but better than most of what you find for digital download titles these days. At fifteen dollars, this is not one to pass up. Being able to go back and look for everything you might have missed, or to take on those challenges you failed the first time through, all while keeping those power ups and weapons you already unlocked, means that you can crank up the difficulty, try out some new approaches to the levels, and still continue to enjoy yourself. Replay value is essential for digital titles these days, and “Lara Croft,” with all of its unlockables, challenges, extra costumes, as well as a different experience for single player and co-op mode and the promise of additional add-ons, will certainly have players coming back for more. I haven’t had this much fun with a “Tomb Raider” title since “Legend,” and I can’t wait for the inevitable sequel.