Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
In recent years, Lara Croft regained her groove with entries like Anniversary, Legend and Underworld, but she still hasn't fully crawled out of the abyss
- A seamless blend of the series' trademark puzzling, exploration and combat gameplay in a neat new package
- Isometric camera occasionally plays tricks on you; story and voice acting is bare bones at best, cringe-inducing at worst; online co-op missing at launch
Focusing less on her tight tops and short shorts, Guardian of Light lets Lara Croft do what she does best: kick ass, collect treasure, and decipher brain-bending puzzles. The addition of co-op and several other game-changing tweaks only serve to complement this can't-miss formula.
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Way back in 1996, sometime between mourning Tupac and being subjected to Space Jam, the world was introduced to Lara Croft, a little lady with a big chest. The unlikely videogame protagonist, whose credit in the original Tomb Raider was reduced to a "Featuring Lara Croft" at the bottom of the box, proved videogame stars didn't need bulging muscles and frat boy attitudes to get things done. Armed with dual pistols, a sharp mind, and sexy bod, she redefined what a videogame hero could be. Sadly, Lara became famous for her looks, and most of her subsequent games relied on her ogle-worthy assets rather than the smart blend of exploration, puzzling and combat gameplay that garnered the original such success.
In recent years, Lara regained her groove with entries like Anniversary, Legend and Underworld, but she still hasn't fully crawled out of the abyss she was dropped into by titles like Angel of Darkness, which, in my opinion, is arguably the series' lowest point. It's interesting then to see Lara star in a game that finally positions her for the comeback she so deserves, especially one that strays so far from the Tomb Raider formula that made her a star.
Admittedly, Guardian of Light is smaller in scope than the titles we're used to, and it almost seems like it's meant to keep Lara fresh in our minds while Crystal Dynamics preps her next "real" adventure. But don't let its reduced price tag or DLC aesthetic fool you—Guardian of Light is the best Tomb Raider game I've played in years. Maybe it was a more modest budget or lowered expectations, but something freed up Lara's handlers to take some chances and kill some sacred cows. For starters, the game is a download-only entry with a focus on co-op play, two firsts for the franchise. It also sports a new isometric perspective which, god forbid, doesn't allow gamers to get too close to Lara; this means no more panning the camera up her thighs or down her shirt (not that I ever did that).
These changes have already been well publicized, but lesser aspects like the dual-stick combat, RPG-like upgrades, and the amazing visuals also help make this a refreshing take on the series. Everything you've come to expect from Lara—environmental puzzle solving, exploration, firefights—is in Guardian of Light, but it's presented with more cohesiveness than I'd ever seen in a Lara Croft title. No longer did I feel like I was in a "combat level" or a "puzzle section"; all elements, from filling baddies full of lead to wrapping my noggin' around a complex contraption, seamlessly formed a seat-of-the-pants experience that'd make Indiana Jones envious.
The co-op also adds an interesting layer to the gameplay, giving you the ability to play alongside a buddy as Totec, the titular protector of the light. The two characters complement each other with specialised abilities that encourage teamwork, something the level design requires to progress. At the heart of this collaboration is Lara's grappling hook and Totec's spear, used separately or in conjunction; Totec, for example, can balance across Lara's grappling line, while she can climb on his wall-planted spears. Both can also carry up to four weapons, allowing them to tear through all manner of not-of-this-world beasties; from baddie barbecuing flame-throwers to face-ventilating hand cannons, a brimming variety of guns and gadgets can be assigned to the D-pad for quick access. Arsenals are further rounded out with unlimited mines that can be detonated from a distance and athletic abilities such as evasion and jump moves.
Complementing the mad spelunking and slaying skills is a variety of RPG-like upgrades that can be applied by collecting points, artifacts and relics. Some will add passive perks, like an increased life bar, while others yield more in-your-face explosive advantages. Experimenting with new items and upgrading your character quickly becomes an addictive game-within-the-game, especially as more goodies are added to your stash. There's plenty to be discovered on the critical path, but optional Challenge Rooms offer even more rewards for especially brave treasure hunters.
Tying it all together is an eye-popping presentation that looks more AAA than DLC. Fantastic lighting and shadowing tricks, immersive water and explosion effects, and varied environments bursting with detail generously fill out Guardian of Light's world. Additionally, the zoomed-out camera gives way to epic vistas panning over areas you've just traversed or ones yet to be discovered. The only drawback the isometric view has is it makes tricky jumps more difficult than necessary; more than once I ended up skewered on a spike because I couldn't quite grasp the angle. Guardian of Light's barely-there story and cheesy dialogue also tarnish the otherwise polished package.
Lady Lara's return shines brightest during co-op play—which, unfortunately, doesn't get online support until next month—but it makes for a damn fine solo run in the interim (when you're alone, Totec is dropped from the equation, but the game compensates by slightly altering the puzzles and abilities). But whether you venture out with a pal or on your own, Guardian of Light is like a breath of fresh air in a corpse-cluttered tomb, and it signals a triumphant return for one of gaming's most iconic heroines.
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