Shining New Light on a Fading Franchise
Since Tomb Raider’s introduction to the world about a decade and a half ago, the series has assimilated several different gameplay structures and some were better received than others. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light branches off into an entirely new direction, one that I am sure no one would have predicted. Dropping the “Tomb Raider” name completely from the title, Lara Croft’s name has taken center stage and the change is most welcomed.
The Guardian of Light takes gameplay elements from several other high quality gaming titles and merges them into one tasty cocktail. The isometric view point is borrowed from Diablo, the combat mechanics are taken from Geometry Wars, and the puzzle solving and platforming is used from, well, Tomb Raider. Using the second analog stick to aim and fire your weapon mixes so well with the isometric platforming puzzle style of gameplay, it is a complete mystery as to why games like Guardian of Light have not come around more often. Simply put, the controls just feel right, resulting in quite the entertaining gaming experience.
Lara Croft’s defining solo outing also contains another unique first: co-op. In order to stop an ancient demon, Lara and her new Aztec pal Totek are on a quest for the Mirror of Smoke. Tomb Raider’s heavy vibe on puzzle solving is still the focus of the game but now a buddy can help tackle these brain teasers. Totek’s shield can be used in combination with Lara’s grapple hook to reach new heights and solve puzzles in creative ways.
When playing solo, Lara will be venturing by herself – no AI controlled bot Totek. But when the game is released on 8-18-10, it is will support same sofa co-op only; no online co-op will be supported. However, a free patch will be released alongside the PSN version to support full online co-op sometime towards the end of September. So if you are expecting to play online co-op right out of the gate, you will have to wait about a month to do so. But if you wanted to take advantage of Microsoft Summer of Arcade rebate program, you should not hesitate to purchase the full version. Puzzles and level design are also slightly adjusted depending if you are going for a solo or co-op outing.
The game features many weapons, from spears to shotguns to automatics, but each character also has some unique abilities. Lara’s grapple hook can be attached to anything with a gold anchor point. Once attached, her co-op buddy can tightrope walk to the other side, or the grapple hook can be attached to Totek and he can be used as an weighted anchor. Totek’s shield can be used as a stepping stone to reach higher platforms and to deflect projectiles while his spear can be thrown into a wall which then becomes a climbable ledge. Both character’s unique abilities bring a nice balance to the co-op experience and allows for clever puzzle and level design.
As if the solid and entertaining gameplay and level design wasn’t enough to please players, the developers added optional mission objectives to provide extra incentive for completionists. Each stage usually has the basic “collect the 10 hidden red skulls,” “reach a certain point total,” and “complete the stage in a certain amount of time,” but there are also level specific challenges to increase replay value. These extra objects are also tied into some Achievement Points, give the game a slight RPG touch, and provide extended gameplay without being tedious. Again, it is another aspect of the game that is well balanced.
The Guardian of Light is also a great looking XBLA game…and it better be due to the game’s large file size. With a download size over 2GB, this could be one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, XBLA file size game to date. Each stage tends be vertically designed, allowing the player to see well into the distance. It is pretty cool to determine where you are going to travel to next or possibly even see things that you might have missed from the game’s great vantage points. Many enemies are highly detailed and well animated, but there are rare instances of cheap hit detection, like when fighting the large dinosaur earlier in the game, but it is hardly a make-or-break situation. It might have been nice to experience more in-game cutscenes as opposed to still comic book style images to display the plotlines, but again, not the biggest complaint. However, I find it funny that whenever there is a cutscene using the in-game engine, the camera always turns to the talking character’s back so the animators did not have to sync mouth animation to the voice actor’s dialog, taking the cheap way out.
Speaking of voice acting and the other audio qualities of the game, the music and sound effects are reminiscent of previous Tomb Raider games, but the voice acting isn’t of the highest quality; it is definitely not Resident Evil 1 bad, but not Metal Gear quality. But for a 1200 MS Point game ($15), no one will really complain about the backseat presentation of the plotline. Not the plot or presentation is of poor quality, not by a long shot, but it stands as the dullest light bulb in this brightly lit room.
Besides the lack of initial online co-op, the only other major complain is the auto-save feature. The game auto-saves basically each time the player enters a new section of the level, and in some cases, can happen every 15-30 seconds. Each time the game saves, there is a stutter in the framerate but is not the end of the world. The biggest problem is lack of save slots – the game only has one. In one of the early stages, I could not retrace my steps after a bridge collapsed behind me. But it was not until after I reached the point of no return did I realize that I missed a couple of Red Skulls, preventing me from achieving a better score. The only way to obtain these missing collectibles was to restart the 30-40 minute level all over again. For the most part, auto-saving can be a welcomed feature, but there are always going to be times when the player will want to be in control of when to create a manual checkpoint.
Lara Croft and Guardian of Light is a fun and great controlling game. It looks great, contains solid gameplay, and has a wonderful sense of balance in almost every aspect. This complete overhaul of the Tomb Raider name has taken one giant step in the right direction from this rapidly declining franchise. Although you will need some patience for the online co-op functionally to be activated, the Guardian of Light is an entertaining game whether you play it solo or with a friend. It is a great way to conclude the 2010 Summer of Arcade.
Better Than: every other Tomb Raider game
Also Try: Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand (GBA)
Wait For It: a Gex sequel
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