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Oddball Review: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light

When I first heard about Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, the new Xbox Live Arcade title from Crystal Dynamics, I didn’t think it was going to be that good. Although my enjoyment of the Tomb Raider franchise is well documented — with one exception — this isn’t technically a Tomb Raider game. See, the words don’t even appear in the title and stuff.

More importantly, though, this game departs from the usual retail disc experience of Tomb Raider as well as the core gameplay foundation that its fans have become used to. Rather than a single-player adventure game that has you jumping, climbing and cavorting your way through exotic locations in search of some ancient artifact, Lara Croft: GoL is an isometic action game that focuses much more on combat. Because combat has traditionally been one of the weakest features of the Tomb Raider series, I was not hopeful.

I was also, as it turns out, wrong.

This is a really good game — in fact, I see it as the 2010 Summer of Arcade equivalent of last year’s Shadow Complex, which I also loved and discussed here. It is, in fact, the first time I’ve ever actually enjoyed the hell out of combat in a game starring Lara Croft. You’ll notice I didn’t say “in a Tomb Raider game”, because as I’ve noted, this technically isn’t one. (Hee…you see what Crystal Dynamics did there?)

Furthermore, GoL departs from the single-player roots that traditionally underpin the adventures of Ms. Croft. This is a game with an entire cooperative element fully baked in, where you and a friend each take a leading role — one playing Lara, and the other playing Totec, the Guardian of Light himself. Totec is an Aztec god who was awakened by some greedy bad guys when they attempted to steal the ancient Mirror of Smoke, in which the evil god Xolotl was imprisoned. Xolotl escaped and began to summon his horde of evil from the Negaverse abyss, and it’s Lara and Totec’s job to rein him in again.

Graphically, Lara Croft: GoL runs on the same engine that powers the most recent Tomb Raider games, but it’s been reworked to provide players with an isometric perspective that shows you looking down on the playing field from slightly above. It’s a lot like Dungeon Siege and other isometric dungeon crawlers of old, actually, except the gameplay is a little simpler: there are no magic spells or skill trees to build up. GoL trades these for some platforming elements that old-school Tomb Raider fans should feel right at home with: climbing, grappling, swinging and more, although pared down a bit and presented in a more rudimentary fashion.

The gunplay is simply a joy to experience. Although the firearm sound effects are a bit on the weak side, my complaints end there: levels are filled with a wide variety of baddies that you can dispatch with an equally wide variety of weapons, ranging from pistols and shotguns to flamethrowers and throwing spears. The spears, in fact, are not just weapons but also useful tools that help you climb and reach areas that would otherwise be inaccessible to you. The action reminded me a lot of classic Doom: tons o’ enemies, tons o’ guns, tons o’ destruction.

Speaking of destruction, Lara has a new weapon at her disposal here: remote bombs. They’re basically what you’d expect: tiny explosives that you can set anywhere by pressing the Y button, then detonate at any time by pressing Y again. Lots of objects in the world are destructible, and the sounds stuff makes when it blows sky high more than makes up for the wimpy gunshots. I often want to cackle like a mad scientist as shards of broken wood, metal and glass rain down from the sky in the aftermath of a bomb detonation! The only trouble is that you can set and detonate just one bomb at a time, but this is part of the strategy.

What I found most fun of all was the vast array of challenges that the game offers. Each of the 14 levels has a list of “extra credit” goals you can attempt to accomplish, ranging from collecting 10 red skull artifacts to jumping over a spinning deathtrap a certain number of times in a row without being hit. Completing each goal rewards you with something like a new weapon, longer health and ammo bars, or a special powerup artifact, which is something else the game is chock full of. These powerups are modifiers that you can equip two of at a time to alter and enhance your abilities. Most of them have a tradeoff effect; for example, one artifact might boost your weapon power while simultaneously weakening your defense stat. There are also challenges for maximum score and fastest time, giving you plenty of incentive to replay each level. (I think I replayed the first one about ten times this weekend, and I still have one challenge left unfinished!)

You’ll notice that I haven’t really touched on the cooperative gameplay aspect at all. Although this has been a huge marketing point for Lara Croft: GoL, the game had to be released with online co-op play disabled because it’s not finished yet. A free update will be made available on September 28th to add this feature back into the game, but in the meantime you can still play offline co-op with your friends who are in the same physical room as you. Additionally, as a “make good” gesture, Crystal Dynamics is offering the first downloadable content pack (of a planned five total) free of charge to anyone who buys Lara Croft: GoL during the interim. These DLC packs, incidentally, are rumored to contain new levels, new puzzles, and even new playable characters from the Square Enix IP library.

With the exception of a few minor complaints — poor weapon sounds and really cheesy voice acting from everyone except Keeley Hawes, who voices Lara to her usual professional level — I’m quite taken with this game. It’s a wonderful addition to not only the Tomb Raider franchise (though not in name) but also the Xbox Live Arcade library. To date I have purchased only three or four full games from XBL Arcade, preferring to save my hard-earned Microsoft Points for the best of the best, and Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light absolutely qualifies in my book.

If you’re not convinced, no problem: there’s a free trial available for download (at a hefty 2 GB) that lets you play the first level as much as you want, including all of the challenges and such, before you decide. Instead of relying on a review, give the game a try for yourself. It certainly convinced me.

Oddball Verdict: Emphatically yes, Brock.