The lights are on
What new ideas the game brings to the table and how well old ideas are presented.
How good a game looks, taking into account any flaws such as bad collision or pop-up.
Does the game’s music and sound effects get you involved or do they make you resolve to always play with the volume down?
Basically, the controller to human interface. The less you think about the hunk of plastic in your hands, the better the playability.
Flat out, just how fun the game is to play. The most important factor in rating a game.
Full disclosure: I love Lara Croft. It’s no secret, but worth putting out there all the same. My allegiance to the industry icon, however, is just that – to the character herself. I’ve played all the Tomb Raider games over the past decade, and Lady Lara always helped me trudge through the franchise follies, even when convoluted narratives and questionable gameplay decisions disconnected the game from the roots I found endearing.
My waning enthusiasm for the property halted when Crystal Dynamics reinvigorated the series with Tomb Raider: Legend, which promised a new direction for the seasoned franchise. The studio’s commitment to the IP and willingness to take risks is even more apparent in Guardian of Light, the first downloadable title in the franchise’s stable.
With a new isometric viewpoint, amplified combat, and co-op play, Guardian of Light’s many departures from traditional Tomb Raider gameplay are obvious. Despite the changes, the downloadable game feels more like a Tomb Raider experience than anything I’ve played of late. Bursting with exploration, puzzles, and platforming, the pace isn’t encumbered with unnecessary narrative, dialogue, or even character development. We know who Lara Croft is. We know what she does best. The shrouded forests of Central America are her playground, and we’re lucky enough to go along for the ride.
If you’re worried about this being a downloadable game, don’t fret. This isn’t the case of a franchise being reduced to a skeleton in the name of brainless fun. Lara’s library of moves isn’t truncated; the addition of artifacts and relics that augment Lara and her sidekick Totec’s stats encourages careful exploration. Some are rewards for completing challenges, while others must be located in dangerous environments. This allows Lara to evolve in a measurable way, unlike past Tomb Raider games.
The level design is as epic as ever, with puzzles spanning entire vistas littered with tunnels, tombs, torturous traps, and more. Challenge rooms are a new addition that make the game much more accessible. The more taxing experiences in the game are reserved for these optional tombs, but Lara will be rewarded with a bigger payout for besting them. Some challenge rooms require logic to solve puzzles, while others test your reflexes and shooting skills with deathly obstacle courses and waves of powerful foes.
Nothing surprised me more than how much I enjoyed co-op play.* The mode opens up new gameplay avenues with tools such as remote bombs and cooperative grapple moves. Many puzzles require cooperation, but the competitive element makes the adventure memorable. Though you and your partner share the same goals, a prominent score counter keeps both of you scrambling to get your hands on more gems and other objects of value than your partner. Speed runs, challenge tombs, and level-specific achievements each encourage replayability.
Despite the well-deserved accolades, a few problems remain. One would think the higher vantage point provided by the isometric camera would by default give you a better lay of the land, but the legacy camera problems occasionally return. I met my demise several times by falling off a hidden cliff after getting ambitious in my exploration. Sometimes I had a hard time making a jump because of an object obscuring my view. These issues are few and far between, though, and the punishment for death is little more than a -reduced -score.
In taking a chance with Guardian of Light, Crystal Dynamics rediscovered Lara’s latent potential. For those of you concerned with the direction this ancillary title has taken, rest easy. We now know that Lara Croft is as versatile as she is flexible.
* The debut of cooperative play in the Tomb Raider universe has been a highly touted component of Guardian of Light since it was first revealed. Early this month, Crystal Dynamics announced that online co-op play will not be enabled at launch on Xbox Live. Instead, online co-op will debut when the PSN and PC versions release on September 28. While we still stand by our review and thoroughly enjoyed the co-op component of Guardian of Light, consumers picking up the XBLA version of the game need to be aware that couch co-op will be the only multiplayer avenue available till late next month.