With the recent Tomb Raider Trilogy completed, Crystal Dynamics is looking to the digital download space to provide a fresh take on the classic franchise formula. We got a first look at Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light this morning, and found that ditching the Tomb Raider moniker is one of the less significant changes Crystal Dynamics has implemented. The isometric action/adventure boasts co-op play and arcade-inspired combat, both a first for the venerable franchise.

The seeds of the story are planted two thousand years ago, when a battle waged between armies of good and evil over a powerful artifact known as the Mirror of Smoke. Totec, the leader of the Army of Light, triumphed over his evil counterpart, Xolotl, and took control of the mirror, banishing Xolotl from the world and becoming the Guardian of Light. Totec entombed himself in the mirror within the Temple of Light to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. Millennia later, enter Lara Croft. The mirror caught the eye of Lady Lara Croft, who finally discovered the temple that houses the artifact deep within the jungles of Central America. However, in a less-than-courteous exchange, the mirror is snatched away from her by a mercenary group that has been tracking her every move. With the mirror removed from the Temple of Light, Xolotl returns to power, kills the mercenaries, and vanishes. Totec also reanimates, blaming Lara for her carelessness, but realizing that they must work together to get back the Mirror of Smoke and avoid an eternal darkness blanketing the world.

The riskiest change to the Tomb Raider formula is the inclusion of co-op. Playing as Lady Lara and Totec, the pair will battle their way through hoards of Xolotl’s minions, solve puzzles, and traverse through ruins via a single-screen interface that allows for online and offline co-op.

Combat and puzzle elements seem to be getting equal time in the limelight. Lara continues to wield her trademark dual pistols, which have infinite ammo to keep her in the fray. Her handy grapple also returns – a key tool for solving co-op challenges. Totec is armed with a massive shield and unlimited spears, both of which have combat and puzzle solving applications. Totec can use his shield as a portable platform to give Lara extra height, or can chuck spears at the wall for Lara to vault from. Conversely, Lara can throw her grapple to create a tightrope for Totec to cross, or perform a leap of faith, catching him mid-jump to pull him across an expanse. Totec has embraced modern technology to a degree, using a rifle if the situation warrants it. The pair also has unlimited landmines, which can be used in combat or for interacting with environmental objects.

If one player falls in battle, their co-op partner has a limited time to revive them friend before a respawn, with a significant hit taken off their health. Most puzzles will keep players near each other, but the camera will pan out dynamically if the duo needs to split apart momentarily.

In our demo we found Lara and Totec searching for the Spider Tomb, an integral location in the narrative. The execution of the level was intentionally non-linear, allowing the pair to pull up a map and survey the entire area as needed. To enter the Spider Tomb the duo needed to collect four plates and insert them into receded sections of the temple floor. While the main goal was collecting these plates, along the way the team highlighted a challenge tomb, which is essentially a non-critical, optional gameplay area. These challenge tombs will reward players with artifacts and points if bested, and we are promised that they will test the grit of puzzle fans.

As one would expect, environments are littered with collectibles, the most common we spotted being gems. At the conclusion of each level the players are given a score that tallies objects found and enemies killed, meaning there will be a friendly competitiveness to see who can ferret out hidden objects the quickest. While the team wouldn’t go into much detail about the points economy, they did confirm that they can be used to unlock new items such as weapons.

While the arcade influence and the inclusion of co-op has drastically changed the way we look at Tomb Raider (the reason Crystal Dynamics decided to omit Tomb Raider from the title entirely) the game still feels familiar. The Guardian of Light uses the same engine as the recent console releases, so the environments include polished touches like dynamic plants, shadows and physics-based destructible objects. The team also worked hard to retain verticality in the scaled down game, being sure not to lose the expansiveness of the tombs and vistas that we’ve come to expect. In-game cinematic moments will explore these carefully crafted spaces, with hand-drawn, motion-comic inspired cutscenes filling in the narrative gaps. The music, sound effects and voice acting will also be iconic Lara.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is slated to launch this summer for Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network and PC. Surprisingly, we’re just as excited to get our hands on Lara’s first co-op adventure as we are the inevitable AAA follow-up. The non-traditional execution of Guardian of Light is refreshing, and one we expect Tomb Raider fans will appreciate.

Be sure to check out the GDC 2010 hub page for quick access to more news and hands-on impressions from the event.