You'd be forgiven for not expecting much from Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. A download-only, arcade spin-off from the Tomb Raider franchise, it's one of those games that's hard to get your head around until you've actually played it.
Thanks to its distant, isometric perspective, it looks more like a latter-day Diablo clone than an action-adventure game, and in its DNA you'll find elements of Gauntlet and Smash TV as much as you'll find chunks of the series that gave birth to it. Frankly, it could easily have been a lightweight diversion, or even a bit of a mess. Instead it's the most consistently brilliant game Ms. Croft has starred in, in this console generation.
Admittedly, it doesn't score highly for things like storyline or character. It begins in a Central American temple complex, with an imprisoned evil spirit, Xolotl, set loose by a gang of ignorant thugs and escaping with a mystical mirror of incredible power. It's up to Lara and the awakened guardian of the title, Totec, to chase Xolotl through the complex and stop him from putting the mirror to whatever nefarious purpose he has in mind. That's pretty much it. If you're looking for the narrative hooks, twists and turns of an Uncharted, you really won't find them here.
Instead, you'll find a lot of exploration, a bit of platform action, a good few physics-based puzzles and an awful lot of shooting. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is very big on surrounding you with hordes of monsters - clawing zombies, fireball-hurling undead priests, giant spiders, hungry alligators, gigantic brutes - and expecting you to finish them off with whatever guns, grenade launchers or magic spears you have to hand. Luckily, moving with the left stick and aiming with the right, you're well-equipped to handle them, particularly as you can also drop and detonate bombs with the Y button to even the odds just a little. In their traditional third-person view, the Tomb Raider games have always struggled a bit with combat, but in Guardian of Light, it's fast, frenetic and surprisingly tactical; just as in the old-school arcade classics that it imitates.
The puzzle-solving, meanwhile, is more sophisticated than you might expect. We're still in the realms of rolling stone balls onto switch-plates and pulling levers to open gateways, while the grappling hook from Tomb Raiders Legend, Anniversary and Underworld also puts in an appearance. However, we get some new tools to play with, like the aforementioned bombs and a spear that can be thrown into walls and balanced on, plus a few new quirks, like switches that activate on impact or explosion, and balls you can use to block or demolish the most irritating traps. On top of the combat and conundrums, the game still finds time to fit in some platforming, but in a less precise, more action-oriented style that never makes the camera angle an issue.
The game succeeds because it blends all these elements so successfully, punctuating sections of sedate puzzle-solving with bouts of hectic combat, or making you think under pressure. And while you can nearly always win a fight through firepower alone, there are usually environmental elements or traps you can use to your advantage if you need to. It really is a thinking-man's arcade game. There's even a lightweight RPG-style upgrade system to tinker with, should you wish.
Visually, that birds-eye view means that the game lacks some of the scenic grandeur and cinematic sweep of Tomb Raider: Underworld, and also spells bad news for long-time admirers of the famous Croft behind. Luckily, there are compensations. The environments are rich in animated detail, and there's a real sense of scale to these sprawling tombs, foetid swamps and trap-packed temples. Plus, with the emphasis on monstrous creatures over human enemies, the enemy design is a lot more interesting. This simply doesn't look, feel or even sound like a budget, download-only game.
Best of all, it doesn't have the longevity of one. Even as a straight, single-player experience you can expect to put 7 or 8 hours in, and as each level boasts a range of optional challenge missions to take on, ranging from specific challenge areas to collection and demolition tasks, obsessive types could easily double that.
Yet the real story is the co-op mode. This isn't the single-player campaign with a second character bunged in, but a different spin, with the levels and puzzles re-tooled for co-op play. The second character now takes on the role of Totec. He has a shield he can use to block arrow traps or raise Lara if she needs a leg-up, plus the spear Lara uses in her single-player adventure. Lara, meanwhile, can now use her grapple gun to produce tight-ropes for Totec to walk on, or as a means of winching him up to higher platforms.
The game hits that perfect balance between high-score competition - there's only so much treasure and so many hostiles to go around - and co-operation; you simply can't make any progress if you don't help each other along. The ways in which you can combine powers just get more ingenious as the game goes on, and you'll get plenty of banter over who is busy covering the ass of who. Basically, to get the full Guardian of Light experience, you really need to play it in both modes.
The one downside? At the moment you'll need a mate with a second controller, as online co-op doesn't go live until a September patch. On the other hand, it's arguably more fun when you're both in the same room. Like so much of this game, it has an air of "the good old days" about it, and while we'd hate to see the next Tomb Raider go down exactly the same route, there are definitely lessons it could learn from this arcade excursion.
Guardian of Light can be seen as a lightweight, retro-flavoured spin-off of the Tomb Raider series, but that's arguably what helps make it so enjoyable. Even if you only played the single-player mode, you'd get 7 hours or more of cracking, creature-blasting, puzzle-solving fun - but throw in the excellent co-op mode and you get one of the gaming high-points of the summer. In short, it's hard to think of a better way to spend a tenner.
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