Sunday, January 9, 2011

Game: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light

Initially released during the now-annual Summer of Arcade event on Xbox Live, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light marked a departure from Crystal Dynamics' previous Tomb Raider efforts (notice the distinct lack of the TR name here) primarily in the visual sense. GoL is a top-down isometric twin stick shooter title, as opposed to the third-person action-adventure nature of Anniversary, Legend, and Underworld. The normal elements are still intact - puzzle solving, platforming, and some simple combat. The main draw of this game, I believe, is the co-op factor. A second player can take control of Totec, the titular Guardian who watches over the Mirror of Smoke, the artifact Lara is in search of and which prevents Xolotl, the evil villain, from escaping his mystical prison.

In the single-player mode, Totec gives Lara his spear and sends her on his way. The spear allows Lara to reach otherwise inaccessible places through clever means - she can create her own platforms by throwing a spear into a wall and jumping off it to a higher ledge. In other areas, she uses her trusty grappling hook to wall run and reach power-ups. When a second player joins, Totec retains the spear and uses it in the same manner. Additionally, he can lift his shield over his head so Lara can jump on top of him. This makes for a useful mechanic wherein Totec jumps with Lara already atop his shield, giving a boost to her own subsequent jump. Finally, when 2 players are in the game, Lara's grapple line acts as a tightrope for Totec to walk to reach certain platforms for pressing buttons, etc. The overall design of the co-op element is oustanding.

One of the problems I had when playing through Tomb Raider: Underworld was the sometimes imprecise controls. Pointing Lara at something and watching her leap to her death repeatedly was sadly not an isolated incident in that game. It's improved here, but still not perfect. It's still pretty easy to jump to one's death as the aiming can be a little tricky. Speaking of aiming, one way the PC version of the game improves on the XBL version is with an aiming reticule. On the console, the player simply has to try and face the right direction and hope the game decides to grapple to the ring and not Totec, or vice versa. Honestly, though, it's one of the few complaints I can levy against this game.

The basic story is mission-based, with 14 separate levels full of enemies, traps, and treasures. Three of the levels are strictly boss battles, but still have things to collect (during the fight!). Lara and Totec move through temples, jungles, and lava-filled underground caverns in pursuit of Xolotl, who will enslave the world once dawn arrives and was unfortunately released by a bunch of mercenaries who followed Lara into the forgotten ancient ruins in the first place. The physics are fantastic, the movement is fluid, and there are very satisfying aspects to all the weapons. Lara and her Aztec companion pick up various weapons at certain points in the game, and have access to many more through challenges (more on that shortly). Simply by playing through, one can use assault rifles, shotguns, rocket launchers, and flamethrowers, among others. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, though in the end I stuck with the chaingun. Each gun is rated by power, rate of fire, and ammo consumption. A minor complaint is the lack of different enemies, as with bigger and badder weapons, they become so much cannon fodder.

In addition to weapons, players can find relics and artifacts. Two relics and one artifact can be equipped at any times; relics give bonuses to weapon power, defense, bomb strength and/or speed. Early finds usually have a trade off (+ weapon, - bomb) but more powerful later relics are generally all positive. Artifacts apply one or more bonuses in ways such as ammo regeneration and scatter shot when the power meter is full. The meter fills by successfully killing enemies without taking damage, and when the artifact powers kick in, the player does real damage.

Throughout, various challenges enable more artifacts, relics, and weapons to be unlocked with successful completion. Every level has at least one; in the boss battles there may be just the one, but in most levels there are six. These range from speed runs to finding 10 red skulls hidden around the level. Score challenges exist as well, and in all honesty, players working together well will have a harder time reaching these than those who play a little more selfishly. Because any level can be replayed with the player's current equipment and stats, nothing is too difficult. The exploration is interesting enough, and the enemies not annoying enough, to make going through levels multiple times to unlock absolutely everything more fun than it should probably be.

I would be remiss not to mention in this review that Crystal Dynamics is supporting the game well. Despite the promised online co-op not being present in any version of the game at release, it has since been patched in and various DLC been given out for free as a consolation. In addition to 3 challenge room packs, 2 character packs are available. The Kane & Lynch pack is free, and is impressive in not only using the new characters, but having completely different dialog in cut scenes and other places where Lara and Totec previously conversed. True to form, there is quite a bit bleeped out.

The game was on sale during the holiday XBL deals, but I can honestly recommend it at full price. It's a great game played alone, but terrifically fun to play with a friend online or on the couch. It's got a sufficient length to the story, and being able to go back to each level in pursuit of more treasures is a great way to keep it at the top of your playlist. Now let's hope the TR franchise reboot is pulled off as well as this was.