Clocking in at just over 2GB in size, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is pretty hefty for an XBLA title, but as we've learned before, bigger doesn't always mean better. The Tomb Raider franchise has had something of a mixed history, with games that run the gamut from solid hit to less-than-desirable stinkers. When Square Enix first announced that it was taking Lara Croft in an entirely new direction, no one was sure quite what to expect. The end result however, is pretty darn good.
As a game, Guardian of Light is certainly a departure from the traditional third-person adventures that were the mainstay of the Tomb Raider series. The lack of Tomb Raider branding in the title was most likely a conscious decision alluding to the changes.
While it drops the traditional mechanics, Guardian of Light manages to keep most of the core elements that make a Lara Croft adventure fun. There is plenty of action, a decent story, creative puzzles to solve and an all-powerful bad guy who must be defeated in order to save the world. No pressure.
Played from an overhead perspective, Guardian of Light is somewhat reminiscent of old-school shooters like Smash TV and Total Carnage. You navigate Lara with one stick and target with the other. Landing repeated shots builds your power meter. Max it out, and each shot does increased damage. Take a hit from an opponent, and you're back to the basic attacks. It's a setup that's perfect for combat, but as touched on above, puzzle-solving also abounds.
Many of the puzzles are optional affairs, being hidden in side rooms. Completing them helps you out with a bonus item, but it isn't necessary to progress in the game. Others, such as the flame fountain in the first level, must be completed in order to move on. Each of the puzzles is nicely integrated into the game world, but what stands out the most is how they slightly differ depending on whether you are playing the game solo or in co-op mode with a friend.
It is the co-op mode that really makes Guardian of Light shine. Here, Lara and her partner Totec have separate, but complementary, abilities. When playing solo (as either one), the abilities are merged and the game subtly modified so that a single player won't hit a dead end. It feels natural when going it alone, but as soon as you try co-op for the first time, it becomes obvious that this is what the game was designed around.
Lara is the more direct of the two fighters, with her guns and grappling hook, while Totec sports a shield and the all-important spear. The spear can be used as a weapon or thrown at walls. Once a spear is embedded in a wall, Lara can use it as a makeshift platform, allowing players to create their own paths to out-of-reach areas. Because of the way abilities interact, players are genuinely forced to work together in co-op mode rather than simply playing side-by-side. If one of the two isn't pulling his or her weight, then both will be held back.
In addition to the primary adventure, each level also features a number of secondary challenges. These serve as a good incentive to replay earlier levels in order to complete any that you may have missed the first time through (and you will miss some of them the first time through). Completing the challenges awards additional power-ups.
Visually, Guardian of Light is on par with any retail release. Environments are sharp, character animations are detailed, and lighting effects abound. The developers at Crystal Dynamics don't appear to have skimped on the eye candy. Audio is similarly situated, with a well-mixed musical score and nice ambient sounds.
At this point, you're probably asking yourself, "If the game is that good, then why is the score only 7.5?" The most direct answer is, "Because the game isn't finished yet."
Despite the fact that it was built around co-op, Guardian of Light was originally launched on the Xbox 360 with only local co-op. Online co-op was promised to be available when the game launched a month later on the PC and PlayStation 3. The month came and went, and the promised feature is nowhere to be seen, yet the game is still selling for its full price of 1,200 MSP ($15 USD).
This means that if you want to play with a buddy who's sitting on the couch next to you, then by all means, prepare to enjoy the co-op experience. It's well worth it. But if your buddy is next door, across town or across the country? Forget it. At least for now.
Call us old fogies if you like, but there's a pretty firm belief that when a game ships, it should be feature-complete, not "mostly done" with a promise of completion at some unknown future date. If and when the online co-op patch shows up for Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, add an additional point to the score.
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