Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light

Lara Croft: Return to Awesome.

Lara Croft has been a disappointed woman. We’ve certainly heard it before: a re-imagining of the series, a fresh chance for Lara, a reboot of the franchise, and still others in a string of broken promises. This time around the buxom heroine must be pinching herself: Guardian of Light is a great game. Yet it’s quite possible that those left dreaming of the Lara of yesteryear will be dissatisfied. This is not Lara as she first broke ground on the PlayStation, this is a crossover series with Lara stealing scenes in an excellent dungeon crawler. Guardian of Light plays so nicely with others that once again the spotlight is on Lara as a true heroine, unburdened by franchise disappointments.

Of course, this is still a first. The first downloadable, the first with an isometric camera, the first set in jungle ruins…OK, so some of it is very familiar, which is great because you’re not going to get a lot of time to go through a lengthy coping process. The opening cinematics are short and sweet, revealing everything you need to know: you’re in Central America, Lara’s there, something ancient has unleashed evil, you’re going to shoot some fools. Oh, and some guy name Totec is on the scene to help in the battle against Xolotl (whose name sounds a lot like Zoloft, is that significant?).

Controls are dead easy with a left stick strafe, right stick aim and right trigger fire format. Fantastic level design has sprawling environments playing host to puzzles and pitfalls so much fun you almost forget that every level seems to follow a “find a way in, find a way out” pattern. Each stage has some detours to pick up all the extras, but for the player disinterested in bonuses (or going for speed) it’s easy to stay on the primary puzzle path.

With its dungeon crawler aesthetic you would expect more loot drops. In their stead you’ll find sparkling gems of additional points and the occasional health or ammo pickup, but artifacts and relics are where it’s at. Picking up artifacts and relics allow you to choose some power-ups and can be acquired by completing Challenge Rooms found along the way or through careful exploration. Those Challenge Rooms are host to the trickier puzzles or combat with correspondingly more rewarding prizes, including some permanent increases to health and ammo.

Reward challenges are another great feature, and include everything from point objectives to speed-runs to skull collection to level-specific tricks like crossing a river without touching the water, defeating a boss within a time limit, or destroying all the columns in an area. Sometimes these are tied to Achievements, but mostly it’s a glory thing.

The game is broken into single player and multiplayer co-op with each tackled very differently because there is no Totec AI. In single player, Totec gives Lara his spear and then goes off to take some kind of ancient guardian nap – an excellent choice, because the environment-based gameplay in Guardian of Light would make for some miserable AI experiences.

Co-op play is often referred to as Divorce Mode in my house, which makes Guardian of Light’s afternoon of co-operative gaming bliss that much more remarkable. That means it also bears mentioning that online co-op won’t be available on XBLA until the PC and PSN versions launch at the end of September. So, for those of you with real live friends: With co-op you get your weapons, like remote mines, and special moves to use in tandem like some helpful grappling and a jump off Totec’s shield. You definitely need one another to survive as you use your tandem moves to traverse the levels and solve puzzles, yet there is an element of unspoken competition as you are also pitted against each other for points and items (actually, after the first level it’s probably not so unspoken a competition).

Running through the jungle with Totec might not seem like a great idea after the opening cut-scenes: Tocec’s voice acting is terrible. It’s tentative, uncommitted, and starkly awful compared to the excellent voice acting of Lara. That the voice acting of a character in a game with limited dialog is my foremost gripe should be a good indicator that this Guardian of Light is otherwise pretty stinking great. Yes, the isometric camera pitfall strikes from time to time, discouraging exploration whether because you’re taking tumbles off hidden precipices or because the perspective makes the angle of a jump go a little M.C. Escher. However, this is a far-cry from the unpredictable camera of other Croft iterations and auto saves are frequent so the only hurt is in the points department.

If you heard me talk about this game after E3 you won’t be surprised: I still love it. The balance between puzzling, platforming and combat is, well, delightful. There are great bosses that test both wits and arsenal (can you say “fire-breathing dinosaur”?), a ready complement to the playful stages. This re-imagining of the badass archaeologist is gameplay centric, and while Lara’s bosom and buttocks take a bit of a backseat there’s enough attention given to her other assets to warrant the game’s new perspective.

Review copy provided by publisher.