Naughty Dog’s Uncharted Series has pretty much rendered any new traditional third-person Tomb Raider game a pointless exercise. The globe-trotting, treasure-snagging, native-destroying adventures of Nathan Drake have been such perfectly crafted gaming experiences that they effortlessly stole the waning crown of Lara Croft. Drake’s Fortune and Among Thieves bettered the Tomb Raider franchise by perilously wide leaps and bounds, to the point where another Miss Croft outing of old would immediately suffer by comparison. Whether by choice or necessity, the changes made to the franchise’s formula to adapt it into a downloadable game are the best thing that could happen to it, as Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is easily the freshest, most wildly entertaining entry in the series in over a decade.
To suit its new downloadable title format – while ditching the Tomb Raider title to emphasise the different take on the franchise – Guardian of Light tosses the third-person perspective aside in favour of a less graphically taxing (though aesthetically gorgeous) isometric view. It works incredibly well, offering a great perspective that’s more conducive to Lara’s platforming antics and makes it all but impossible to misjudge the distance of chasms that require leaping across. The new view also ushers in a more arcade-style action, with fast-paced, frenzied and pretty intense gunplay against hordes of enemies large and humongous and a huge selection of weaponry ranging from pistols to shotguns, machine guns to rocket launchers. The controls are simple and effective, proving a great fit for the top-down style; the left thumbstick aims in any direction on a 360 dial, while walking and strafing with the right stick, firing with the R2 button.
The game isn’t all giant bug-smooshing, evil minion-exploding action though, and there’s a great balance of cleverly-designed puzzles that make wonderful use of Lara’s versatile arsenal. Lara has the use of a golden spear, a default killing pole for when ammo has depleted that doubles a makeshift foothold, since you can hurl three of them into walls at various heights to access secrets and solve certain puzzles. Also up Miss Croft’s proverbial sleeve is a grappling hook, which can latch onto strategically-placed golden rings for some high-climbing, wall-running action, while the rope’s physics come into play during some pretty great puzzles requiring lateral thinking. Gunfire and spears can also be used to trigger switches in slightly Zelda-esque hookshot-style puzzles.
The puzzles themselves are a wonderful element that are incredibly well designed and offer a diverse variety of cerebral brain-teasers. Some might require you to weight down pressure plates with rolling balls, or figure out how to get said balls over expansive gaps to trigger doorway openings. Others might require the use of the remotely-triggered bombs at Lara’s disposal to activate switches requiring additional hits after being blocked off, traversing pressure-sensitive spiked traps or using your makeshift spear-ledge to reach hitherto inaccessible areas. While most games of its ilk are content to limit the creativity of puzzles to ‘pull two levers’ or ‘activate two pressure switches’ affairs, the puzzle-solving elements here are entirely challenging, intelligently constructed and incredibly rewarding.
Also fantastic is the co-op mode, in which puzzles are completely redesigned to suit the two-player mechanics. What might be accomplished in the single player with rollling balls, explosives and the power of positive mental thinking is tackled in co-op by combining the unique skills of each character. Lara has her grappling line, which Totec (her ancient god pal, who your co-op partner will play as) can tightrope walk across, while Totec has a resilient shield to protect you both from arrow traps, and two sets of hands mean switch-flipping is handled differently. The two options play to their own strengths, so there’s no “lesser” choice; the single player mode is just as great an experience as the co-op, while the tweaked puzzles are different enough that it welcomes being replayed with a friend (local co-op is available instantly, while online co-op is due to be patched onto the game at a later date).
That replayability extends to most other facets of the game as well; accentuating the more arcadey slant that the gameplay skews to, each level packs a lengthy list of optional challenges which offer substantial rewards. These range from 3-tiered score challenges, the standard ‘Collect the 10 red skulls’ to more unique and fun challenges, like blowing up 3 enemies by exploding a single overturned truck, or using your remote charges to strategically send a rolling boulder flying and land it on a concave pedestal. Each level houses ‘Challenge Tombs’ – optional rooms that you’ll stumble across, marked by red glowing torches which contain additional puzzles often much tricksier than those in the game at large. The rewards for each challenge range from health power-ups, extended weapon magazines to new outfits and special guns.
The only major thing keeping Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light from being a perfect title is the rather rote stock story that merely feels like a placeholder snatched from The Big Barrel of Interchangeable Adventure Movie Plots™. It’s an issue that only accentuates the theory that the Tomb Raider franchise would have no hopes of contending with the shockingly well-written adventures of Nathan Drake, though it’s a shame that next to no effort is made to construct a decent story to compliment the wonderful gameplay.
Though the game boasts the voice talents of the delectable Keeley Hawes (Ashes to Ashes) as Lara, the story is, sadly, practically non-existant. Also irksome is the occasional occurrence of that action game foible of not allowing you any time to recover when attacked by multiple enemies, which might make battles more challenging, sure, but also feels incredibly frustrating and unfairly imbalanced when it happens. Thankfully they’re nothing to detract from how overwhelmingly good the rest of the game is.
With Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, Crystal Dynamics have taken a waning franchise and reworked it into an incredibly impressive achievement – not just the series’ best game in over a decade, but a downloadable game spin-off that’s lengthy, rewarding and never once feels like a truncated, disposable experience. Packing a tonne of creative, challenging and intelligently designed puzzles, fast, fierce and frantic action, a great co-op mode and an absolute wealth of replay value, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light breathes new life into the franchise and is an essential download experience.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is now available to buy on PlayStation Network (£9.99) and is also available on Steam (£9.99) and Xbox Live Arcade (1200 Microsoft Points).