Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light was made for co-op. Blam. There, I said it. Whether Crystal Dynamics did this on purpose, or whether the stars aligned just right...the co-op in this game is not to be missed. If you play the single-player first, you’ll find that all of your favorite special moves are even better in co-op. If you play the co-op first, you’ll use the special moves in single-player with a fond remembrance of how fun the co-op was.
Let’s start with what makes The Guardian of Light fun, from a simple gameplay perspective... First of all, the controls are near perfect, in my opinion. Rather than being a mindless twin-stick shooter (which is not a bad thing), the right analog stick aims and the right trigger fires. Using the sticks this way adds a bit of extra control. You have a button for a quick rolling dodge, one to jump, and one to lay or detonate a remote mine. It’s classic Tomb Raider action and controls transferred onto a Diablo-esque dungeon crawler.
Combat is fluid and a perfect mix of decent challenge and ease-of-use; more on that later. The puzzles themselves range a bit more in difficulty, but I’m glad to report that for the most part they are not boring, and each one is original enough to stand out. I’d be hard-pressed to say that any of them are baffling, but they’re not always as simple as flipping a series of switches. There are some really neat surprises, yet always within the format of a nostalgic dungeon crawler.
Fans of Blizzard and Snowblind Studios will feel right at home here.
Combining special co-op moves is a common theme, and it never gets old.
The visuals don’t disappoint, either. Crystal Dynamics opted to go with a cel-shaded look for loading screens and the main menu, which serves the game’s style quite well. Cutscenes are unskippable but mercifully prompt and to the point. The voice acting is on par with previous Tomb Raider games, and character animation seems to have improved. The only flaw I’ve found in terms of production value is a torch flame that was displaced from its torch - but this was a background piece and would have been overlooked completely if not for the fact that it happened to be mounted where we were trying to climb up.
The Guardian of Light’s tombs and outdoor areas are really fantastical, and provide a great sense of depth. You’ll traverse the levels laterally and vertically, climbing and jumping your way through some of the prettiest surroundings I’ve seen in a downloadable game. There’s something really cool about activating a suspended pressure switch and seeing a bridge deploy some 200 yards away and below in the background.
At any given time you can carry three optional weapons in addition to your basic weapons - for Lara, that would be her twin H&K handguns...and for Totec, it’s a never-ending supply of throwing spears. The spears are fun, by the way, and are great for knocking small enemies on their butts. Because some areas require Lara to use the spears for climbing, she has to relinquish her pistols for spears in single-player, unfortunately. And while the gun enthusiast in me would have liked to have seen some more realistic shooting mechanics, the casual gamer in me is perfectly fine with the lack of reloading and slow fire rates; it’s an issue of personal taste and nothing more. The default weapons have unlimited ammunition, but any secondary weapons that you pick up are fired at the expense of an ammo meter that can be refilled by picking up blue power-ups. Remote mines are also in unlimited supply and can be used offensively, but more often than not they’re better served clearing doors and activating puzzle switches from afar.
Your choice of weapons increases fairly early on, but the best guns come to those who explore.
Each level has a small cacophony of challenges available. Finishing these within the parameters - which are displayed on screen as a tip if you choose to leave tips on - grants you an Artifact or Relic. Each player can carry two Artifacts and one Relic, all of which boost your stats (sometimes at the expense of another). With more than 30 weapons to choose from and over 60 Artifacts and Relics available, you can create a highly customized loadout that carries back and forth from single-player to co-op, and vice versa. However, if you so choose: you can actually complete the game without ever equipping anything more than just your default weapons.
All fans of co-op will appreciate the Halo-style "death" mechanic in The Guardian of Light. Falling off of a ledge (which is hard to do, thanks to the quick reflexes of Lara and Totec, who will automatically grab hold) or getting blown up usually renders a player immediately dead, but getting downed in combat gives the other player a chance to revive their partner with a quick press of the action button. If someone manages to get killed, all their cohort need do is to stay alive for about six seconds while the respawn timer counts down. The only penalty for dying is a half-full health bar upon respawning.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a co-op hit, as far as I’m concerned. The campaign should last the average co-op pair about eight hours. After the campaign is complete, there are enough unlockable items and secrets to keep players coming back for a long time to come. The only two real complaints that I have are that online support is still pending (a huge detraction for what is otherwise one of my favorites this year), and that there isn’t a version available for portable platforms - I would love to see a PSP version, even if the controls had to be pared down.
Crystal Dynamics has delivered. I feel the responsibility to detract some kudos for the lack of online support, but otherwise I’d be holding The Guardian of Light on the highest pedestal I could. I hear that some extra content is coming in October - here’s hoping for plenty more isometric Lara Croft in the future.