Review: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (Xbox 360)

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Genre: Co-op Action
Release Date: 08/18/2010

In 1996, Core Design unleashed what is arguably the most recognizable female video game character in the industry’s history. Looking back, even as a teen going through “those awkward years,” I never once bought into Lara Croft’s polygonal triangle boobies and, personally, I felt the games were very below average.

Sitting here in 2010, I am now 14 years older and Lara looks like she hasn’t aged a second – in fact, you could say with technology’s advancement in rendering, she is even more youthful and curvy. What is most interesting about her most recent expedition, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, is even though the series has put up the same tomb raiding shtick for almost 15 years, Crystal Dynamics’ latest attempt at the franchise sheds that worn-out skin. In its place, players are given an “adult version” of titles such as LEGO Indiana Jones and by completely foregoing the Tomb Raider name, Lara gets a new pair of legs to stand on. Even though she had respectable efforts in titles such as Legend, is Guardian of Light the launching pad Lara needs to return to serious gaming action?

If you have ever heard of the series before, you can probably gather Guardian of Light begins with Lara Croft raiding a tomb. Big surprise, I know, but here is where this new downloadable effort separates itself from the rest: Players join in on the quest when Lara completes her raid and has the treasure – the ancient Mirror of Smoke – within reach. Unfortunately, Lara’s romps through the tomb left it clear for a group of mercenaries to storm through and make things complicated. The group’s leader, Vasco, takes control of the artifact and in turn releases Xololt, an evil entity sealed away in the mirror. Xololt wrecks the mercenaries and runs off with the mirror with the goal of unleashing hoards of evil minions onto the world. This awakening also brings the warrior Totec, the guardian of light that combats Xololt, out of his slumber. From this point, it’s up to Lara and Totec to chase down Xololt and replace the mirror to its rightful place before the dawn or else the world will succumb to Xololt’s evil magic.

The story setup isn’t exactly amazing, with the beginning and ending cutscenes spelled out for players using nicely-drawn comic-style stills, but it gets the job done and gives Lara something different to do for a change. In between these ends, however, little is done to flesh out any sort of story. Most levels have Lara and Totec busting through dark beasts while Xololt stands ahead of them gloating and creating more monsters or blocking their path. It reminds me of a cartoon villain and it would be complete if Xololt had a handlebar mustache he tweaked and twirled around as he basically spouts “nah, nah, you can’t catch me and you’re going to die” over and over. You do get some bits of progression between some of the levels, but these are simple lines of dialog that tell us little more than “the world is doomed if we don’t catch him.” It is a bit disappointing to see the mid-game story segments animated while the opening and closing are a line of stills, but the story is so bare bones it doesn’t matter in the end. Still, while the execution is simple, it amply sets up why Lara and Totec are tearing through waves of enemies and players that just want to experience the game’s action won’t be bothered by the lack of a strong story.

For your $15, you only get one true game mode, which is the standard adventure to retrieve the Mirror of Smoke. You are able to tackle this on your own or with a friend locally and this comes in as an aspect that makes me believe this title was rushed out just to make the Summer of Arcade series of game releases: There is no online co-op and there won’t be until an update next month when the title releases on other formats. This approach certainly is a red flag, but, nonetheless, the title is just as enjoyable on your own or with a buddy in tow, especially when you consider all of the challenges tucked away in the game. Once you’ve completed the game, that’s pretty much it for the title, but you do get the option to load specific chapters to pick up certain challenges and achievements that were missed the first time through. In all, both the story and mode offerings do what players would expect of a title in this genre, but they shouldn’t expect anything overwhelmingly strong, either.

What I can say, though, is Lara Croft is packing some serious presentation this time around. That’s to be expected, though, as the title weighs in at a whopping two-plus gigabytes of hard drive space. While the download time might not be for the squeamish, the file size definitely allows for a variety of impressive environments and mobs of enemies to appear on the screen at one time. The title also pays a bit of attention to small details such as lighting and destructible items, so there is a lot of content that will gain your eyes’ attention. Unfortunately, when you fire up the game, the camera view is zoomed out a little too far and I’m not saying that because you can’t zoom in on Lara’s butt like every other Tomb Raider. With no way to manipulate the camera, things can get awkward quickly, especially during frantic jumps, and the characters don’t get to shine with detail, which is a shame since the giant characters such as the T-Rex monsters look great. Also, there are a number of clipping issues with the character models during gameplay, but outside these minor quirks, the visuals have shaped up very well for this entry. The HUD is very clean and simple and while a few of the menus overdo the visuals a little bit, the title’s information and navigation is generally well thought out.

In the audio department, players will get a lot of ambient sound effects, which amply sets each environment apart. Players will know crap is going down once the “action music” kicks in, and while it can get repetitive, it sends a message to the gamer and paces the action nicely. Players will also get a good share of voice acting and, surprisingly, the voice cast handles this quite well. What these characters actually say, on the other hand, is quite cliché and cheesy, but that is a fault of the poor writing and the afterthought that is the game’s story as opposed to voice talent and quality. In the heat of battle, all of the extensive types weaponry sound just like one would expect as players will be treated to gunshots, spear impacts, explosions, and the squishy guts of lesser creatures. If certain elements weren’t so repetitive, the sound could be elevated even more, but, as it stands, players are getting quite a bang for their buck when it comes to presentation.

However, all that doesn’t really matter if the gameplay stinks and in the case of Lara Croft, most gamers will be safe with a purchase on this front. Changing the style of gameplay really delivers for the series and easily makes it the most accessible and, in my opinion, the best entry the series has ever seen. I’ve already compared this title to an “adult” LEGO Indiana Jones and that is quite suitable as, with two players, each must utilize the abilities of one character to assist another. Lara maintains her grappling hook which can be used to attach to surfaces to swing across or allow Totec to tightrope walk across or hooked to Totec to allow for rappelling or boosting him up to a ledge. Totec, on the other hand, uses the base items of a spear and shield, which allows him to hold his shield overhead to allow Lara jump on top of him for a boost or use it to block projectiles and his spears can stick into walls to give Lara a “ledge” to jump on. If a player decides to go solo, though, they aren’t saddled with a CPU dummy, but, instead, the game world slightly alters to where either character can tackle the adversity, which, in my mind, is a great feature akin to the classic World of Illusion on the SEGA Genesis. While the concept isn’t largely original, Crystal Dynamics’ implementation of the concept is certainly more challenging and interesting and this hook gets placed on top of a competent overhead run and gun title.

The controls are pretty straightforward in Lara Croft and it is quite likely players will use every one of the Xbox 360 buttons in progressing through the game. Of course, on occasion, selecting weapons on the d-pad is a bit stiff (which is further accentuated in the delay that occurs as the character switches to the weapon), everything works without a hitch. Players will get a decent amount of accuracy thanks to the twin-stick shooter approach the game takes on and each character is given an assortment of offensive and defensive maneuvers to tackle the game with. After a stage or two, the controls become second nature and I had very little qualms with the way the controls were laid and their responsiveness.

The setup of the game also allows for a good amount of customization as players can equip up to three special weapons along with two relics that boost the characters’ base stats and a third that grants them a special power that is activated through a meter built from aggression and item collection. The greatest aspect of this customization is the methodology in which players earn these items. Additional weapons and relics are gathered through stage challenges; which basically serves as the only reason to return to the game once the player has completed the adventure. Sprinkled throughout each stage are special tombs where players are tasked in solving a dangerous puzzle or reaching an out-of-place location that tosses players a reward, but, more interestingly, each stage has a set of challenges. These challenges range from reaching high scores, timed challenges, challenges tasking players destroy all of a certain item on a stage, all the way to absurd ones such as using explosions to detach a rotating spiked ball and scoring a “hole-in-one” in a nearby trigger. The challenges will provide the player will the most variety to be found in the title and gives the title’s replayability its one true leg to stand on.

In the grand scheme of things, Lara Croft is an enjoyable title as it builds to a satisfactory challenge progressively through the stages, provides some high-octane action against a large number of foes and forces some thought to bypass the numerous death traps and obstacles that impede your progress. If I had to pinpoint a couple of items that brought the experience down a notch, though, my two picks are no brainers.

First up, Lara Croft is an extremely repetitive game. After the first couple of stages, players are introduced to everything they can do and, from there, the game tosses out slightly different ways to experience this. You’ll get the occasional new enemy or trap, but, at the end of the day, the game is pretty much progress forward, fight a mob of enemies, find a way across this pit, fight more enemies, avoid a death trap and repeat. After a few levels, you’ll be begging for the stages that throw out the nerve-racking escape scenes. It’s further unfortunate the boss battles never amount to anything too original beyond having to kill them using a specific weapon. With this repetition, it really killed any addictive nature the title could have had for me. Even though the game is technically sound and well done overall, it couldn’t hold my interest beyond a few stages at a time and by the time I progressed about 75 percent of the way through the title, I just wanted it to be over. Perhaps this “bite-sized” approach worked out in the end as Guardian of Light is hardly a lengthy title as I was finished with the main piece of the game within five hours.

Secondly, as I stated before, it is as clear as day this title was rushed out just to meet the Summer of Arcade promotion. I’m not just saying this to take a jab at the lack of online multiplayer once again, but, I bring this up again because this is one of the buggiest games I’ve played in a while. I can specifically recall four points where I had to exit the game because of a fatal game error that prohibited my session from continuing. Most of these occurred after falling into a pit, where the fall didn’t kill me and I couldn’t move anywhere, leaving the game to just run infinitely until I reset. Another occurred as a multiplayer partner sprang back to life just as I died and the game seemed confused. Both people are dead, but someone just came back to life. The result: again, the game just runs until we reset. Even outside of this aspect, there is some weird clipping and animation skips at moments and there were many infuriating times in multiplayer sessions where upon going to revive a downed player, the character would mysteriously be launched into the air like they were caught in an explosion, moving them away from where the surviving player could reach them in time. Something like that was just baffling and quite random and I’m not sure if other players are reproducing such issues. I’m sure certain aspects will be remedied via patch, but this was the version I was given to review and these happened multiple times to multiple people.

Moving the negatives aside, though, Guardian of Light is still a positive experience. The fact Lara Croft is starring in a game will no doubt draw a lot of appeal, but the fact that it is being received well by critics for a change should inject some appeal into gamers that have been burned by one of her previous titles. If you can drive through the repetition and a handful of quirks, there is a lot to like in the title, especially if you tackle the quest with a buddy.

The Scores
Story/Modes: ENJOYABLE
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: VERY GOOD
Replayability: GREAT
Balance: GREAT
Originality: POOR
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal Factor: VERY GOOD
Miscellaneous: BELOW AVERAGE

Short Attention Span Summary
Lara doesn’t quite hit the ball out of the park with Guardian of Light, but this is easily the best title in the franchise I have ever played and this “adult” version of LEGO Indiana Jones has some competent action and puzzle elements stored under its hood. If you can fight through the repetition, weak story and gameplay bugs, you’ll find some stellar presentation for an Xbox LIVE Arcade title, well thought-out co-operative gameplay, some tense tomb raiding moments and a moderately challenging title. A handful of aspects do give me the impression the title was rushed out just to be included in the Summer of Arcade promotion, but, in the end, it does belong there and, hopefully, the rough spots will be polished out with updates next month. If you enjoy the premise of titles such as the LEGO entries or Up, but couldn’t buy into the kid-friendly motif, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light will be right up your alley.



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One response to “Review: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (Xbox 360)”

  1. […] DJ was right in his review of the 360 version of this game, when he called it a Lego Indiana Jones for adults. Both have little to no story save for window […]

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