Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Review Date: 10/23/10
Even though "Tomb Raider: Underworld" was a phenomenal game, it was also a commercial failure and caused Eidos (now owned by Square/Enix) to scale back and reconsider the franchise. "Lara Croft And The Guardian Of Light" reduces the Tomb Raider formula to a short and sweet run-and-gun isometric action game, much like "Gauntlet Legends." While the focus is on action, there is an equal amount of exploration and puzzle solving to do, which keeps the game nicely balanced. Once again, Lara's curiosity and thirst for adventure unleashes an unspeakable horror that's capable of destroying the world. Upon discovering an ancient stone mirror in the jungles of Yucatan, the dark god Xolotl is freed and goes on a rampage. Fortunately, Totec the Guardian of Light also shows up and together he and Lara go about trying to stop Xolotl.
Apart from the isometric presentation, the largest departure from the series is the addition of a cooperative multiplayer element, represented by Totec. Unfortunately, that's also the game's greatest weakness, because no one wants to play him. Much like a Batman, Indiana Jones, or James Bond game, the Tomb Raider games are based on the charms and talents of the main character, and nobody wants to be a dopey sidekick. Especially a dopey male sidekick. Fortunately, you can choose to play the game solo, where Totec only shows up between levels.
Many of Lara's skills translate from her previous games, as she can run, jump, climb, roll, grapple, and move heavy objects with ease. Combat is intuitive and elegantly simple, with movement handled on one thumbstick and aiming handled on the other. Even though Lara can't run or jump while shooting, the action portions of the game are fun and exciting. Unlike previous Tomb Raider games, GOL actually encourages you to use alternate weapons and gives you ample ammunition to get the job done. In most Tomb Raider games, there's little reason to use anything other than your default pistols because ammunition is so rare and the difference in power is negligible. But in GOL, certain enemies can only be destroyed with a grenade launcher or a rocket, and some creatures are particularly susceptible to flame-throwers. Fortunately, the game takes an old-school approach and doesn't limit your inventory, so you're free to choose whatever tools you want to get the job done. It's also not stingy with ammo, so as long as you play conservatively, there's plenty to go around. (this recalls bad memories of other games where there are only SIX bullets to be found in the entire game, and then you never use them for fear that you might need them later) Everything about the game is streamlined to make it easy to use and keep you in the action.
The game looks great and the Mayan architecture is beautiful to behold. The only frustration with the presentation is that Lara is a bit small and is sometimes obscured by the scenery. It's obvious that Crystal Dynamics was working with a much smaller budget on this game, as numerous assets from "Underworld" are recycled including the music score. Cutscenes are disappointing comic book styled slide shows and instantly forgettable, which sadly undermines the climax of the game. The "catch me if you can" villain is mostly laughable, but he puts up a good, and aggravating, fight at the very end. Keeley Hawes reprises her role as Lara Croft and delivers an excellent performance. I could listen to her read the phone book and be completely enthralled.
You can finish the game in about 10-12 hours, which feels just about right to me. The game also provides a decent amount of replay value in the numerous artifacts, relics, and challenges that you can seek out. The game is an excellent value at $20, but I lament the fact that there isn't a boxed version, and that the naked bits are forever locked to my Xbox hard drive. Sadly, digital distribution seems to be the way the industry is moving, and I can't wait for someone to offer a service that actually sells hard copies of downloadable games. Call me old fashioned, but I'd gladly pay Square/Enix an extra $5 or $10 dollars to get a DVD with box art and an instruction manual.