Lara Croft is without a doubts one of the most famous female ambassadors for video games. Well, the fact that she made her debut at the dawn of the 3D age and her generous… assets bestowed by Toby Gard might have had a hand in it, but nevertheless, Tomb Raider is one of the longest running franchises of the industry. However, old age isn’t forgiving, not even with virtual heroes, and after 5 titles, The Angel of Darkness was almost the final nail in the coffin, not to mention that the two movies starring Angelina Jolie didn’t help much either.
Fortunately for Lara, Eidos took a gamble and decided that it would be better if her future rested with the Americans from Crystal Dynamics, known for their work on the Legacy of Kain series. As a result, Tomb Raider: Legend was a successful reboot, Anniversary a near-perfect restoration of the game that started it all, while Underworld could have been a bit better.
The latter marked another important moment, because after its release, the producers decided to create a spin-off in the franchise that would bear the name of Lara Croft, with Tomb Raider remaining as a separate series. Thus Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light was born, an isometric action adventure in which lady Croft doesn’t have to save the world alone anymore and one of the best co-op experiences I’ve had the pleasure of playing.
In good Tomb Raider tradition, the story takes us to Central America, where Lara is looking for the Mirror of Smoke, an artifact that was used millennia ago by Totec, the Guardian of the Light, to imprison Xolotl, the Keeper of Darkness. Unfortunately, Lara is followed by a band of mercenaries, who in their infinite stupidity release Xolotl, being sent straight to the afterlife for their efforts. And since we’re dealing with a good ol’ fashioned bad-guy, he just wants to bring Hell on Earth, death, destruction, eternal suffering, the usual stuff. On the other hand, this early parole also meant that Totec has come back to the lad of the living, as his mission is to guard the Mirror and, if necessary, to imprison his ancient foe before he destroys humanity.
Thus, the difference between the single-player and co-op modes in Guardian of Light is represented by the number of active characters, the number of enemies and the complexity of the puzzles. In single-player, Lara is, well… alone, having certain abilities which aren’t available to her in co-op, while playing with a partner means a good cooperation, because each character has its own skill set and specific gameplay mechanics.
Lara for instance has her trademark dual pistols and the grapple which allows her to perform acrobatic acts on certain walls or over bottomless pits, while Totec is helped by a magical spear forged by the Gods and a shield which he can use to repel enemy projectiles. Moreover, Lara can climb on Totec’s shield to reach otherwise inaccessible places, while a spear lodged into a wall (up to 3 maximum) can be used for the same purpose. What’s interesting is that Totec is too heavy to be supported by the spear, so he has to find other ways to traverse certain areas, usually involving Lara’s grapple.
What pleasantly surprised me was the fact that the puzzles become more complex in co-op, although the level structure remains mostly the same. Because Totec isn’t controlled by the AI in single-player, using the same puzzles wouldn’t have really been a viable solution, so the Crystal Dynamics designers had more work on their hands, and their efforts paid off.
The puzzle complexity varies from simple pressure plates to bypass a spike trap to more inventive uses of the grapple, yet the overall difficulty isn’t exaggerated. True, there were moments when my and Assassin were staring at the monitor with a blank, but the “AHA” moment which followed the discovery of a more special solution was always fulfilling (usually followed by the classic encouragement of “And yet again, I have to pull you from the rock you crawled under”).
True, there was one situation where we managed to exploit the respawn system to move forward, while in another we discovered invisible walls which prevented us to solve a puzzle in a different way than the designers intended, although it would have been just as feasible (using a boulder as a ramp). We were a bit bummed by the fact that our genius went unrewarded, but we got over it very fast, because we had better things to do.
Like hunting skulls (10/level), health and ammo bonuses or optional temples filled with relics or artefacts. This is another upside for Guardian of Light, the way you’re rewarded for thoroughly exploring the levels, completing Reward Challenges or getting a certain score, as you collect skulls, crystals, relics or shoot your enemies to bits. A good score can unlock more powerful weapons, while the challenges and options temples can give you health bonuses, artefacts or relics.
Not all of these are clearly marked though, some of them being hidden in a corner, others guarded by a trap or at the top of a very tall column. Another high note for the Crystal Dynamics designers is that you’re told from the get-go the main and secondary objectives in a level, as well as the optional challenges and their rewards, so you’ll know right off the bat that if you don’t get to the exit in 6 minutes or less, it’s bye-bye relic. Moreover, the achievements are designed in such a way that you have to choose: either go for a big score and collect everything, or do a speed run – which means that you’ll have to finish the game at least twice if you want all the trophies.