Sunday, September 26, 2010

'Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light' - Review

I'm a 'Tomb Raider' fan and I'm not ashamed to admit it.  I absolutely loved the first game when I played it on my Playstaion fourteen years ago.  The combination of 3D platforming, puzzles, and acrobatic gun fights were, at least to me, totally unique at the time.  Despite my love of the first game, I never played another until 'Tomb Raider: Legend' on the 360.  This absence from the series was due entirely to a RPG/FPS/PC gaming phase I went through.  I inexplicably completely abandoned console gaming for years.  When I heard about a coop 'Tomb Raider' game I was really excited, but then the excitement faded when I heard it had an isometric, fixed camera angle.  I wasn't entirely sure it would have the same charm I loved about the previous installments.

'Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light' was developed by Crystal Dynamics and published/distributed by Eidos Interactive/Square Enix.  In a change for the series, 'Guardian of Light' no longer features the 'Tomb Raider' name.  Whether they did so because of the change of format or just to avoid wearing the name out, I'm not sure.  In any case, the main feature of 'GoL' is the heavy focus on cooperative gameplay.  Unfortunately, at the time of the writing of this review, online coop mode is not yet available and I have no one to play with locally, so I can't comment on it.  What I can comment on is the single player mode, which features different gameplay and story than the coop mode, the depth of the differences are unknown to me.

In the single player mode you control Lara who must stop an evil spirit called Xolotl.  There are a few cutscenes and some semblance of a story, but really, the story and plot in this game are as weak as they come.  It all boils down to this.  Xolotl, an Aztec god with connections to lightning and death, twin to Quetzalcoatl, is released from a mirror of smoke which awakens a stone guardian, Totec, the Guardian of Light, who's purpose is to stop Xolotl from destroying the world.  Totec gives Lara his magical spear, which she can throw into walls to jump on to navigate cliffs and solve puzzles.  After every few levels there is a short cutscene which simply involves Totec and Lara meeting up again, saying the must hurry to stop Xolotl, then splitting up again.  Xolotl will occasionally taunt you in some stages, but it's nothing worth noting.

Combat is reminiscent of 'Robotron', where the left stick moves the character and the right aims.  This has the effect of making combat feel less like 'Tomb Raider' combat, as Lara moves slower and cannot do any flips and continue firing like previous 'Tomb Raider' titles. Unlike 'Robotron' and all the various games that have the same control scheme, you must use the R2 button to actually fire your weapon.  Unfortunately, you cannot swap the shoulder buttons so that R1 fires.  It's a small thing, but something most other games include.  Your main weapon, double pistols, are pretty weak, but you have unlimited ammo.  All secondary weapons, besides Totec's spear, require ammo to use.  Ammo is displayed in the form of a bar under your health bar and every weapon uses ammo at a different rate.  Perhaps it's just me, but I really didn't feel the need to use anything but my standard double pistols for the majority of the game.  I saved my ammo to use on larger enemies and bosses.

A big part of the game is exploration.  There are numerous health/ammo power ups, weapons, artifacts, and relics to find.  The power ups and artifacts are ways to better your character by extending your life/ammo bars and powering up your weapon, defense, bomb, and speed stats.  Initially, artifacts boost one stat while lowering another but later on you'll find some that have no negative side effect at all.  Relics give you an immense bonus when your relic meter is full, ranging from power shot/bomb to faster speed, health/ammo regen, and scatter shot.  You charge the meter by killing enemies and collecting gems without taking damage.  You can take some hits before it's completely filled, but once it's full, one hit will drop it to zero.  In addition to the bonus effects of the relic you have equipped, the relic meter also give you a score bonus when you kill enemies, which you will almost certainly need if you're trying to complete the score challenges.

Every level contains challenges that are briefly displayed before the start and can be viewed at any time via the select menu.  There are three score challenges, the final of which rewards you with a weapon, and for most levels, four to five other challenges.  Invariably, one is a time challenge, which requires you to figuratively, you'll really be rolling, run past everything in order to meet, most levels also have a challenge involving finding 10 red skulls.  Some of the other types of challenges include; cross a river without getting wet, complete a gauntlet on the first try, and various tests involving maneuvering giant balls that are used in the games various puzzles.  Most of the challenges can be done on the first playthough, but unless you can manipulate timespace, the time trials will have to wait until a second run.  Luckily there is a chapter select feature... unfortunately, I can't see a way to view the challenges from the chapter select menu.  They list the various power ups, weapon pickups, and relics you found verses the total each level contains though, so it's possible to deduce which levels still have challenges to complete.

The puzzles are fairly easy.  Most are just variations on switch puzzles.  Outside of the hardest puzzles, I don't think I took more than a few minutes to figure out most of the puzzles and towards the end of the game I was in the grove and solved some almost instantly.  They are fun, but aside from one, were all insultingly easy, but that's pretty standard for a Tomb Raider game.  I hope there are new puzzles that require two people in the coop mode, otherwise it'll be even more insulting, as a few would've been even easier with two people.

Unfortunately I have some issues with this game.  Jumping, while 90% of the time is perfect, sometimes just doesn't make sense.  Occasionally there are walls that are shorter than Lara, but she can't mount them.  Then there'll be gaps in the floor that look shorter than other jumps you've made with no problems, but you can't make them.  I also felt there were some hit detection issues... I would roll to avoid an enemy dash but, despite it not looking like anything hit me, I would take damage.  Then some enemies have projectile attacks, which are fairly easy to dodge, but then the projectile will explode after a certain distance and it's damage box is suddenly enlarged, so even though you dodged several projectiles, you'll still take a hit because it decided to explode immediately after passing you.  The fixed camera sometimes caused me to get hit by obscuring the enemy/projectile behind a wall until I was on top of it.  Finally I experienced a few graphical/lighting glitches, one caused some textures to flash when I fired my gun when standing in a certain spot, another caused Totec's spear and some other weapons to show on my character even though I didn't have them selected.

The majority of the trophies in this game are easy.  Four require playing in coop mode, four are related to the level challenges, including the hardest trophy, "Collect all relics, artifacts, and weapons."  Even though it's the most time consuming, it's still fairly manageable as I managed to unlock most challenges and find most power ups during my first playthrough by thoroughly exploring everywhere.  Two are story related and should be unmissable, however, when writing this I discovered that I don't have one of them unlocked...  I don't know if it was a glitch or if it requires doing something other than just beating a boss.  It unlocked fine when I tried a second time though, so I'm not sure what that was about.  The final two involve solving quite possibly the hardest puzzle in the game and killing three enemies with one bomb.

Ultimately the game has very little replay value.  Once you complete the single player and coop modes once, there is little reason to play again outside of trying to complete the challenges.  There could've been more replay value had they incorporated an RPG style leveling up system instead of having power ups.  Even with the limited replay value and gameplay flaws, it is still an amazingly fun 'Tomb Raider' game.  It is fairly short though, I clocked just under six hours on the in-game timer during my first playthrough, which causes me to have some trouble recommending it at the current price of $15.  Had it been $10 I would've definitely recommended any fan of the series or fan of coop gameplay to pick it up, but at $15 I would say wait for a sale unless you are extremely hard up for either 'Tomb Raider' action or coop gameplay, and if online coop is your main interest, don't purchase until the coop patch is out.
With the current lack of online coop, I can't give the game any more than a 7/10, however, once the patch is released I'll happily bump it to an 8/10.
Now that the coop patch has been released, I can give this game an 8/10.

This review is based off a single playthrough of the PS3 version of the game on the normal combat difficulty level.
38% of the trophies were initially collected.

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