Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is one of those rare games, on Xbox Live Arcade that actually combines a great presentation, excellent story pacing and gameplay wrapped up in a neat graphical package all for the price of 1200 Microsoft Points. What you get for your money is well worth it and the game has set a new bar for downloadable arcade games.
Presented in a new format for the agile Tomb Raider, Guardian of Light has a fully 3d isometric sandbox design that presents linear levels, in an open way. There are lots of directions to explore when you hit a hub level and many challenges and traps to evade along the way, combined with fiendish and clever puzzles the like of which have not been since Soul Reaver or the original Tomb Raider.
Gameplay is either single player or local co-op, with the promise of live co-op enabled in a patch come sometime in September. Lara has numerous moves and toys at her disposal, her agility makes for some death-defying leaps that echo the original Tomb Raider and she has access to a grappling hook that can be a real lifesaver at times. With a quick press of the bomb button Lara (or Totec, her co-op partner) can lay a remote bomb and detonate it again with the same button. Bombs can be used to destroy enemies, disable traps and more.
Lara can also use Totec's spear in single player and this can be hurled into walls and objects, killing stronger enemies in a single shot. There are three spears allowed in the environment at any one time and they can be used as impromptu ways to access hard to reach places, or progress further into the game. Along the way you can collect power ups in the form of extra health and ammo for your more powerful weapons, diamonds give you score bonuses and there are red skulls to find on each level.
Score challenges abound and getting a high score means you'll unlock a new thing, could be a costume, weapon, relic or artefact. The log screen tells you what you need to do as far as objectives go and provides a handy map of various hub levels when you encounter a more complex challenge. If you die you'll lose some of that score so this provides an incentive to perfect the controls and face challenges in a careful manner. Timing is often key as well as quick thinking for some of the more obscure traps in the game.
There's a reasonable arsenal of weapons, from pistols, smgs, assault rifles, grenade launchers and so on for Lara and Totec to use, none of the weapons feel overpowered and they all feel useful and balanced. There are also these relics (powerful special abilities that can be triggered once the relic bar is full, this is raised by killing enemies) and artefacts, found on your journey or earned by completing various challenge. Artefacts alter the way your character dishes out damage, or takes it; perhaps they add to bomb damage but reduce your speed and so on. Each artefact is clearly labelled and you can equip up to two at a time.
The game really shines in the graphics department; it's detailed and vibrant with a nice spread of effects, textures and the like. The light and shadow effects are especially great when combined with some of the more volatile puzzles, such as a whole level packed with lava and spinning fire-breathing head traps, over which there are slowly rotating platforms with burning coals on the other side. Lara and her cohort are detailed and animated extremely well, both in terms of combat, evasion and the platform athletics. Enemy graphics and animations are also very good.
The physics in the game provides ample opportunity to solve puzzles in intelligent and interesting ways. Explosions have a definite force to them and bombs can be used to move larger objects into place or shift them from a seemingly impossible location.
The enemy AI is also pretty sharp; it can use tactics and has a variety of attack patterns and abilities depending on the foe. Some are horde beings and will rush you; others are spell-casters and prefer to remain at a distance causing as much damage as possible for example.
Sound design is excellent and the music is suitably Tomb Raider in style. The voice is well done and the dialogue is well written, the overall story never gets in the way of the action and the whole thing is paced perfectly with an excellent momentum that matches the plot all the way.
When teamed with another player, the game ups the ante and provides different ways for you to solve the many puzzles that impede both characters' progress. Now Totec has his spear and may throw it for Lara, Lara can attach her grapple to Totec and allow him to climb up after her, catch him before he falls to his death or provide a tightrope to walk on. Totec can raise his shield above his head letting Lara jump on and over, as well as block projectiles with it, which is highly useful as the game progresses to the harder levels.
On average you can expect around 12 or so hours of the story, considerably more if you want to find and collect everything in the game, be warned though, there are certain rooms which once you go past, you won't be able to go back and collect a missed relic or artefact from. You'll need to replay the level from the start. With the added bonus of multiplayer cooperative action which is tied into the overall gameplay mechanics, challenge rooms that give you bonuses and artefacts, a likeable story and well paced plot, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light has finally pulled the Tomb Raider franchise back from the brink.
Don't be put off by the fact this is a downloadable XBLA game, the production values, value for money and design far exceed this and it's worth every Microsoft point and hour put into the game's levels, be they set boss fights or sprawling puzzle packed multi-stage bonanzas.