by Al Warwick
previewed on PC
Ups and downs of Lara Croft
Everyone knows the rise and fall of Lara Croft and the first generation of Tomb Raider games. The first effort way back in 1996 was a true game-changer and rightly holds its place amongst the elite titles in history. The next two instalments were essentially the same with added tweaks and extra shiny bits added each time.
With the fourth game, Core and Eidos tried to hark back to the original's sense of exploration and puzzling which the action heavy second and Modern Warfare-esque thirds instalments had arguably lost. Finally, Revelations gave us a flashback campaign – again with added movement and costume tweaks etc.
By the time the Playstation 2 title Angel Of Darkness was announced, it was deemed that gamers had lost interest in the formula and a more action packed – Metal Gear or Perfect Dark kind of thing was where the series should be headed. The resulting title remains one of the biggest disappointments in videogame history.
The revival, some five years later by the very capable Crystal Dynamics is almost as noteworthy as Lara’s first incarnation. Whilst not quite the game changer it wanted to be, Tomb Raider Legend was a welcome return to the very best the series had to offer. Now, after some solid sequels we see the same pattern emerging: a top quality original title followed by flashier, cooler and more entertaining sequels that are, however, fundamentally the same game repackaged and restyled across the many forms.
Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix form an unexpected alliance to deliver not the next Tomb Raider game, but rather a safer, digital download title that merely has the ‘Lara Croft’ mini-license. The Guardian of Light is not a member of the prestigious Tomb Raider family – rather a second cousin, or unwanted love-child, depending on how the finished product turns out.
Described as an isometric co-op, this title – available for Windows and on both the Xbox Live and Playstation networks later in the summer – is a little arcade action title which promotes co-operative play but can also be played alone. It is a departure in many ways from the traditional formulae, and of course the most striking of these differences comes with the look of the darn thing. Gone is the tired, tested and effective third person camera view directly behind our well endowed protagonist. It is replaced instead with an isometric camera view looking down on our heroine.
This is something that personally I feel will alienate a lot of the TR purists out there. If they are anything like me, they will share the sentiment that the original viewpoint offered us both the scales and complexities of the many terrains as well as an intimate bond with the character (Yup, those boob close-ups are definitely needed in a proper Lara Croft game! –Ed).
Although the environments in GOL still look very detailed - plants sway as Lara runs by, structures can be destroyed, and some impressive looking lighting effects should also dazzle the player - the distant camera causes the scale of the temples to be lost. It all looks like a strategy game which is all good and well, but won’t appeal to everyone given the subject matter.
Oh, there’s a story!
Teaming up with the Guardian of light, a shaman warrior named Totec, Lara is looking for the Mirror of Smoke in a South American tomb. Predictably, a bad guy has found it first and Lara and Totec try to reclaim it. You and, most likely, an online buddy will team up to solve puzzles together and work out tactics – this element should really work and play in the game’s favour.
The arcade stylings don’t just end with the co-op play and lighter tone: death is suddenly only a minor inconvenience as players will respawn right next to their partner if their health reaches zero. Points are earned for defeating enemies and for finding treasure – there will even be leaderboards presumably for level completion time and other mini contests.
Is this what Tomb Raider games a re about? Maybe I’m being a grumpy old gamer but despite proving popular with younger gamers for sure, this kind of gameplay engine doesn’t sit right against the exploration and simplicity of the franchise’s roots.
On the plus side, some early gameplay videos do show some neat moves and abilities for both Lara and her Akuji clone. Ms Croft has a new grapple technique and can team up with Totec, jumping on his giant shield and upon a spear he throws into walls to reach far away ledges. Such little tricks and traps should make puzzle solving a blast with a mate, hilarity promises to ensue as you both try different scenarios to get over the gap in the bridge/find the key etc.
With a quoted six hour competition time – even as a digital download – does this game warrant our excitement, or is it merely filler before the next official instalment which needs to be better than the last one. Crystal Dynamics will hope this little nugget can forge some new fans for the series and re-ignite old hands with its undoubted innovation and the bravery of offering something radical. We’ll see.