Well colour me surprised. When the news broke that Crystal Dynamics would be foregoing - for the moment - another Tomb Raider proper to bring the franchise, slightly skewiff, to Xbox Live Arcade (and later the PlayStation Network), complete with an isometric perspective and Diablo-inspired gameplay, I can't say my hopes my hopes were high that Lara's latest jaunt could re-energise a series whose ever-decreasing circles had run it deep into the dirt; near enough six feet deep, by all accounts. And yet Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light does exactly that: the change from over-the-shoulder action/adventure to top-down, uh, action/adventure... well, it mightn't seem a tremendously innovative twist on the old familiar experience of Tomb Raider these past ten years, but the shift in perspective informs enough of Crystal Dynamic's latest attempt to bring back a fallen franchise that Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light has to be our favourite English heretic's best iteration since Tomb Raider: Legend.
What a shame, then - truly, tragically - that it's shipped broken.
You'll run aground two camps of criticism of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, I expect - excluding longstanding Tomb Raider apologists, that is. There are those who will adore Crystal's rejiggering, and those who will wish they could. Would that I could count myself among the former lot. What really sets Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light off, you see, is the co-op. The developers have designed this game from the ground on up to be played with a friend. Thus, Lara is joined on her latest round of wanton pillaging by Totec, an Aztec statue come to life when some... baddies... steal a mirror... re-animating some ancient bully bent on cold-shouldering small businesses out of the high streets... or something.
You know what? It doesn't matter. No-one's going to play this game for its clumsy-ass attempt at narrative. When the evil demon you spend Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light chasing shouts "I will bathe in your blood!" at you, from a rocky outcrop you can't quite reach, you realise... no. The story here serves a single purpose: to rationalise the co-operative aspect so pivotal to the game's successes, such as they are. One player takes Lara, who comes with guns and a grapple, the other, Totec, who has a shield and a spear. In tandem, Lara and Totec can traverse an array of cunningly crafted tombs either one would find impossible without the other's assistance. Let's say there's a precious artifact glowing away on a high precipice. Perhaps Lara can shoot her grapple up to a conveniently placed ring, which Totec is then able to reach by walking her tightrope. If there isn't a grapple ring, you can be sure there's another way to go about reaching the artifact: Lara might have to clamber up from atop Totec's shield, or a spear the titular guardian has wedged into the cliffside.
The co-operative threads of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light are woven still deeper into the fabric of Crystal Dynamics' latest. Lara and Totec will compete, across around fifteen stages, for an array of shinies. There are the ubiquitous piles of treasure - piles of treasure everywhere - not to mention thirty-some weapons ranging from shotguns to grenade launchers, red skulls (of which there are ten in each level) and so on. These collectibles add an element of competition to an otherwise friendly affair, though in most cases the frenemies share their haul with one another; if the erstwhile tomb raider is the only player able to reach the assault rifle, Totec needn't feel cheated: he too can equip it.
For myself, I played the entirely of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light with my other half - a hard-bitten Tomb Raider fan if ever there was one. We both had a hell of a time with it, too. Sadly, not everyone will have that opportunity. Though Crystal Dynamics have promised to patch in online co-op in time for the game's release on PSN, it's couch co-op only at this stage, and in single player, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a hollow experience indeed. Where with two players each puzzle presents a pitch-perfectly designed challenge tailored to foster and encourage cooperation, with one, you get Totec's spear and some balls to roll onto pressure pads in the guardian's stead.
As a single-player experience, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is at best a modicum above average. It looks good, it sounds alright, and it's sweet of the developers to have packed in the chance to go it alone, yessir it is. That said, it's shameless that they've botched the delivery of the mechanism by which most players would otherwise experience it at its finest: online co-op. And I'm sorry, but the notion that adequate "networking code" has somehow eluded Crystal Dynamics - though only, oddly, till the PSN version hits - is, quite frankly, insulting. This is as clear a cut case of how console charlatanism killed the video game star as I can recall. And it's a crying shame, because had it shipped with its unique selling point intact, I'd heartily recommend you all download Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light immediately. Without it, the buxom brunette's first joint jaunt is half a game.