I’ve never been a fan of the Tomb Raider series. While impressed by Core Design’s technical achievement with the original back in 1996, I found the game itself cumbersome. The pixel perfect positioning required pre-pounce and the subsequent plummet made for a tortuous experience. Shooting endangered species was fun though.
Having deposed Core a number of years back, Crystal Dynamics have now left the third person platform adventuring to one side, along with the Tomb Raider branding. Lara’s latest outing is instead an isometric arcade shooter, and the title is more in line with the Indiana Jones movies that arguably inspired the supplanted franchise’s inception. It’s an interesting decision, bringing as it has the likes of me back for a look, though whether the Lara fans (see easily excitable boob fetishists) take to this new direction remains to be seen.
There is a narrative in here somewhere that revolves around light versus dark and saving the world from an ancient evil by finding the Mirror of Smoke, but it failed to ignite any spark of real interest other than serving to explain the change from killing wild animals to demon spawn. It also forms the basis of the level design, being inspired by the ancient Mayan temples and forests of Central America.
But this is Lara, and we’re not really interested in the narrative. We want to watch her perfectly rendered arse skip around the screen, destroying historic items on the off chance there might be better historic items inside.
Grabbing the 360 pad (keyboard and mouse are available, but like choosing not to wipe after using the toilet it will soon lead to discomfort and is not something I’d recommend) I took control of our heroine. Like any first fumblings it was a bit awkward as while it was clear I was doing something to Lara, I wasn’t quite sure it was what she wanted. Thankfully Lara’s soothing words, a measure of her vast experience, had me moving my fingers in the right direction and before long we were both having something approaching fun.
Once settled in and taken through the basics we headed off in earnest, dispatching any demonic beasties foolish enough to pop up along these introductory corridors. The confidence inspiring first salvos were merely foreplay though and before I knew it there were paths diverging and multiple bodies coming at me from all directions. Trying to keep control of my weapon and choosing my targets selectively only resulted in a pathetically early demise, so on returning to the fray I tried the best SmashTV tradition of spinning on the spot, mashing the fire button, and blasting anything and everything. Result.
Historically with this type of level design, as found in the likes of Diablo and Torchlight, I’ll walk halfway down a path, turn around, go back to a junction, walk halfway down a different path only to find it inconclusive as to what may be ahead. This leads to me being locked in a schizophrenic fight over which way I should commit to, fearful that by making a poor choice I could miss something significant. A big pat on the back to Crystal Dynamics then as they’ve managed to encourage exploration by making the levels sprawling and open without ever making me feel lost or like I’d taken a wrong turn.
This exploration wasn’t all about hunting down creatures to obliterate, there were ruins to clamber over too. My athleticism is by now legendary, and with the aid of a grappling hook there was no obstacle or expanse I couldn’t navigate. Not to mention Totec’s spear giving me just the kind of boost I needed on occasion.
In addition to the running and jumping and shooting and swinging, there’s the obligatory puzzles to solve. Whether it be manipulating large balls in order to trigger a release mechanism, the occasional tug on a lever, or dancing over switch traps which reward patience with a spike where you’d only ever want your most intimate friends to go, they are not especially taxing but are sufficiently satisfying to complete none the less, particularly when facing a plethora of enemies bent on giving your toned and cellulite free thighs a quick nibble. Throw in a few well timed explosives and demons who fire what looks like heat seeking ectoejaculate, and it can be an exhilarating thirty seconds.
Unfortunately that seems to be the limit of such moments. Run a bit, shoot a bit, jump a bit. It’s a little by the numbers. I could almost imagine a line dance caller directing the action, “Take the spear in your hand, dismember the beasties across the land, and bow to your partner. Yee Haw!”.
Boss battles stretch it out, but I found them a little tedious. That’s not specifically a problem with Guardian of Light, more a personal thing. I can’t help but think of boss battles as the lazy way to finish a level. I’d much rather have a standoff against a mini army, or a complicated multi faceted puzzle that requires switches to be triggered in sequence while avoiding traps and maybe some regular henchbeasts to overcome. Running around trying to lure the former statue turned demonic Tyrannosaurus Rex, which when encountered I thought was both a nice call back to the original Tomb Raider and a laughable notion that any civilisation would randomly construct a dinosaur statue, to stand on a spike trap and shoot a switch so I could pun Jur-ASS-ic just doesn’t do it for me.
The core elements of running around, leaping on and over ruins, and dispatching the demon spawn make this the most enjoyable Lara experience I’ve had for, well, ever. Graphically splendid, aurally familiar, Lara’s latest escapade is warm and welcoming, easy to get into and fun to play. And while those individual elements are hardly original, they have been brought together beautifully and provide an experience distinctly different, both in terms of play and presentation, to anything else currently on offer.
As a Northern working man, Lara’s supposed wealth and privileged upbringing set her apart and made empathy difficult, but Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light finally gives me a Lara I can warm to. A cheap bit of fun.