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Lara Croft has been around quite some time now and has gone through so many reinventions that I’m not sure which parts of her are natural anymore. Now Eidos is owned by Square-Enix, Lara may well take on a Japanese angle, but for now the latest game in her long running series just does the ‘angle’ bit. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is the new downloadable game for XBLA, PC and PSN (come September), which has a whole new perspective. I can keep the ‘seeing things differently’ shtick going for a long time, but in a nut shell, this new title takes on a top down isometric angle and this time you can bring a friend along. That’s right, one of the first games to pioneer the 3rd person 3D game, has taken a step back. However by the end of the lengthy campaign, players will see that the series also takes several huge jumps forward.

Lara is at it again, raiding artifacts of extraordinary power, which will bring doom and destruction upon us all. Makes you wonder why she bothers, she can’t be making any money this way. Inevitably a bad, evil and stupid rival stops Lara at the treasure and releases Xolotl, a spirit with more negative descriptive words than the first guy. Xolotl plans to regain his powers and bring destruction to the world. Thankfully removing the Mirror that released Xolotl also release Totec, a Mayan warrior who will accompany Lara on her adventure to stop the inconvenient end of the world. This adventure will take players through multiple locations, collecting a huge array of weapons and artifacts along the way. Strap in folks, this one is well worth the couple of Gig to download it.

While the game can be played single player, in which you play Lara alone and have to face far less complex puzzles (and less fun), the game is far better in co-op. The only problem with this is that until the release on PC and PSN the title is local co-op only, with online support coming later. On the plus side, this means you will have to socially interact with a physical person and those pesky sociologists and psychologist will have to take back those nasty words about gamer’s lack of interactivity with the real world. Without a doubt, having played through the whole game, I would instantly suggest local co-op anyway, for a far more laugh filled experience.

Lara and Totec can be moved about the levels using the left stick, while using the right stick to aim at potential targets. The D-pad cycles through your quick select weapons, jump and dodge button are on the face buttons. From here it gets far more interesting, both Lara and Totec have access to an infinite amount of satchel charges which are dropped where you’re standing and detonated on the same button. These can be used to not only destroy scenery and enemies, but solve puzzles and open pathways. Sometimes the combination of both charges is required, forcing players to find a rhythm in teamwork. The differences in characters come from the rest of the equipment. Lara gets her signature dual pistols and a grappling rope, which can be used to pull Totec up large gaps, used as a swing to get across gaps and also converted into a tight rope for Totec to cross. Totec on the other hand, gets spears to defeat enemies and throw into walls, allowing Lara to travel across them, with his own weight breaking the flimsy wood. Totec also gains access to a shield which can be used to block and deflect projectiles, or act as a platform to boost Lara.

Guardian of Light

Teamwork is the name of the game, unless you know what you can do for your partner in a pinch, your quest is doomed to failure. The trick is to think of them first, yourself second. This creates an experience not seen in quite some time. Co-op these days tends to mean running over to another player and reviving them and little else. This co-op reliance is most obvious in the optional puzzle tombs. Through-out the game players will spot doors with 2 red skulls leering from above, these are optional tombs which will reward players who complete them. While some are very simple tasks, others require a large amount of thought and logical process to complete. The true enjoyment of the game comes from moments like these, where you and your partner throw ideas at each other and complete the tasks at hand.

Completing quests off the beaten track is almost a must for the game. In every level additional missions will be presented for you, from finding 10 red skulls scattered around the level to exploding a spinning ball into a fire pit on your first attempt. For your efforts, players will be rewarded with health and ammo upgrades or an artifact/relic. Up to two artifacts can be equipped at once, each increasing one stat while decreasing another (until the later levels), while only one relic can be equipped, granting you a special power when your special bar is full. The special bar is filled when you defeat enemies or collect jewels, once full enemies are worth a lot more points when defeated, but if your hit the bar is lost. If you didn’t have enough to do per level, a 3 tier points board is also presented, with the highest score margin rewarding you with a special weapon. Remember that co-op rant? Well the point system can be the focus of your competitive side, resulting in neither of you getting the unlock. The best tactic is to work together, if your partner has a full bar protect him from hits and allow him/her to reap the rewards of additional points. Once your partner has reached the limit, they can take a step back and help you towards your goal. Thankfully all levels can be replayed and your previous completion of tasks is recorded, so going through again is another option.

Additional weapons can also be found in puzzle tombs and the standard levels. Both Lara and Totec can use these modern day weapons, but with a cost. Each character has an ammo bar that will decrease at a speed dictated by the weapon used. From flamethrowers to grenade launchers, each weapon has a situational and preferred time of use. These additional weapons feel like…well additions, to play through the game you will never need them (apart from some puzzles), but using them because they are there and nothing beats a double-barrel. Ammo and health can be restored with either drops or restore points scattered through the level.

On normal difficulty the game should take just shy of 10 hours to complete, but the chances of you having everything is less than nothing. There is more replay value in this title than most full games. While the standard difficulty should only bother you around the end boss, the game feels easy enough in combat, but tricky enough in puzzles. Dying places you back at convenient checkpoints, minus a lump of your score, or if you’re playing co-op you can re-spawn on your partner with minimal health. Should you be lucky enough to die and have your body in an easy to reach place, your partner can revive you with full heath, just don’t expect that too often. Due to this dying doesn’t appear to be a concern, but if you’re aiming for that point threshold, then dying is a big setback. The game seems like it will never end, with the game taunting you that this could be the last level and yet carrying on. Each level you travel through is unique enough in its design for you to not get brought down by repetitive game play, in fact this has to be the first ‘Smash TV-alike’ that doesn’t grind on you after several hours of play.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is not only the best title to come from Xbox’s summer of arcade, it’s one of the best downloadable games full stop. With a wonderful co-op mode, replayability, food for thought in puzzle form and a simply stunning looking world. Shockingly the game is based on the Tomb Raider Underworld engine and yet blows that title out of the park. If I haven’t got across how much I enjoyed this game, I am purchasing the title on PS3 when it comes out so that I can play it through with another friend (unfortunately due to distance) online. I am more than happy to pay out for this as I enjoyed the game that much. Koku Gamers tip of the week: BUY THIS