Version tested: Xbox 360
Squeezing an entire new Tomb Raider game into a downloadable nugget - admittedly, a rather chunky one, at just over 2GB - has necessarily involved some downsizing. Guardian of Light's opening cinematic is a series of stills with none of the acrobatic action-heroine antics or sharp delivery that we've come to expect from Crystal Dynamics' take on Lara Croft. Before you take your first steps into Guardian of Light's first temple, you wonder whether Tomb Raider without the pizazz can possibly be the same.
Guardian of Light is emphatically not the same, but that's no bad thing. It's a radical departure from every game in the series to date, both in its isometric 3D viewpoint and its arcade-style controls. And yet, it's still unmistakeably Tomb Raider: still a cerebral and exciting mix of puzzles and action. Once you get used to the change in perspective, you forget that things were ever otherwise.
Most significantly, the classic action-platforming structure has been reworked for two, resulting in one of the cleverest and most enjoyable co-operative games you'll ever have the pleasure of playing. It turns out there was a superb multiplayer game hidden in the Tomb Raider formula all along.
Guardian of Light's 14 levels are surprisingly vast, full of hidden areas and collectible gems, and they're mostly real, honest-to-goodness tombs: musty, vine-covered tombs, volcanic tombs with falling rock and bubbling magma, vertiginous spider-filled mazes, all full of traps and pressure plates and tantalisingly inaccessible ledges. They're unfailingly well-designed and easy to read; despite the fixed camera, it's always easy to tell whether or not you can make a jump. They take between 20 and 40 minutes to conquer on your first try, giving the campaign a good six to eight hours depending on your skills with firearms and lateral thinking.
You aim Lara's pistols with the right stick and shoot with the right trigger. She can strafe slowly with the left stick whilst shooting, but she can't dart about, Robotron-style. She can lay bombs and remotely detonate them, which you can use to manipulate the environment as well as blow up enemies, catapulting boulders over ledges or destroying arrow traps.
There's a surprisingly large variety of weapons - rifles, spears, flamethrowers, a grenade launcher, shotguns, the classic dual pistols, even a rocket launcher - and they have to be used strategically. The baddies range from speedy lizards to giant, bullet-absorbing ogres, spiders, skeletons and fire-spitting demons.
Challenge rooms, marked with red skulls, are standalone puzzles that are often terrifically inventive, particularly in co-op, and net you new weapons or ability-boosting artefacts. These trinkets modify the balance of play slightly, giving you more attack power in exchange for less potent bombs, or more speed for slightly thinner skin. Kill a lot of enemies without getting hit and you activate relics, which give your bullets special effects, like scattershot. There's actually more to Guardian of Light's combat than there has ever been in Tomb Raider.
In co-op, one of you takes control of Lara and the other of Totec, an ancient Amazonian warrior awakened at the start of the adventure by silly, greedy men with the usual cursed archaeological treasure. Totec has a shield that he can use to protect himself and Lara from arrow traps, or heft above his head to turn himself into a temporary platform. He can also throw spears into walls, which Lara can then balance upon to cross gaps or reach high ledges. Lara, meanwhile, has a grapple line that Totec can walk like a tightrope, and they can use each other anchors, helping each other up or down walls or across gaps.
Vitally, these co-operative abilities don't just find their application in clearly-signposted situations. They're part of the whole fabric of the game. You develop a kind of symbiosis; rather than just standing on different switches in unimaginative puzzles, as it so often the case in co-op, you'll be spontaneously saving each other from a fall with a quick grapple, or protecting each other back-to-back against waves of tomb-dwelling undead.
Some things are a little easier with Lara, some with Totec, which lends the game near-perfect balance. It never feels like one of you is left to do all the work. Totec isn't simply the support player setting up successes for Lara, and refreshingly, the female character doesn't have to stay two steps behind a more combat-capable male. The rush to grab gems or kill enemies first for more points introduces a gentle element of competition, but ultimately you depend upon each other to succeed.
This is because every level in Guardian of Light has been built twice - once for one player, and once for two. Playing in co-op is not just a matter of squishing more enemies, or standing on two switches instead of one - the levels and puzzles are significantly different, and satisfyingly clever. Entire set-pieces play out differently, meaning that the game is still a surprise in multiplayer even if you've already conquered the levels solo. (Online co-op won't be activated until 28th September, when the game comes out on PSN and PC, but local multiplayer is seamless.)
Interview: Crystal Dynamics talks Lara
Sex, platforming and an exclusive new trailer for Guardian of Light.
Hands On: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
Lara, Lara laughs.
Interview: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
"There's always somebody in the room smoking crack."
Gameplay from the PS3 version.
In single-player, weights and rolling balls will often take the place of your partner, but it doesn't feel pared-down. There's almost never a moment in single-player where you're left struggling on your own with something that is obviously a two-person puzzle. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how the levels will be rebalanced for two until you play them through with a friend, and suddenly wonder how they ever worked in single-player . What Guardian of Light achieves, impressively, is a campaign that feels purpose-built and perfectly balanced whether you're playing on your own or with a friend.
This inspired duality makes Guardian of Light one of the best-value games on Xbox Live Arcade, PSN and Steam. Even after you've finished the campaign, it lives on as a score-attack game. Speed-runs are rewarded with extra relics and artefacts, and mini-challenges push you to get the most out of each level, teasing you with tricky tasks like rolling a ball through a maze in less than 30 seconds, solving a puzzle on the first attempt or jumping between stepping-stones without touching the floor.
The only thing that's lacking is a half-decent story. Guardian of Light's is barely even relevant to the action and what few cut-scenes there are only serve to accentuate its shallowness, but it does make up for these shortcomings with excellent set-pieces. There are heart-racing moments as good as anything Tomb Raider has ever produced in Guardian of Light, and they're even better when shared with a friend.
Guardian of Light would almost be worth a full price for the co-operative campaign alone. At 1200 Microsoft points - around £10, €15 or $15 - it's an instant buy. There are few download games that offer this kind of value for money, and few that are as clever or effortlessly exciting. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light might be a move away from the Tomb Raider name, but it's a tremendous homage to its spirit.
9 / 10
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light will be released on Xbox Live Arcade on Wednesday, 18th August, for 1200 Microsoft Points (£10.20 / €14.40 / $15). It will be released on PlayStation Network and Steam on 28th September for $14.99.