Early on during the PR spiel for Guardian of Light, some of the games listed as sources of inspiration leave me a bit thrown.
Diablo? Gauntlet? Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance?
These seem like odd ingredients to toss into the Tomb Raider cooking pot, but then again this isn't Tomb Raider. It's a whole new direction for the aristocratic archaeologist, and one which the team is relishing. And soon after the pad is put into my hands, the comparisons start to make sense.
Lara's new adventure has all the appearance of a dungeon crawling loot fest - from an isometric viewpoint we see torches flicker and enemy mobs swarm over ledges, requiring swift crowd control. There are no equipment drops but little numbers levitate rewardingly over defeated enemies - points for the killer which up the competitive ante. Health, ammo and other pick ups are suffused with an inviting glow, as do the point scoring gems hidden in darker corners.
Before long, another parallel becomes apparent - the controls are basically the same as those of a twin-stick shooter. Aiming is done with the right stick and moving with the left, with the right trigger as the fire button. Navigating the hordes of spiders and ogres which the scenery spews forth is a little like a session of good old Geometry Wars - you find yourself clearing and moving into space while the horde jostles around you.
It all feels a bit odd at first. The infinite ammo on Lara's trademark default twin-pistols means that the screen rapidly turns into a hail of gunfire, while the chunky bullets and coloured numbers everywhere make this look for all the world like anything but a Lara Croft game.
But it doesn't take long to get used to, and before long a bit of friendly competition develops between me and the PR doing the demonstration. That doesn't last long either. I accidentally drop a remotely detonated bomb, the only weapon with friendly fire enabled, and detonate it in a decidedly un-remote way - flinging a ragdoll Lara into a yawning chasm.
Restarts are quick, thankfully, and after a few seconds I'm back in the fray. If either character dies on-screen then they can be revived by their companio. Pile over the edge of a cliff and you'll pop up next to your co-op partner. Lives are infinite, and if both players expire then it's a short trip back to the latest checkpoint.
Adding to the arcade feel are the mini-achievements which are scattered throughout the game. Some of these take the form of one-off events, like crossing a river without touching the water, and some are gradually built up - the example on the demo level being to collect ten red skulls. Complete one of these mini-challenges and you'll be rewarded with extra ammo, health or occasionally an artefact. These artefacts will play a part in the final game, but their purpose currently remains a mystery.
This game does not mark a complete departure from the formula. Puzzles remain an intrinsic part of the gameplay, and if you're playing in co-op mode they'll all have a distinct flavour of team-work. Interestingly, if you play alone, it'll be without an AI partner. Crystal Dynamics wanted to avoid any of the frustrations which working co-operatively with AI in a complex environment can bring, so instead, players experiencing the game solo will have an adjusted set of abilities and challenges to overcome with them. In fact, the studio is confident that playing solo will provide a distinct enough experience that it'll feel completely fresh.
Back in co-op land, the puzzles range from giving leg-ups on undead Aztec warrior Totec's shield, to more complex and dangerous team-work. Totec can also shield Lara from enemy fire, protecting her while she operates switches or machinery. Lara, meanwhile, carries a handy grappling hook to perform wall runs, abseil down cliffs and create tightropes for Totec to saunter across.
It looks like communication will be key here. There are no emotes or non-vocal communications, so headsets are going to be a must for the more advanced puzzles. Often, a leap of faith is required, meaning Lara must grapple to Totec to survive. Obviously, if he's the one doing the jumping it's totally up to the plucky heroine to decide if it's worth the bother, but unless you're keeping each other up to pace with what you're doing there are likely to be tantrums.
Many of the puzzles have a physical element, a legacy of the Underworld engine being used for the game. Scattered around the level I play are giant, spiky metal balls - like huge malignant conkers. Grabbing these allows you to manipulate them, blocking jets of fire or depressing floorplates, but they can also be bounced around with the remote bombs. Predictably enough, crushing your friends with these looks set to be a popular pastime.
One puzzle we come across featuring these balls has a mini-challenge attached. One of the spiky balls is attached to a post in a dank crypt, spinning around the centre-point. Not too far away lies a fire-pit, blocking access to the next area. Being a practical man, I get ready to blow up the post with a bomb and roll the freed ball over to the grate. There's a more stylish method, however, which will earn you one of those mysterious artefacts.
Bombing the ball at exactly the right time unleashes it like a pool ball, rolling it neatly into the fire and allowing us to continue. Obviously, I miss, but the idea is there. Completing these puzzles by the route less travelled often opens up hidden areas, too, in addition to the critical path revealed by the simplest solution. Later on, we come across a sectioned floor covered in ominous looking holes, gaming shorthand for a spiky hazard. True enough, stepping one gives Lara a second or so's grace before being shish-kebabed, so the journey to the two-floor plates is a relatively simple one for our heroine and her spear-wielding companion.
The tougher challenge is to activate all of the squares in one run, weaving in and out across the 40 or so sections without re-crossing your path. This done, a section of wall slides down to reveal another small ante-chamber with another puzzle.
It all bodes well for the exploration element, and replay value. The path through the temple level which we're laying is linear, but branches and optional areas are scattered everywhere just off the beaten track. It all feels very open, but not in the traditionally bewildering Tomb Raider way - there should be none of the frustrating back-tracking through environments which the more complex tombs of Lara's previous games feature. In fact, the experience seems to be designed to avoid any of those moments - focussing instead on fun and action, a fitting style for a download-only release.
This isn't Tomb Raider. That's something which both Crystal Dynamics and Eidos want to make clear. That's doubtless going to upset a few people, but if you're willing to keep an open mind and look at Lara in a new light, this could be the start of something very interesting indeed.