I vividly remember playing the first Tomb Raider game, on my Saturn. There had been a lot of hype before release because, hey, you played as a girl. With boobs, and that. A bit silly really, because the graphics were nowhere near today's standards, and she looked pointier than Madonna in that daft bra.
It was a bit of a shame that so much focus went on this, because Tomb Raider was a fantastic game. A true revolution, it helped to change the course of action-adventure games forever. There were some real, bona-fide jaw-dropping moments in there... the valley of the dinosaurs, where I genuinely dropped my controller in fright (hello, Mr. T-Rex), was especially notable. And there was a bit where the camera panned way, way back to reveal that you were standing on a Sphinx... stunning.
The way it used to be. One step closer, wolves, and the walls get a paint job.
So, Tomb Raider was a real landmark in gaming, and one that I played to completion and thoroughly enjoyed. Sadly, none of the many follow-ups captured my enthusiasm in the same way... the second game was decent (and preferred by many) but I couldn't get on with it, possibly because I was playing it on the PC. Subsequent versions varied in quality, getting worse and worse as the publishers concentrated on Lara's ample charms above gameplay and good ideas.
Lately, with the outsourcing of programming to Crystal Dynamics, things have taken a notable turn for the better. The last couple of games have been critically well-received, and have not been hamstrung by the awful control methods and tedious gameplay which were prevalent for a while. Lara has been getting back into top form. And now, in a very interesting move, she's making a splash with her first download-only game, on XBLA and PSN... Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.
How d'you wanna die? Spear or gun? Either way, it's gonna happen.
There are several things about Guardian of Light that make it notable. For one, the Tomb Raider title has been dropped from the game. That's fair enough... Lara Croft is a big enough name that people know what they're getting from having that name in the title. Or do they? GoL throws enough twists at the formula to make this feel really fresh and different. Most obvious is the two-player co-op gameplay... which although not compulsory, is a brave and interesting move. I haven't had the chance to try it yet, but it promises to be a significantly different game to the single-player experience.
Easy... eeeeeeasy... left a bit... right a bit...
But how's the one-player game? I have to say, I think it's fantastic. Immediately obvious is the panned-out viewpoint. Instead of having the camera close to the action, and therefore all over Lara's curves, this has an isometric 3D viewpoint. It's kind of flickscreen... which sounds weird, but it scrolls when it needs to and then will have you go through a door and into a new area. It works perfectly well, and means you tend to focus on the best and quickest way through.
This is important, because GoL encourages replaying each level by dishing out extra in-game rewards for speed runs. I've never been a great fan of speed runs or replaying games, but I must have completed level one six times now, and still haven't milked it for everything. I happen to think this is an ingenious way of expanding the life of the game, and am very impressed with its implementation.
Lara goes Robotron... or maybe Black Widow, given the horde of attacking spiders.
And what of the gameplay itself? Well, that may be the most radical change of all. The best way to describe it (seriously) is as a twin-stick puzzle-platforming arena shooter. That's a fair old hybrid, but GoL manages to blend all of those elements into a perfectly cohesive and very enjoyable game. The zoomed-out viewpoint means that more attention is paid to the game than the protagonist, and that focus has helped to ensure you get a cracking gaming experience.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light costs 1200 points on XBLA. It's a huge download... 2.02GB. You can't help but wonder if a disc-based release might have been better, but then again they'd have had to charge more for that, and it represents really good value for money as it is. That hard drive space isn't wasted... there are fourteen levels in the game, and they're a good size too. There's a heck of a lot to do, it's all entertaining stuff, and there's plenty of replay value too. It's easily one of the best XBLA games so far, a damn good game in its own right and a really pleasant and welcome surprise.