Lara Croft lost her lustre long ago. Once a poster girl for popular video games, the British explorer's adventures slowly descended into dreary predictability.
But I urge you not to let her past exploits keep you from investigating Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, the final game to be released in Microsoft's 2010 Summer of Arcade series. It's her finest escapade in a decade, and one of the best downloadable games you'll find on any platform this year.
Just be prepared for some significant changes in her old tomb raiding formula.
The most notable deviation is that we're provided an isometric perspective of the action as apposed to the franchise's familiar third-person view. Imagine one of your favourite dungeon-crawler RPGs, then picture a bosomy, teal tank top-clad heroine in place of your burly dwarf and you'll have a general idea of what it looks like.
Now imagine controlling Lara as though she were the protagonist in an old twin-stick shooter like S mash T.V. or Robotron. One stick controls her movement, the other the direction in which she aims whichever of the many weapons she can wield. It makes for terrifically accessible and intuitive action. Indeed, the fights are so much fun that there were times I preferred them over the game's puzzles-a predilection I've never before experienced while playing a game starring Ms. Croft.
But don't write off the puzzles. The Guardian of Light is loaded with at least as many pressure plates and pull-able switches as any of the Tomb Raider-branded games. And that's to say nothing of the optional reward-driven challenges scattered across each level, which include completing tasks in special tombs and accomplishing Xbox Live achievement-like objectives. Whether it's finding ten cleverly hidden red skulls or just figuring out how to reach a power-up stowed atop a precarious precipice, there are plenty of conundrums in designed to keep thinking gamers thinking.
And the puzzles can be even more fun with a friend. Local cooperative play (online is coming later this fall) lets Lara team up with an Aztec warrior to work through the campaign. Wondering how to ascend a wall? Have your buddy throw some spears into it and then use them as a makeshift ladder, leaping from one to the next.
There's still room for this new species of tomb raiding to grow. A persistent mini-map would be nice for some of the larger levels, and without the ability to change direction or momentum mid-leap, platform jumps can be finicky (though one could argue it wouldn't be a Lara Croft game if we didn't have cause to complain about her jumps).
But, by and large, it's a fantastic rethinking of the franchise.
If you've been hording your downloadable gaming dollars all summer long to wait for the best of the bunch, this might well be it. The stunningly original Limbo is still my favourite, but Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light boasts much broader appeal. It's difficult for anyone to go wrong here-especially considering it costs less than $20 and offers a campaign as long as many games three times its price. Expect it to contend for digitally distributed game-of-the-year awards come the winter.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3 and PC editions coming this fall
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
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