[18 August 2010]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
I tend to think of any game starring Lara Croft as being a game that is almost exclusively about voyeurism. The Tomb Raider series is about watching: watching Lara, watching the world that she traverses.
I spend most Croft-centered games in relative repose, evaluating rooms to figure out what goes where, which switches do what, and how to make the jumps correctly.
Thus, I was extremely surprised (and actually quite disappointed) when I loaded up Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light and discovered that I was playing a top down, third person shooter/platformer. This wasn’t what I expected a Lara Croft adventure to be.
Comparisons to Diablo are probably going to be common enough (and probably already are), and those comparisons are not entirely wrong. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light with its co-op play and kind of dungeon crawling, alongside a lot more combat than is normal for a Lara Croft game, plays (in some ways) a lot like a Diablo-style game.
However, what the gameplay, especially because of the dual analog stick controls, really reminds me of is something more like a late 80s co-op arcade game. The game (again, especially because of that dual analog stick control system) has a weirdly Heavy Barrel kind of vibe to it. The game is not at all as simple as Heavy Barrel was, it just has an aiming system that kicked that bit of muscle memory back into play for me.
Lara is controlled with the left analog stick and aims in one of eight directions with the right stick, then the trigger is pulled to fire. This may sound somewhat awkward, and it kinda is. However, a little practice with the system and it largely becomes a surprisingly comfortable combat system. It is quick and peppy and gives combat that 80s kind of arcade feel. As enemies swarm about you (and they do often swarm in a somewhat Diablo-like fashion), I occasionally felt like I needed a melee option (something I have never felt necessary in any other Lara Croft game), but a little retreat to clearer ground and swinging your weapons around will do the trick in the more dodgy moments in the game.
Weapons come in a number of flavors. There are Lara’s signature dual pistols but also paired sub-machine guns, a shotgun, and even weapons like a flame thrower. An interesting and unfamiliar addition are bombs that can be dropped and triggered later. These are useful when dealing with the aforementioned moments of swarming enemies (also quite fun when you blow up a horde of spiders) but also with a number of puzzles. The most notable of the weapons is the spear of the other playable character in the game, Totec, which when thrown allows Lara to jump up on it and balance there to reach higher ledges. The item is extremely useful in the game’s platforming sections and encourages specifically co-operative efforts to traverse tombs in the two player version of the game.
Platforming abounds here. This is one of the things that I initially feared was largely an aspect of Lara that was going to be ignored in this re-envisioning of the Tomb Raider gameplay; Lara needs to jump. However, the Diablo-style dungeon delving is surprisingly well served by adding platforming and puzzling and platforming-as-puzzling elements in the game. Lara doesn’t move quite like she would in a standard Tomb Raider game (but the move away from the over the shoulder perspective requires some definite reconsiderations for movement), but again, once the player becomes accustomed to the new control screen, Lara moves rather well.
The puzzle aspects of the game are especially clever though. I would not have thought that the game’s perspective would so easily accommodate puzzles, but rolling balls and switches make the transition to this style of play exceptionally well. These are not head scratching puzzles as the game is sped up considerably in its more “arcadey” form, but they aren’t no brainers either. Again, put most simply, they are very often just really clever, quick bits of critical thinking that break up the busier combat of the game. In some cases, some of the best levels make these “quick and dirty” puzzles the focus of the action itself by integrating them with boss battles and otherwise forcing Lara into some time sensitive platforming/puzzling.
In this sense, this Lara Croft outing is pure bubblegum pop as a game. But it is pretty tasty bubblegum.
My initial disappointment at not playing a “real” Tomb Raider game was quickly replaced by delight at how smart re-imagining Tomb Raider as a busy, mildly frenetic arcade game turned out to be. There is not much plot here, and Totec is about as flat a character as can be, but the emphasis here seems to be on making it fun to play a Lara Croft game again, something that arguably hasn’t exactly been the case in awhile (with the exception of Underworld, a game I felt was frequently underrated, but its mixed critical reaction and less than stellar initial sales do still speak to the general feeling of exhaustion permeating the franchise).
I would be disappointed if Lara’s adventures never returned to the action/adventure hybrid genre that the original Tomb Raider is largely responsible for popularizing in the mid-90s. It is a gameplay style that is as much her signature as the aforementioned dual wielded pistols. However, I had a lot of fun playing with a familiar character in familiar environments with a very different style of play that both plays homage to its gameplay roots but finds very clever ways of incorporating them in this new way. Much as other iconic characters from gaming have appeared in very different styles of games (think Mario in a kart racer or in a fighting game) but those games have still retained the mood and tone of their most familiar characteristics, this game is a very strong re-imagining of its source material.
The countless developers riffing on Diablo-style mechanics would also do well to pay attention to Crystal Dynamics innovations to that style of play, one that has (like the Tomb Raider series itself at times) similarly often grown quite stale. These developers prove that you can teach an old dog some new tricks, resulting in a much fresher and surprisingly fun way to play that seems both properly aged (but not aging) and surprisingly unique and new at the same time.
This is not a game that asks you to consider Lara once again; it is a game that simply wants you to just play again.