Lara Croft was at the Game Developers Conference looking like you've never seen her before. Sure, she still had braids and two great big…guns, but the similarities ended there. That's because we saw her in a full demo of her new downloadable adventure, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.
Unlike the Tomb Raider branded games, Lara Croft is a more arcade-style adventure with lots of running and jumping, played from an isometric perspective. It's also Crystal Dynamics' first download-only title, and it's due on Xbox Live, the PlayStation Network, and PC digital download services at the end of this summer.
The story involves an ancient struggle between two South American warriors: Totec and Xolotl. They battled two thousand years ago over a powerful artifact known as the Mirror of Smoke, with Totec prevailing and banishing Xolotl. From there, Totec sealed himself with the mirror to ensure that it never fell into wicked hands.
When Lara Croft heard about the mirror, she just had to have a look. So after a bit of exploration, she found it. However, she was followed by thieves who stole the mirror and removed it from its sacred temple, thus unleashing Xolotl and his evil minions upon the world. To save the day, Lara Croft must team up with Totec in a cooperative adventure through ancient ruins.
That's right, Lara Croft is cooperative both online and off. One player controls Lara, who has access to a gun and a grappling hook, while the other plays Totec, who has spears and a shield. They can shoot or throw their weapons in all directions, they both have access to remote mines, and they can also find new weapons in the environment, such as assault rifles. In the half hour we watched, the screen was frequently crawling with enemies. We saw both Totec and Lara roll toward a group of enemies, drop a mine, roll away, and detonate it. While mines are unlimited in number, each player can only set one every several seconds. Also, the mines are sticky, so you can put one on an enemy, lead it into more enemies, and then blow them all to smithereens.
We saw this maneuver executed to excellent effect against a host of arachnids. When Lara and Totec picked up some conspicuous jewels, they were swarmed by spiders! But Totec leaped forward, planted a mine on a giant spider's abdomen, then detonated when there were lots of other spiders around, catching them all in a net of destruction.
The mines weren't the only explosive objects in the environment - we also saw the duo plant a mine next to a jeep. The explosion was huge and spectacular, reminding us that Lara Croft uses Crystal Dynamics' proprietary engine.
Of course, people mainly play Tomb Raider for the puzzles, and that's also why they'll likely play Lara Croft. Totec's spears and Lara's grappling hook are mainly used to traverse organic environmental puzzles. For instance, if faced with a high ledge, Totec can throw a spear into the wall, and Lara can jump up on it, then jump up onto the ledge. Once she's up, she can grapple Totec and drag him up after her. Totec can also hold his shield over his head and have Lara jump on top. From there, he can jump, and she can jump at the apex of his jump, launching her high into the air.
In one case, we saw Lara fire her hook into a catch point on a wall, and then Totec actually ran on the zip line and jumped across the chasm. In another case, the duo descended into a tomb where a jewel rested atop a pedestal. Unfortunately, the very top of the pedestal was ringed by spikes, which withdrew when a nearby button was pushed in. So Totec threw a couple spears into the pedestal, stood on the button, and then Lara leaped up and grabbed the jewel.
This ties into another feature of the game: essential and inessential tombs. The puzzles within the former must be completed to advance in the game. These puzzles are generally of middling difficulty, ensuring that even casual Lara Croft players can make their way from start to finish. However, there will also be many tombs off the beaten path that yield extra loot and much, much harder puzzles. This way, Lara Croft intends to appeal to the hardcore Tomb Raider faithful, while maintaining a reasonable level of difficulty for everyone else.
One thing no fan would expect to find would be breathtaking graphics within an arcade DLC title, and yet that's what we saw as Lara and Totec explored the Temple of the Spider. As the two ran down a path, you could see the rest of the temple unfolding beneath them in the distance - and it looked awesome. According to Brand Director Karl Stewart, who provided the demo, "If you can see it, you're gonna play it." That means that whatever crazy looking obstacles you see in the background of a level will soon enough be in the foreground.
And so will Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, which is due on PCs, PS3s and Xbox 360s as DLC by the end of Summer. The developers are planning on a price somewhere around $15, and if it can deliver on its promise of run and gun action, great graphics, and diabolical puzzles, it will seem like stolen treasure at that price. Look for our full review at the end of summer, when we intrepidly explore this new temple to the first goddess of gaming.