Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is the sort of game that we need to see more of on the PS3 and Xbox 360: Easy to play, hard to put down, but not a throwaway side project or appendage to some bigger effort.
Unlike any Tomb Raider game before it, the Guardian of Light has you controlling Croft from the floating perspective so popular in retro action games.
And it's important to keep in mind that while the game stars Croft, and a Mayan sidekick named Totec, it is not a Tomb Raider game. Like Vegas, what happens in Guardian of Light is staying in Guardian of Light. The game, which takes place in the Tomb Raider universe, will have no lasting impact on the lore of the long-lived franchise.
Instead of worrying over plot points and character development, players are meant to sit down and enjoy the game alone or with a friend.
And my time playing the title earlier this week left me yearning for more. I took on the role of the spear-throwing Totec, a Mayan warrior who imprisoned himself with the Mirror of Smoke to protect it, only to fail when it mattered most.
As Totec, I can block attacks with a shield, throw spears or arm myself with three other weapons. The game is packed with unlockable weapon choices, and you can assign them to four spots on your directional pad. You can also quickly shuffle through the weapons while attacking with a left trigger pull. So you don't have to worry about slowing your attack to change things up.
Gameplay is straightforward, past-paced and fun. Players use the left thumbstick to move around and the right thumbstick to aim, while firing with the right trigger.
And the game isn't just about gunplay, there are plenty of quick puzzles to solve to find hidden items and continue your journey. To ensure that both players work together, most of these puzzles require teamwork.
Both characters have some neat cooperative moves. Totec can hold his shield above his head for Croft to stand on. He can also throw up to three spears into walls. Croft can then jump on these spears to get to higher areas in a map.
Croft can use her whip to grab objects and create a sort of tightrope for Totec to walk across. She can also grab Totec with the whip, allowing him to walk along or up walls. Both characters have bombs they can drop and then set off with a button push.
The gameplay feels tight, the camera work perfect for this sort of play, and the graphics, the graphics are amazing.
That's because despite being a downloadable title ($15 for the PS3 and PC or 1200 Microsoft points for the Xbox 360) Lara Croft and The Guardian of Light was built using the full Tomb Raider game engine. That means the environment is incredibly responsive to the actions of those two highly-detailed, diminutive characters running around. Plants shift as Croft and Totec run through them, water splashes, shadows run along walls. The game is a marvel to behold in motion. And it's fun.
I spent perhaps too long yesterday playing through a chunk of a level as Totec: Blasting away skeletons, demons and spiders with a shotgun, flinging spears up a wall as I climbed the stairs opposite, to allow Croft to jump her way to a treasure, working in tandem with Croft to open doors and avoid traps.
There are also plenty of other neat design innovations in the game as well. For instance, one level we were shown played with the concept of verticality. The entire level takes place on a set of descending stairs and pathways, as you play your way down this level you can see in the distance, far beneath your character, the final door you need to make your way through. As you work your way down, that once tiny and distant door continues to come into focus. It's a pretty basic idea, but setting a map on end so you can see the finishing point the second you start adds a sense of scale to the map rarely seen in games today.
Most importantly Lara Croft and The Guardian of Light, due this summer, is a blast to play, a reminder that like Shadow Complex, a game doesn't have to be bigger to be better, it just needs to be crafted with care and attention to detail.
My only concern is that The Guardian of Light may be over too soon after you start, with just eight or so hours of gameplay. But there are a couple of things that lead me to believe that won't be a big issue.
While Lara Croft and The Guardian of Light is meant to be played in tandem with someone else, either two people on one machine or with an online friend, it can be played alone. But developer Crystal Dynamic said they decided early on that the amount of cooperative work needed to play through the levels made it impossible for them to make one of the two characters AI-controlled. Instead they revamped the entire game for the single-player experience, giving Croft new abilities when she goes it alone and even changing some of the puzzles and bits of the map.
It is so different, they think, that a player could enjoy the experience of making their way through the game a second time just to experience the change in gameplay.
And what, I asked, about competitive gameplay? Could that be coming in the form of downloadable content?
Crystal Dynamics declined to say, but they did say that they are considering the notion of adding more content to the game after it's been out for a bit.