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Hands-on: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light

Perhaps you've been glossing over any stories with the words "Lara Croft" in the headline, sure that it couldn't possibly have anything to offer you. You and Lara had your thing ... but that was years ago. You're older now. You've moved on.

Well, so has Lara. The team at Crystal Dynamics did an admirable job updating the Tomb Raider series with the Legend, Anniversary, and Underworld trilogy but they understood that they "needed to make a drastic change for the studio and that continuing down the same path wasn't really going to cut it any longer." So, Crystal Dynamics split itself into three groups: one focused on making the "pillar games" that will use the "Tomb Raider" branding; another focused on controlling the Lara Croft intellectual property and brand in-house; and the last one intent on delivering fresh "experimental" gameplay in a downloadable format using the "Lara Croft" brand. And that gets us to Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.

If you've been ignoring the Tomb Raider reboot, perhaps still spurned by the atrocious Angel of Darkness, you owe it to yourself to reevaluate that relationship once again. You see, Guardian of Light isn't a "Tomb Raider" game. It's something new: A $15 isometric co-op puzzle game. Ludwig's already given you his impressions of the game, but at a recent pre-E3 event I got to take the controller myself – along with Mr. Mike Schramm – for some co-op puzzle solving.

Gallery: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light | 10 Photos

"One of the big things in the game for us was to give the player simple problems and give them tools that have a lot of utility," said creative director Daniel Neuburger, "and let the two people on the couch decide how they want to solve the problems." Some examples of those tools include Lara's grappling hook (a recent addition to the series from the Crystal Dynamics trilogy), Totec's spear and shield, and some remote-detonated grenades.

Now for the utility part: Lara's grappling hook can be used as a tightrope for Totec to walk across, or she can climb on Totec's shield, held above his head, to reach higher areas and use her grappling hook to pull Totec up. Or Totec can throw spears across (or up!) a wall and Lara can climb them. Or she can "double jump" by climbing on Totec's shield, having him jump and timing her jump at the apex. Apply those tools to environmental puzzles and you've got the core of Guardian of Light's gameplay.

The area Mike and I played didn't include much combat – though there's plenty to be found in the game. Instead, we focused on some of the "challenge tombs." These are special rooms, off the course of the main quest, which more puzzle-oriented players can opt to undertake. "So what we use those for is to be able to able to push our puzzles and some combat further than we normally would on main gameplay paths," Neuburger explained. "So people that really love those kind of difficult, mind-bending puzzles from Tomb Raider still have those tricky puzzles left in the game."

The example Neuburger showed us included a tall column with the relic on top. Unable to make the jump using either Totec's shield or climbing up a single spear, reaching the summit seems pretty difficult. However, if Totec backs up the stairs leading into the tomb and throws spears into the column as he ascends, it would create a vertical ladder that Lara can climb to get the artifact. Neuburger called this a "really simple" challenge tomb; one which rewards you with an artifact. "These are ways for the player to boost their character in a way that makes them different to their co-op partner," Neuburger says of the artifacts. "So when you pick these up [...] the artifacts will have different abilities tied to them. Like this one will make your weapon more powerful and makes you faster."

The co-op gameplay in Guardian of Light requires constant communication between both players – the mechanics don't work with anything less. And make no mistake, Guardian of Light was built for co-op. Neuburger told us, "We built the game co-op first, because that was really important to us to deliver a really true co-op experience. Where it wasn't just two people playing the same game at the same time but really working together."

The end result is an extraordinarily polished downloadable title. One that, along with games like Shadow Complex (unsurprisingly a game it's already been compared to) helps raise the bar on what you can expect from this new breed of not-quite-retail downloadable games.

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