Rather than simply running through the same levels together, fighting more enemies and sharing spoils, the puzzles thrown at you in co-op require smart use of the two characters' abilities. In co-op it's Totec who can throw spears into walls, which Lara can then walk on (the massive warrior is too heavy for this), while the buxom adventurer's grappling hook can be used to create tightrope walks for her partner. Totec can also use a shield to protect himself and his female companion, and this cleverly doubles as a makeshift platform that Lara can use to access out of reach ledges. The duo can also help each other cross large gaps and scale walls.
Levels that seemed to be built around solo play are different when you tackle them with a friend. Puzzles are completely changed so that they require tight co-ordination and co-operation with your buddy. In the past Tomb Raider has never seemed ideally set up for a co-op experience, but the new mechanics in Guardian of Light, combined with clever level and puzzle design, make for a game that is essentially two-in-one - so different is the feel when played alongside someone else.
Whether you’re playing alone or co-operatively, you'll come across challenge rooms. These optional areas, marked by fiery red skulls above the entrance, pose trials that must be completed in order to gain new weapons or artefacts. Weapons are fairly self explanatory, but artefacts can be used to modify your stats. An early find will increase Lara's speed, for example, but also makes her bombs less deadly. There are also relics you can find and equip, granting additional weapon powers (scattershot, regenerating ammo) that activate once you've filled a an on-screen meter by shooting several successive enemies; in this powered-up mode Lara also gains a score bonus for each foe she kills – a perk that helps when aiming to beat the targets set for each stage. High-scoring runs unlock new weapons to play with, and there’s also leaderboard fame to compete for. The game also lets you compare scores with friends who have the game, and if you’re competitive you may find yourself revisiting old stages in a bid to out-perform your mates.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is slight in terms of storytelling – the one area seemingly skimped on to keep costs down – but everything else here is worthy of a full retail release. Visually it's excellent, the campaign is just as long as recent full-price titles I've played and is different when played co-operatively, and the gameplay equally tests your brain and your trigger finger. Even when you’ve finished the story, competitive score-based play should keep you coming back time and again. Online co-op won’t be available until September, but don't let that stop you picking up Guardian of Light now. It's a fine example of how to take a popular franchise and make it work for the budget downloadable market.