7th Feb 2007 | 19:53
Bit of a strange one, Lost Planet. When it was first announced at the back end of 2005, there was a nationwide shrug and sigh session as we all prepared to dismiss the game as another plodding mech adventure conceived to help sell a handful of 360s to the Japanese. Next came an E3 reveal and then - more impressively - the Live demo, which was a mindblowing showcase of the ability of Microsoft's white wonderbox to deliver top notch, rock solid, alien-blasting gameplay and top notch, rock solid, alien-blasting visuals. In one short download, we'd gone from apathy to ecstasy. January 2007 couldn't come quick enough and the hype machine was working triple shifts. But now it's finally here, we've got to admit, we're starting to feel slight but undeniable twinges of disappointment.
More of that later. First, some context: some time in the distant future mankind discovers an icy out-world, which they name EDV III. Catchy. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, the humans decide to try and settle a colony on EDV III, which all goes splendidly until they encounter the native species: the insecty, Akrid. Aside from being UTTERLY MASSIVE ALIENS with an apetite for mashing humans, the Akrid produce a fuel source within their body called Thermal Energy (T-Eng) that is rather handy for powering machinery and electronics. So this makes the humans more determined to stick around on EDV III and, to try and counter the Akrid threat, they bring in enormous man-piloted mechs called Vital Suits. Which is where you come in; filling the snowshoes of disastrously-named lead character, erm, Wayne, a spunky young VS pilot with a secret. He's on a mission to rid the planet of Akrid and get even with the space-monsters for offing his Dad in the first, superb level.
Of course, this elaborate sci-fi plot is just padding for several hours of handsome-looking man versus space-beast blammo. The super-size of the Akrids serves as a good excuse for the developer to shoehorn a selection of Japan-pleasing mechs into the game, and the 360's near God-like power has allowed Capcom to go overboard with the sort of fire, dust and snow effects that make graphics whores (like us) "Oooh" and "Ahhhh" constantly. It seems like a winning combination. And it should be a winning combination. In fact, it should be one of the greatest shooters on the 'box by a long, long way - but sadly, Lost Planet feels like old footprints melting in slushy, yellow snow.
The main problem with the game is that the action is too vanilla. Each stage follows a very specific formula that, on paper, reads something like this: angry cutscene; shoot snow pirates/aliens; shoot large (but not boxer-soilingly so) mid-level boss; shoot more snow pirates/aliens; shoot unfeasibly big end of level boss; angry cutscene; and repeat. It's the standard shooter formula we've been playing for years, and it makes Lost Planet more one-dimensional than a Vin Diesel performance. Whether you're fighting snow pirates, Akrids or both, combat never reaches fever pitch until you encounter something huge - and even then, mid-level boss fights are unlikely to have you breaking out in a cold sweat. No, it's mostly a case of circle-strafing while you empty your clip into whatever the auto-aim picks out for you. In fact, the auto-aim can be a massive problem if you're trying to kill clusters of enemies by blasting explosive barrels or Akrid nests, because it won't pick them out if there's anything else nearby.
SNOW THE LINE
Of course, this might not be such a problem if the levels weren't so painfully linear. EDV III may be a massive ice world, filled with the sort of natural wonders that'd get David Attenborourgh's heart pumping like a jackhammer, but when you're ploughing through each level it feels more like a series of white, grey, and occasionally orange corridors. Think Brute Force on ice.
What makes matters worse is that the level designers seem to have realised how simple and unimaginative some of the stages are, and have tried to spruce them up by adding bizarre routes and obstacles that force you to break out the old platforming skills. But it just doesn't work. One example saw us climb out through the roof of a cavernous snow pirate base, only to be confronted with a cliff on one side, and a certain-death drop on the other. We uncovered a VS (ie, a mech) by digging it out of a snowdrift, and used it to try and jump up the side of the cliff. After sliding back down a few times, we managed to gain footholds on what we assumed were bugged-out sections of rock and eventually leapt onto the summit; which turned out to be our intended destination. But all the way through, it felt like we were cheating, and we half expected to get to the top of the cliff to discover the sort of void you come across when you're trying to break out of the gameworld. It was one of the most tragic pieces of level design we've seen on the 360 so far, and certainly not an isolated incident in this game.
You do get some assistance when you're navigating through the ill-conceived icy-wastelands of EDV III. Hitting T-Eng waypoints (which you open by rapidly tapping b under a hail of attacks from various Akrids) throughout each level not only restores your health, but also updates your PDA and shows you the right route to take by shooting out a bright beam of light in the direction you should be heading.
ICE TO LOOK AT
Thankfully, one aspect of Lost Planet that does stand out - and it makes trudging through the mediocrity of each level well worthwhile - are the bosses. The end of mission Akrids are colossal, and as you can imagine, they're tougher than Mike Tyson in a steel suit. Get knocked out of your VS while you're taking on the sort of monster that would eat Gears of War's Corpser for a mid-morning snack, and it usually means a quick, messy death for our Wayne. In keeping with the game's regressive feel, they've all got specific weakspots - and yes, you have to hit these to inflict the massive damage - but sometimes it's tricky to even find where they are. Fighting these creatures on anything above Easy is a real challenge, and one that harks back to Ninja Gaiden on the old 'box. If you're the type that sniffs at next gen games for being too easy we reckon these are the aliens to give you that hardcore fix you've been craving.
These epic boss battles wouldn't work, though, if Lost Planet wasn't a seriously handsome game. Being able to see every tentacle and pulsating Thermal Energy sack on the Akrids is a real bonus, especially when you're working out how to beat them. Nailing the smaller ones with a shotgun makes the Akrid fly apart in a satisfying mess of green-blooded chunks, and blowing up a band of snow pirates by shooting a nearby explosive barrel generates an extraordinary flame effect, followed by plumes of next gen smoke and a shower of dislodged snow. Impressive, especially on that HDTV you really should have invested in by now. The only drawback with these intense visuals (and we can't believe we're going to say this...) is that they can sometimes be too much. During boss fights, or encounters with other mechs, the amount of explosions and smoke being flung around onscreen means you're completely blinded and unable to either pick out a target to return fire at, or avoid incoming missiles.
Oh, and unless you're packing a rocket launcher or one of the ridiculously large mech-weapons that can be lugged around while you're on foot, you probably won't survive the encounter with body intact.
XBOX LIVE AND LET DIE
If the single player is a mixed bag of thrills and flaws, Lost Planet's multiplayer portion is something of a saving grace. Did you download the demo in November? Then you should know roughly what to expect. The online action is quick, slick and impressive - so much so that it brought back not-too-distant memories of Halo 2 on Live. Every-thing here seems so much better balanced than in the single-player game. There's none of the endless grappling and energy hoarding, just the kind of man-on-man violence that croaky-voiced Americans are probably already masters at. If you were too shy to get deeply involved with Gears of War's communication-heavy multiplayer, Lost Planet is the game you should be rocking over broadband. Well, until Halo 3 finally comes out anyway.
But there's a downside: multiplayer tends to highlight the shortcomings of the controls. In single-player it's fine to have zooming mapped onto the D-pad - you've got time to pop off a shot, then zoom out and change while you're stood on the spot. However, stand still for this long in the multiplayer arena and you'll have a hairy snow pirate corpse-humping you before you've fired a second shot. Similarly, it's a real pain having to stop and change weapons. Why can't our highly trained warrior whip a gun off his back in full flow like any other virtual gunman? And who thought clicking in the right thumbstick was a good way to reload? These are small criticisms, but anyone who regularly sheds blood over Xbox Live will find it tough to adjust, and this is something that often makes the difference between sticking with a game for months, or leaving it to gather dust after only a few days of frustrating online death.
At the end of the day, most of you will probably have an opinion on Lost Planet already. The single and multiplayer demos are both great examples of what this game can achieve when it gets things right. Sadly, they don't prepare you for the immensely frustrating, teeth-grinding periods of shooting-by-numbers and dreadful platforming that spoil an otherwise great idea. Exploring Lost Planet can be entertaining but you've definitely got to be prepared for the pitfalls.