There are moments in Lost Planet 3 that are sure to inspire profound bouts of déjà vu, and not just because it’s the third game in Capcom’s sci-fi shooter series. From the first murmuring notes of its James Horner-like opening score to the dark, blue-tinged new look to the planet E.D.N III, Lost Planet 3‘s debt to James Cameron’s seminal action film Aliens is clear. And in handing over the production reins to the American developer Spark Unlimited, the gameplay has drifted away from the distinctly Japanese, arcade-style action of the earlier entries.
A prequel to 2007’s Extreme Condition, Lost Planet 3 begins with humanity just beginning to get a foothold on the series’ icy, inhospitable planet. The protagonist and guide through this murky new world is Jim Peyton, a blue-collar colonist who, like the prospectors of the Californian Gold Rush, has headed to E.D.N III in search of fortune.
Unfortunately, the planet’s equivalent of gold, T-Energy, is the product of the Akrid, a vicious indigenous species that lives to do two things: glow in the dark and attack humans. To aid him in his hunt for precious commodities, Jim’s given access to an ever-growing arsenal of guns, grappling hooks, and best of all, a Rig – a mecha that’s a hybrid of the Loaders from Aliens and the gigantic fighting machines from the cult film Robot Jox. Where the Vital Suits from the earlier games were relatively nimble and heavily-armed, Jim’s Rig is like a metal-clad Sumo wrestler: powerful, yet hideously slow.
At the central hub, an underlit base called Coronis, Jim can chat to various glib scientists, shady quartermasters and wisecracking engineers, who’ll dole out new weapons and upgrades (for a fee, of course), while your stony-faced boss gives out the missions. For the first few hours, Lost Planet 3 treads familiar territory, with Jim heading back and forth to various spots near the base, fixing communication dishes, gunning down Akrid and locating pockets of T-Energy. The plod-plod rhythm of Jim’s Rig, plus the predictability of the alien attacks and little quick-time mini-games (the most common being a twiddle of the thumb sticks to fix a malfunctioning bit of machinery) make these early hours a bit less compelling than they should be – like repeatedly fetching cigarettes and crisps for horribly lazy housemates.
At one point, I spent several minutes journeying through a sequence of lifts and airlocks (at least one employed to mask loading sequence, it seems) to give a scientist named Kovac some Akrid samples he’d asked for. After he’d insulted me a few times and paid me with a weapon upgrade and some T-Energy, I left his lab in a sulk and went off to speak to the quartermaster, only to have Kovac suddenly announce over the Tannoy that he had a new mission for me. My response was loud and sweary.
These annoyances aside, Lost Planet 3 is well programmed; from the responsive controls to the dependable range of shotguns, pew-pew pistols and pulse rifles, the game’s the very definition of competence. Sure, the reload rate on the un-upgraded rifle makes it a bit of a chore to use, and the Akrid often come from the Zapp Brannigan school of combat (the game throws wave upon wave of them at you, seemingly forever), but the mechanics are essentially sound. Those Rigs may plod along, but the first-person perspective gives a great sense of both claustrophobia and scale, while using the mighty arms to smash and drill rocks and Akrid feels meaty and satisfying. (The game also has an odd tendency to send you and your Rig into a gigantic lift in order to get to a boss encounter on occasion, which is a bit like taking a truck to a knife fight.)
No, the real problem with Lost Planet 3 is that it’s all been seen before, and so often. Everything from the mechanics to the visuals are immediately recognisable from somewhere else. Dead Space, Gears Of War and the Mass Effect series are three obvious influences, and there are more to be found as the game unspools.
It’s on an apparently routine T-Energy run that Lost Planet 3 finally kicks into life. Jim makes an unexpected discovery under the ice, and before he knows it, he’s surrounded by a new, more highly-evolved breed of Akrid that finally forces him to make proper use of that pop-in, pop-out cover system. The story picks up a bit here, too, with Jim gradually realising that his employers, NEVEC, has been getting up to all sorts of mischief behind the scenes.
Yet even here, as events take a more sinister turn, some odd pacing issues rear their head. Poor old Jim’s forced to fight a colossal boss-type creature no fewer than four times in quick succession, each in a slightly different location. It’s an odd design choice, particularly at a point in a 90-minute mission where shooting fatigue’s already begun to seep in.
The game also has a tendency to bombard the player with loads of cut-scenes. While some are great, others feel like padding. There are interminable conversations between Jim and his wife back on Earth – in one of them, she talks about losing her favourite hat. Another scene simply shows Jim sitting in a vibrating chair and drinking a cup of tea. In still another, Jim takes the time to tell us that his suit’s machine washable.
Fortunately, Jim’s actually quite a personable creation. He’s not up there with the likes of Nathan Drake or Lara Croft in the charisma stakes, but he’s smart, down-to-earth and easy-going. That he looks like the bearded love child of Nic Cage and Adrien Brody also helps.
The planet, too, is an often impressive creation. Gloomily lit and buffeted by howling wind, its atmosphere is enough to keep the player interested through the game’s more pedestrian, shoot-and-grind moments. Anyone disappointed by Colonial Marines earlier this year – and that’s quite a few people, we’re guessing – will probably be satisfied with the way Lost Planet 3 provides a slicker Aliens-like experience, from the Facehugger-like critters that scuttle around in abandoned buildings to the chattering computer systems.
When Capcom gave Spark Unlimited the keys to the Lost Planet franchise, there were some concerns as to whether the studio was capable of making a worthy sequel; 2008’s Turning Point: Fall Of Liberty is the team’s commonly-cited low point. Thankfully, Spark has managed to allay those fears to a fair extent, turning in a Lost Planet game that is, in its best moments, perfectly entertaining.
The monsters with conveniently-glowing weak spots are present and correct. The guns, grappling hooks and Rigs are all perfectly serviceable, and the five-on-five multiplayer mode offers an additional few hours of fun. But inevitably, perhaps, all these serviceable elements result in a disappointingly average whole; the cut-scene-heavy story shows glimmers of intrigue, but more often, the narrative merely plods. The alien world is harsh and beautiful, but it also feels confined and claustrophobic where the previous two games felt expansive if not necessarily inviting.
The original Lost Planet was far from perfect, but its action had real pace. As infuriating as having to keep your T-ENG topped up was, it gave the frozen planet a real sense of danger; its savage coldness had an immediate effect on your vulnerable hero, and made the environment as much of an enemy as the Akrid. In Lost Planet 3, that energy is now just a currency – for the most part, Jim can wander about in the cold without regret.
Maybe these mechanical changes are why Lost Planet 3 feels less like a prequel to its own series, and more like an entry in a western videogame series like Dead Space. In bringing the Lost Planet series closer to those games, it may be successful in enticing a broader audience, but we can’t help wishing that Capcom had insisted on creating something more bold, and less content to coast along on such familiar ideas.
Lost Planet 3 is out on the 30th August for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows.
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