Return to the frozen EDN III in the latest, and actually best, installment of Capcom's Lost Planet series.
The original Lost Planet (LP) was a relatively early (Dec '06) title for this nearly-over console generation. Developed exclusively for the Xbox 360 at launch, Inafune's third person action-adventure wasn't perfect, but it was pretty damn cool nonetheless. I just finished replaying through it a couple of months ago in anticipation of LP3. The sequel, released in 2010, was a huge step backwards though, and I found myself unable to force my way through the drab, multi-part campaign that was even less coherent than the original.
Fast forward to present day, and LP3 hath arrived, developed this time by Spark Unlimited. They kept the core spirit of Lost Planet intact, but made a lot of significant changes and it's to the benefit of the experience. I actually found LP3 to be the most interesting and satisfying game of the series thus far. I credit much of this success to the story and characters -- the protagonist especially -- that Spark created. You're Jim Peyton, a utility rig operator / repairman working for NEVEC who leaves Earth to come to EDN III so that he can make some bank for his wife and child at home. He plans to stay on EDN III for a year, maybe two, as long as the contracts and money are good. It's not hard to be come invested in Peyton and give a damn about him and his endeavor. He's certainly more memorable than Wayne or anyone from LP2, and your constantly reminded of his I-can-relate-to-that personality thanks to his inner reflections and candid video messages he and his wife exchange periodically when transitioning from one area to another.
Having just come off of playing Killzone: Mercenary, whose lead character is faceless and speechless, playing LP3 reminded me very quickly of the value in creating good, solid characters that players can actually care about. Peyton is supported by several competent, if not fairly generic supporting roles including Braddock his boss, Dr. Roman, a suspicious researcher, Gale, the zealous tech, Mira, the daughter of the leader of the Snow Pirates, as well as a few others.
Spark Unlimited did a solid job of getting the story and characters off to an interesting start. Then, several hours in, a major plot twist is introduced (that I won't spoil). But is this deceit malicious, or is there a greater reason behind it? The story and struggle of NEVEC and the Snow Pirates continues, some forty years after the initial colonization attempt on EDN III. Peyton finds himself more or less in the middle, helping out both sides as he tries to bring about a reluctant truce.
A good story and characters is always a plus, but gameplay and the fun factor is paramount. In that regard, I thought LP3 made several nice changes to what those familiar with the series are used to. This includes making T-ENG important, yet, not as annoyingly important as it was with the first two games. T-ENG is used as the currency for purchasing weapons, ammo, and parts for your rig. It's not a constantly depleting life meter as it was in the other games. I'm not saying it didn't work for the original two games, but it did force the gameplay to move fast, removing exploration which simplified the level design. LP3's levels aren't ground-breaking, and I will mention something specifically negative about them later, but they do a great job of blending vast outdoor areas with very confined indoor areas, and all sizes in between. I really liked the idea of having a base (or two) and then multiple areas you can visit (and fast travel to) on a world map, as well. Within these areas, there is reason to go back from time to time, due to earning story-based upgrades that are unlocked for you or your utility rig.
LP3's flexible, sandbox-like world design lends itself directly to being able to take on multiple missions, or quests, at a time. Several NPCs you meet will task you with optional fetch quests that yield significant rewards. Dr. Kovac asks you to get DNA samples of various Akrid for example, and he upgrades your pistol with a tool that allows you to do that. In exchange, at first anyway, he gives you the ability to purchase upgraded ammunition. Another NPC asks you to locate these invisible albino Akrid who are impossible to see without a audible tone to get you going in the right direction. Retrieving some of these allows you to get some nice upgrades, like increased accuracy when firing from behind cover, faster reloads, and improved health regen. The cover system, by the way, is basic, but it works well enough for how often it's used. Audible tones are also used to locate thermal hotspots whereby you can hop out, drop in a post, and come back later to collect, giving your T-ENG store a nice boost.
Introducing a sandbox-like gameworld, a well-controlled currency, multiple quests, moderately interesting collectibles, cool upgrades, and a variety of NPCs to talk to, are all significant, positive changes that LP3 brings to the series. The utility rig is another huge change, literally. The rig is almost a character in and of itself; it doesn't talk, it doesn't have a name, but trust me you'll be happy its at your disposal, especially when you get separated from it for a lengthy period. Besides the additional character-building features of the rig (a picture of Grace, Peyton's wife is always visible, his dashboard hula girl is just off to the left, and the twangy music tracks you can playback), the rig is a potent tool for accessing new areas, solving simple quest "puzzles," and combating Akrid, big and small. It's actually more effective at combating the big Akrid as opposed to the tiny ones that can inflict a lot of damage due to their numbers, size, and mobility. For bigger enemies and in also navigating the treacherous planetside, the rig is out-fitted with a grappling hook, a claw, a drill, and let's just say another upgrade or two later on in the campaign. These tools are used against Akrid, but are presented to the player almost as quick time events. I say that because you'll need to time your block, RB, accordingly and then that usually gives you an opening to snatch the Akrid with your left "hand" and then drill them with your right. Sometimes this is indeed clumsy, and there was a phase of a bossfight I found to be really annoying around the halfway point of the game, but usually it works just fine. Outside of combat, which is only about half of the reason the rig is used, it helps you get around and also keeps the monotony of walking or jogging across EDN III to a comfortable minimum.
The rig's uses extend beyond all that, though. I liked that getting into it, which you can do from the front side or the back, was as simple as getting close and pressing B, which immediately transitions the on screen action to a two second cutscene of Peyton hopping into or out of the rig with a short grapple-hook-hop. The rig also provides you with unlimited regular ammo if you go up to either of its feet, whereby a weapons locker is stored. You can swap out your primary, secondary, and grenade type here, too. Further, when you're fairly close to the rig, you're in what's known as umbilical range. While within this range, you have a radar and faster health regen to assist you. Hop into it or access the weapons lockers at its feet, and all non-specialty ammo is replaced, free of charge. Now when you get far away -- which happens regularly, but not obnoxiously so -- these bonuses disappear and the game becomes actually more of a action-heavy survival horror. One large portion of the campaign has you navigating an old base that's loaded with small, fast spider-like Akrid and other fast-moving, projectile blasting types that are constantly ducking into cover. As a comparison, if you haven't already surmised, the utility rig replaces the Vital Suits (the mechs) from the first two games.
Some negative gameplay elements that LP3 either introduces or carries over from the other two games include linear level design and lots of objectives boiling down to just finding a damn button or switch and pressing B, or X to initiate the brief "repair" mini-game whereby you move your two joysticks into very specific positions to speed up the otherwise automated repair of some device in the environment. There's a lot of "crap, got to find the override" or "I need to restore power" objectives going on that are about as textbook as they can get and that most are solved by the simplistic, un-imaginative aforementioned pressing of a button is a letdown. As mentioned, I do like the world map, the fast travel, having a base to go home to, and reasons to revisit some areas, but most of the level design is just too linear to not notice. Lots of corridors with T-junction hallways, usually where one side or the other is blocked off or otherwise inaccessible after just a few steps, making that possible multipath route limited very quickly to just a single, possible route. Furthermore, a few times the story goes as such that the friendly AI are supposed to help you repel an Akrid onslaught but their ability to do so is disappointing, and you very quickly realize that their presence is just to create some movement on screen and more yelling in your ears because they're awful shots and refuse to do anything to really help you.
LP3 does retain some of the gameplay elements that you may recall from the first games, for better or worse. The Battle Gauge from LP2 is gone, thankfully. Of course the grappling hook is back, and it makes sense to be there. It's used well, adding some verticality to the level design. Pistol ammo is infinite, and ammo in general is again very much plentiful. Akrid still have specific points to target to inflict damage, bosses especially, and there are still Akrid spawners that need your immediate attention. I mentioned earlier that data posts are practically gone, which I don't mind at all. A new gameplay mechanic that has you mashing a button as fast as you can are certain melee encounters. Some enemies and bosses will attack you and catch you off guard, seamlessly initiating a sort of quick time event that begins with a button mashing. Then, in the case of the some Akrid, you get a crosshair that is kind of hard to control, but you have to harness it for just a moment with the right stick until it hovers over part of the Akrid and turns red. When it does, press RT, and Peyton stabs the Akrid with his hunting knife. If you fail twice, you'll be going back to the last checkpoint.
Load times when going back to the last checkpoint felt a little long, but they're bearable. I liked the tune that plays when the game first boots up, and the soundtrack in general is pretty good and actually quite unique. You have the general game soundtrack, which has its ups and downs -- sometimes I felt like the music was trying too hard. A particular long, survival horror sequence has a sort of generic spine-tingling track playing, and another time in a surprise assault, the music integrates what sounds like a scratchy, blaring alarm that didn't do much for me. Other times, including the soundtrack specific to the rig and in other levels, the music is pretty cool and fitting. It's not all that often you hear this much variety in game soundtracks anymore, so I give Spark some credit there.
Continuing with the audio discussion, the voice-acting was good, and there are a good number of NPCs for this type of game that receive full voice treatment. The banter between Peyton and La Roche is good, and Braddock's tone is also very fitting. Some of the Akrid screeching is grating in the late hours of the night, but eh, it's alright. Effects and audio cues are solid. Visually, being built on Unreal3 engine, LP3 looks very good overall. I was especially impressed with some of the lighting and the snowfall. A handful of areas have this really great light snowfall that worked with the atmosphere and mood of the situation so well. Many of the Akrid look cool, as do the snow and ice-covered caverns you'll duck into. The effects of the pop-up storms is pretty sweet too. I did have a few frame rate hiccups and some stuttering during some cutscenes, but nothing deal-breaking by any means.
LP3 does feature a multiplayer component supporting up to ten players and with four different ways to play. I haven't spent a lot of time with multiplayer, a historically important aspect of the LP games, but you can expect the following modes: Scenario, Akrid Survival, Extraction Mode, and Team Deathmatch. Scenario pits two teams of up to five against one another with various, campaign-like objectives, with one team on the offensive and the other playing prevent. The weather and potential for Akrid keeps both sides on their toes. The Akrid Survival mode is best played with two teams of six, who face off against similar Akrid waves before the battle turns to team versus team. In Extraction Mode, it's all about extracting that tasty T-ENG from the planet, so two teams compete to see who can drop in and drain the most data posts.
With that, let's get to the summary...