In the three years since the release of Lost Planet 2, popular opinion of the franchise has plummeted. The series began with Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, an early hit exclusive for the Xbox 360 that was acknowledged for some revolutionary game-design aspects and an underutilized setting. Even if the ending was crummy, it became something of a cult classic with a burgeoning multiplayer community until Halo 3 showed up on the scene and destroyed it. When Lost Planet 2 was announced, however, many were skeptical that the game could hold up to the surprising thrills of its predecessor. Due to the events at the end of the previous game, the planet was no longer snow-covered, but instead rich with lush tropical environments, completely changing the tone of the series. The game was lukewarmly received by critics and soon reviled by fans for regrettable mistakes in game design. With Lost Planet 3, Capcom is getting it half right by again making the setting a snowy environment, but getting it wrong by going with an outside developer. It’s not that developer Spark Unlimited is western that’s the issue (although some may disagree), but that they are a developer known for making throwaway original titles and sequels to marquee games with a reduced budget and developmental window. With its previous installment a decided disappointment and Capcom seemingly cutting production costs and avoiding marketing on this one, it seems like they’re throwing in the towel with Lost Planet 3.
Lost Planet 3 is a prequel to the original game, taking place on a still-frozen E.D.N. III. With only a few human colonists currently inhabiting it, the planet is more unpredictable and threatening than in the first game, still ruled by the monstrous Akrid. Everyman Jim Peyton decides to take a job with megacorporation NEVEC to become a miner harvesting the mysterious Thermal Energy, which is thought to be the future of energy. It’s a dangerous gig, but Jim needs money for his family and the hazard pay is exceptional. Unfortunately, it soon proves deadly as Jim learns that NEVEC cares little about their employee’s well-being, with practically every drop-ship crashing and constant equipment malfunctions. Still, Jim adapts to life on the planet and soon becomes one of their most valuable assets, going out on daily mining runs and repair missions. After a sudden accident leaves him on the brink of death, however, he awakens to find out that the colonists may not be the only intelligent life on the planet.
For a game that disappoints in most areas of gameplay (more on that later), the story here is surprisingly strong. In fact, it may even be the strongest in the series. The set-up is incredible, with Jim thrust into action upon waking up on a threatening and mysterious planet after crash landing, only to be attacked by a monster and soon saved by a giant mech that ominously appears in the background. The narrative of the game is nontraditional, featuring snippets throughout of Jim in the future seemingly on the brink of death under some rubble on the planet, recounting his past to a family member. There’s interesting characters, lots of dialogue and even frequent video messages. Although it can’t ever live up to its impressive opening, it’s an unexpectedly strong story for a third-person shooter.
The setting and general tone of the game are also quite impressive. While some environments are too repetitive and dark, the world feels sprawling, real and tense. Reminiscent of The Thing and Alien, there’s a constant sense of dread and isolation, with the protagonist simply being a working stiff trying to keep it together in the face of a seemingly undefeatable threat. The music, derivative of Alien as it may be, and sound design also go a long way sustain the mood.
With a great setting and tone, it’s a shame that the whole thing is so linear. This isn’t a game where you’re making progress through the world, exploring multiple environments as you see fit, but instead mission-based with closed-off areas and tight corridors. There’s a central hub where Jim can talk to NPCs, make upgrades, buy weapons and get new missions. Upon accepting a mission, he hops in his Utility Rig (a giant mech with a drill and claw for arms), ventures to the location on the map, does the objective, then heads back to base. Simply going to the location and back can take up over five minutes of a mission and quickly gets annoying. They try to make it more interesting by including a music player, but as it’s composed of generic instrumental country music, it’s akin to nails on a chalkboard and doesn’t jive with the tone. Fast travel is soon unlocked, but it also doesn’t help matters, as it’s a confusing system that makes it hard to find where the objective is. Making things worse are the persistent long load screens plaguing the entire game. It’s rare to walk more than a few minutes without hitting a loading screen, which can easily last up to thirty seconds. The developers clearly realized this was a problem, so randomly intersperse throwaway video messages in lieu of loading screens in an attempt to mask the problem.
Levels themselves are just as linear, usually taking place in a series of caves. There are a few interesting designs here and there, but even then there’s only one possible route through them. Combat is the definition of a generic third-person shooter, with shotguns, rifles, assault guns and grenades the staple of the arsenal. It’s a competent system, but aiming isn’t as smooth as it should be, making shots take too long to properly line up. The gameplay would get a pass if not for how repetitive and frustrating combat is. Most of it boils down to a series of rooms where there’s multiple spawn points that have to be destroyed as enemies keep funneling out of them. The strategy is always the same, but trying to fend of predators while making your way to the spawn points is an exercise in frustration. Enemy variety is poor, mostly dominated by spider-like creatures until the appearance of flying Akrid who are bothersome to kill, making it so you practically have to duck and blindly fire to not be instantly destroyed.
In a series known for some near-iconic bosses, it’s disappointing how routine they all are here. Most of them are just Akrid variants of giant earth creatures, with one of the worst being a giant snow crab. Making giant crabs bosses should pretty much be off-limits after Genji: Days of the Blade, but having them appear so frequently is close to a crime. One of the first major boss battles is against one such snow crab, where you must dodge its lunges and shoot off its limbs. It’s not so much difficult as it is aggravating, as you have to repeat the same dodging move about twenty times to successfully take it down. After taking it down and getting into the Utility Rig, guess what? Another one shows up! This one has to first be fought in the rig in a confusing process until jumping out and killing it with the same exact strategy. After completing that level and starting the next one, a third giant crab shows up midway through that one. This one is different, however; it can swing its claws horizontally. Having to go through the same irritating boss battle three times is about as close to torture as a video game can simulate.
Developed by an unproven developer with no marketing push, Lost Planet 3 is dead on arrival. It’s almost as if Capcom sent the franchise to die, as even if Spark wasn’t so inept at staging combat, it would still seem like an unessential imitation of the first game. The levels are repetitive, mutliplayer is disposable, the gameplay is boring, enemies are uninspired and the entire thing just feels like a chore to get through. It’s a shame that the narrative couldn’t have been placed in the hands of a more capable developer, as there’s a surprisingly strong story to be found in the midst of all the generic third-person shooting. It’ll be difficult for the franchise to bounce back after this one, but after fighting the same giant snow crab boss on its third appearance, it’s hard to even care.
Version Reviewed: Xbox 360