Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, and PC
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Spark Unlimited
Although it never managed to capture as much popularity as something like the Gears of War games, the Lost Planet franchise has the dubious honor of spanning an entire generation with three games to its name, the first of which was released back in 2006. This final entry before we move on to a brand new generation is being developed by a Western team named Spark Unlimited, though, so do they manage to take a franchise with some interesting ideas and do it justice? Not really.
Lost Planet 3 did surprise me. It surprised me with a likable main character in the form of Jim Peyton. It surprised me with brilliant voice acting, solid dialogue and touching one-way messages between husband and wife. Lost Planet 3 surprised me by being a story driven game. Lost Planet 3 surprised me, all in areas in which I never thought a Lost Planet game would, and then left me feeling rather disappointed in the areas in which I expected a Lost Planet game to do well.
What’s that all about?
Lost Planet 3 takes place before the events of the first two games and tells the story of how the icy planet of doom known as E.D.N. III came to be as it was seen in the series first entry. Family man Jim Peyton has taken a job with sinister corporation Nevec, agreeing to live in the harsh environment of E.D.N. III in order to extract a valuable resource and thus earn some cash to support his wife and child back home on Earth. Jim must venture out every day in his massive mech to harvest and collect T-Energy, a new source of power that Nevec claims could end humanities energy problems. From the start Jim Peyton is an easy fellow to like, his simple desire to support his family creating an immediate connection between player and character. Even if you don’t have a wife and child it’s easy to understand and sympathise with the powerful urge to support family, to put yourself in a miserable, hellish environment in order to provide for them as best as you can. He isn’t some hulking space marine with rippling muscles and years of training with weapons setting out to slay monsters and save the day, which is a welcome change of pace. Rather, Peyton is an easy-going, honest and hard-working man who simply wishes to do his job. He has a well-developed personality that shows him as a natural leader, confident in his skills and content to simply do his job, always ready to crack a joke and help out. He’s also brought to life by an absolutely outstanding voice actor who delivers one of the best performances I’ve heard in some time. In fact, the entire cast of characters within this game sport fantastic voice acting, something which I did not expect.
Speaking of which the bad news is that Jim’s co-workers at Coronis base are a collection of stereotypes with skin-deep personalities, although thanks to the brilliant acting and solid dialogue they’re still easy enough to like, even if they could have done with far more development throughout the story.
The simple fact of the matter is that Jim feels like a genuine person simply trying to do what’s right for his family, and the one-way messages between him and his wife, Grace, serve only to provide even more reason to like him. As you play through the game you’ll be presented with these slightly awkward messages as both Jim and his wonderfully portrayed spouse attempt to talk into a camera and pretend that nothing is different, that there’s not a vast distance between them. Jim talks about his days, his work and those that he spends time with at Coronis, while his wife tells him about their child’s first steps or makes jokes. As strange as it might sound it was these simple messages between a loving husband and his wife that ended up becoming my favorite aspect of the game because they’re so wonderfully written and performed. More than the combat and more than the overall plot, it was the urge to see the next message that drove me forward. I was genuinely shocked at how attached I became to Jim and his wife.
Lost Planet 3 goes to great pains to try to immerse you in the world, to try to make you feel like you’re really Jim Peyton working on a miserable planet, and as a result the first few hours of the game are spent taking orders and doing general maintenance, because apparently there’s not a single door that actually works on E.D.N. III, or piece of data that isn’t backed up somewhere else or control panel that needs the power turned back on by traipsing across the entire facility. For a colony that’s only just gotten set up there does sure seem to be a lot of shit that doesn’t work. As the official go-to man for absolutely everything Jim’s main tool of choice is his utility rig, a massive bipedal mechanical construction that he clambers into and pilots around the place. The world is a series of interconnected zones separated by loading screens which you’re free to explore at your leisure, but mostly you’ll stick to the main missions as there’s not a whole lot of reasons to venture off the beaten path, despite a vague attempt at a metroidvania approach to world design by the developers in which Jim gradually earns tools that provide access to new areas.
Most of your first three or four hours in the game is spent stomping around in your mech, repairing various things and fending off the local Akrid population. On the one hand the amount of time you spend heading out into the ice in your mech to help keep everything running is actually fairly effective at dragging you into the world and making you feel like a colonist and worker simply trying to get by, while on the other hand it gives the opening few hours a slow, almost laborious pace. It’s not until a good five hours in until things start to get interesting and the developers finally start to move away from the repetitive “fix this thing” mission design. And developers, please do note that having your main character joke about the fact that everything needs fixing and then continuing to use that style of mission design isn’t funny, it’s lazy,
I for one actually rather enjoyed the opening hours, mostly because Spark Unlimited have done a great job in crafting the utility rig, imbuing it with a sense of weight and power that makes controlling it feel rather satisfying, even if its default movement speed can make traversing the world a bore. Your view from its front window is deliberately limited, and there’s something incredibly atmospheric being stuck inside it while a storm rages outside or while you’re battling one of the planet’s larger inhabitants. The best way I can describe the opening hours of Lost Planet 3 is that it’s interestingly mundane: despite the fact I wasn’t having fun in the traditional sense, I was strangely enamored with feeling like I was actually doing a job on a strange planet in order to support my family.
The rig that Jim pilots isn’t designed for combat, and yet its drill and claw can certainly be used in that capacity, allowing you to take on some of the planet’s larger enemies in titanic battles that should have been awesome, but are sadly more just sort of okay because they play out as glorified quick-time events. Worse, they almost all play out the same: you tap RB to block the incoming blow, then LT to grab a limb and finally RT to drill into the soft, glowing weak spot. On occasion you can take the initiative with a well-timed blow from your metal limbs, and the first few battles are certainly a spectacle, but with such clear instructions on how to defeat your foe you’ll quickly realise you’re really just playing through a quick-time event in disguise. Repetition in this and other things is a constant problem with Lost Planet 3: on foot boss battles all follow the same pattern of dodging out of the way of the charging beast and then shooting the glowing bit as it tries to unstick itself from whichever bit of scenery it has conveniently hit. Missions are always about turning on the power or flipping a switch while fighting off the same Akrid, none of which require any different method of playing. However, rare moments shine like a beacon in the night, such as a battles where you have to swap between on-foot and mech action in order to defeat a mighty Akrid, but these brief glimpses of good design just don’t turn up often enough.
Pacing problems drag a rather enjoyable plot down, stopping it from ever becoming as good as it should have been. Things begin to get interesting when Jim keeps seeing a mysterious figure who always manages to disappear before he can catch a proper glimpse, and it’s night on impossible to speak any further of the plot without spoiling anything. Suffice to say what follows is fairly predictable stuff that riffs off of a variety of science fiction, yet is still enjoyable due to solid dialogue and that likable Jim fellow. Where things fall down is that the story meanders along for a good 4-6 hours before suddenly slamming itself into top-gear. While this sudden burst of speed does make narrative sense, that doesn’t excuse its poor pacing. It would have worked better, at least, had the initial quiet hours when you’re simply stomping around been used more to build up characters and relationships, especially since that time takes place over the span of a year and Jim refers to his fellow workers as family. Jim might think they feel like family, but as the player I never got that sensation. In particular Jim’s confrontational relationship with a French contractor could have had so much more done with it, but instead we spend most of our time flipping switches and stuff. Spending this first four or five hours building characters would have ensured the plot had more impact when it got going.
Much of your time when outside of the mech is spent fending off the Akrid, E.D.N. III’s indigenous lifeforms, and its here where Lost Planet 3 fails to deliver the gameplay to support the story with third-person shooting mechanics that are average at best. Now, the original Lost Planet was based entirely around the concept of shooting stuff in the glowing orange spots, so arguably it’s unfair to criticise Lost Planet 3 for using this system, therefore I won’t. Much. But outside of that combat fails to capture the imagination thanks to a limited arsenal of generic weapons (pistol, assault rifle, shotgun, rifle, grenades and a bow) that have little in the way of satisfying feedback, slightly floaty aiming and a fairly uninspired lineup of Akrid for you to face. Spark Unlimited have missed their chance to introduce interesting new enemy types or even import some of the better Akrid from the first two games.. Sometimes, and I do stress sometimes, more interesting enemies arrive to live things up, such as the dog-like Goonroe which can move at great speed and hunt in packs, but like the boss battles defeating them boils down to dodging out of the way and shooting them in the soft bit, a tactic which becomes old pretty quickly. Yes, I know I wasn’t supposed to complain about the glowing weak-spot mechanic, but there’s just no getting around the fact that it makes for incredibly repetitive fights and lazy design. The small little face-hugger lookalikes are a pain to deal with as they tend to move faster than the aiming mechanics are capable of keeping up with and there’s no stomp attack to help deal with them, leaving you to just hold down the trigger and run around a bit in the hopes that your bullets will magically hit them. Lost Planet 3 also has a nasty habit of recycling bigger Akrid for boss battles, so you’ll battle the same type several times throughout the game with absolutely no change in attack patterns.
It might not look like it at first glance, but there’s an art to crafting a shooter in this vein, and Lost Planet 3 just doesn’t quite get it. Peyton needs to be able to move around the battlefield a little faster so that combat can keep a nicer pace, there needs to be a few more weapon types available to mix things up with, the aiming needs to be tightened up, guns need more feedback and more imagination needed to be shown in the enemy design and in that of the combat scenarios, because as it stands fighting the hordes of Akrid that inhabit E.D.N. III begins to feel stale far faster than it should. With an entire alien species to play with, surely one variety can be designed that requires a shift in tactics to combat, or several could have been created to work well together, creating extra challenge for the player. Had Spark Unlimited at least mixed together enemy types then combat could have been more interesting, such as tossing the incredibly fast-moving Goonroe in with some long-ranged and deadly Wardeyes to create a volatile mix which forces you alternate between taking cover and running for your life, but instead you’ll battle either the standard fodder mix (A basic ranged Akrid and a basic melee akrid) and or against groups of a single type. Nor do the Akrid you battle exhibit any savage animal cunning, instead AI is poor. The Goonroe hunt in in packs, so why don’t they work together when they’re fighting you?
Ultimately Lost Planet 3′s combat just manages to scrape by as being average. It’s okay. There’s certainly enjoyment to be derived from the mindless blasting, and your first couple of encounters with the nimble and ferocious Goonroe are indeed rather exciting since their speed and numbers make them tricky to tackle, but ultimately fighting Akrid gets boring quickly because the core mechanics aren’t anything special and neither are the enemy you’re fighting.
The game has a cover system in place, but its use is so sporadic that it almost feels like the developers forgot it was there and then rushed to implement in the closing days of development. Pieces of chest high cover pop up every now and then, but for the most part the game seems far more comfortable with its run and gun antics. Still, when the opportunity does arise the cover system actually works fairly well, even if battling Akrid that take cover and pop up to shoot at you feels a little strange, like you’re playing the wrong game or something. Without spoiling anything another enemy emerges later on that makes the covers system become more important, but sadly they do little more than to highlight the fact that the AI is terrible.
Slaying Akrid lets you collect their lovely T-Energy which acts as a form of currency for you to spend in the game’s half-assed upgrade system. Weapons like your assault rifle only have a single upgrade available ( an extended clip in this case), so the entire system feels little more than tacked on in order for the developers to tick one more box off of the list of generic things every game has to have these days. T-Energy is pretty easy to come by within the main missions as well, making the side-missions feel rather redundant since they certain won’t entice you with their design philosophies which are exactly the same as the rest of the game’s. Your mech can also be upgraded by using salvage located around the world, but salvage can also be purchased at the cost of 2,000 T-Energy, and given the substance’s abundance it’s generally easier to simply buy it. You can add extra armor and unlock a three hit combo for your machine, but like the weapons upgrading your mech isn’t very interesting.
Lost Planet 3 does at least boast some lovely visual work with detailed character models and some impressive vistas of the icy planet giving you reason to stop and admire the view every now and, but the art team have clearly struggled with the abundance of blue ice and after a while the game’s visual begin to become repetitive. Once you’ve seen one blue ice tunnel or cliff, you’ve seen ‘em all, although the game still manages to surprise on occasion. It’s hard not to miss wider variety of locales introduced in Lost Planet 2, even if it does make perfect sense within the context of the story for those to never make an appearance. The animation work is a bit less impressive. For the most part it’s solid enough, but there’s some less than stellar results, such as Jim’s incredibly unimpressive zip-line animation which has him hanging limply by his wrist from the wire. And that’s the thing, Lost Planet 3 feels like it had a mixed developement, like some parts of the game have interesting concepts where the team felt they could really make a good title, while others feel like they threw some paint on it and said that’ll do. Some parts are well-developed, and others feel lazy or underdeveloped, such as the grappling hook which has now been relegated to only being used at specific points or the loss of any of the survival elements such as freezing to death seen in the past games. Co-op has also sadly vanished into the mists of time.
There are also a few smaller problems with the game, some more frustrating than others. There were a couple of substantial frame-rate drops throughout the game, and I also encountered a strange glitch numerous times which resulted in me only being able to load my pistol with one bullet at a time. There was another glitch which rendered an enemy unkillable, and yet another which froze a boss in place, allowing me to kick its arse at my leisure. Then there are design problems, like the occasional section in which Spark Unlimited try to turn the game into a Dead Space wannabe with Jim creeping through abandoned facilities with chilling music playing, but fail miserably at creating any tension whatsoever by giving you a seemingly endless amount of ammo and pitting you against Akrid which you already know you can defeat in droves anyway. There’s also some missions which last far too long, including one where trudge up a boring mountain to activate several panels, all while fighting a nearly constant supply of Akrid.
As one would expect from any modern shooter Lost Planet 3 includes a small multiplayer offering which boasts 6 maps, all of which make far more use of the grappling hook than the singleplayer ever did and also heralds the return of the Vital Suits from the first game. Standard team deathmatch is of course included, and there’s also Extraction where two teams battle for control of locations around the map. Other modes present something a little different: there’s a variation on capture the flag in which you’ve got to shoot an annoyed Akrid that’s running around the map in order to to actually get said flag, and then there’s a neat mode in which two teams of three must survive hordes of enemies before battling it out for control of a location, King of the Hill style. Meanwhile Scenario mode pits one team of attackers against a team of defenders, with the attackers having to complete a variety of objectives to progress across the map while the defenders must, obviously, stop them. Depending on the map the VS suits from the first game make a welcome return and the added firepower is fun without ever giving one team too much of an advantage over the other.
The progression system doesn’t force you into pre-defined roles and instead let’s you build your character as you see fit using a hexagon based skill “tree”. You can focus on one type of play if you wish or design a character class with more flexibility.
If I don’t seem enthusiastic nor detailed when it comes to talking about the multiplayer that’s because of two things: there’s barely anyone playing, so I didn’t get much hands-on time with the mulitplayer, and second, the time that I did get was forgettable. The same combat mechanics from the singleplayer drive the multiplayer, albeit it with more focus on using cover which brings it uncomfortably close to the Gears of War realm, and thus the experience isn’t all that satisfying, even if humans do make for more satisfying opponents than brain-dead Akrid. Multiplayer is enjoyable for a few hours, as the petering online community is already showing that’s about it.
Lost Planet 3 is Spark Unlimited’s best game to date, although admittedly that’s not high praise given their back catalogue of titles which is made up of and Legendary. It is by no means a bad game, it’s just merely an okay one with flashes of something better. Jim Peyton is a brilliant lead character with an instantly likable personality, and the story is interesting if bloody terribly paced. But as a shooter Lost Planet 3 is standard fare at best. By the simple expedient of mixing enemy types together Spark Unlimited could have improved it considerably, but they didn’t, and instead we’ve got a series of repetitive battles. Even the frequent boss fights grow stale quickly, which is something I though I’d never say about a Lost Planet game.
Ultimately a part of me wanted to boost the score up to 3, because I enjoyed Jim and the story that much, but as strong as those aspects of the game are they simply can’t overcome its problem, nor it’s mundane combat. The Lost Planet series shouldn’t die out here, but Capcom needs to carefully consider its next move and pick a direction for the franchise.
+ Likable, natural lead character.
+ Enjoyable storyline.
+ Stomping around in a mech listening to good tunes.
– Meh combat.
– Mission design.
The Verdict: 2.5/5 – Okay, bordering on being good.
Lost Planet 3 is a competent, repetitive shooter with an enjoyable story and great lead character. But it could have been so much more.