Monday, November 03, 2008

Lost Planet

There's a pretty decent game hidden in Lost Planet, but much like the icy planet it's set on, the end result will leave you cold.

This is a game from Capcom, who are responsible for such games as Devil May Cry, Resident Evil, Dead Rising and Onimusha. Those games have a lot of things in common - confusing plotlines, horrible dialogue, occasionally clunky controls and questionable pacing. Lost Planet has all those things.

What Capcom are also fairly well known for is solid central concepts and games that are a lot of fun despite themselves. That, essentially, is what Lost Planet is missing.

The game sees you playing Wayne, who looks an awful lot like Keanu Reaves. Wayne lives on a frozen planet where the colonists are continually troubled by giant bug-aliens called Akrid. Much like the sandworms of Frank Herbert's Dune, the Akrid are both a menace and a resource, as their bodies produce the valuable chemical known as "T-Eng" which powers pretty much everything in Wayne's world. Wayne's father gets killed by an Akrid, and then... some stuff happens. There's snow pirates, and an evil corporation, but it's really hard to care, or even follow what's going on. All you need to know is that there's some bugs and some soldiers, and they need killing.

About half of the time you're running around on foot, which is pretty fun. Wayne's a dab hand with a rifle, and he's also got access to a freeform grappling gun which lets him quickly reach high places and get the drop on the bad guys. You collect T-Eng both from destroyed scenery and from downed enemies, and as long as you've got T-Eng in the tank you can heal from any injury within seconds. However, the freezing cold of the environment continually saps your T-Eng supplies so you need to keep moving.

These parts of the game are pretty good. Granted, there are occasional problems with targeting, and Wayne has an unfortunate tendency to fall over and get stunned if he's so much as breathed on, but by and large the on-foot bits work and consistently entertain.

But sadly Lost Planet isn't content with being a second-rate Halo clone and it tries to push the envelope. It does this with mechs. Early on you'll get access to a bunch of plodding two-legged "Vital Suits" which work like a Mechwarrior-style machine, letting you open up a can of whup-ass at the cost of some speed and agility. These things are slow, they're annoying, and they're completely incapable of hitting anything smaller than they are (despite the fact that computer-controlled mechs don't seem to have that problem). You'll groan every time the game forces you to get suited up - which is often.

Later, the mechs upgrade to speedy spider-tanks, and finally in the last stages of the game you'll get a Zone of the Enders-style sword-wielding flying machine. The tanks are actually pretty cool, mostly because they're a good deal faster than the other models. The flying mech, though, is an abomination and takes most of the joy out of the endgame. I'd like to say again how bad an idea it is to implement a wholly new control scheme entirely for the purpose of your final boss fight.

The mechs are a lot of what's wrong with Lost Planet, but they're not all of it. The levels, for example, are poorly designed. Despite the grapple gun being really kind of cool, you won't get much use out of it. Enemies tend to come in swarms that leave no time to get creative with the terrain. The high ground is usually already claimed by your foes, plus many Akrid can fly, climb or jump. The game also introduces the early concept of using the terrain to your advantage by detonating explosive barrels near enemies but this is poorly followed up in later levels where the game hands out rocket launchers every three steps in any case.

It's not always easy to tell which way to go next; most levels feature "waypoints" which show the path forward, which is great, but towards the end of the game they're few and far between, and the mapping system is next to useless. It's nowhere near as bad as the mazes from Halo but it's still a little frustrating. Also, early levels introduce the idea that enemies are either finite, or respawn from a node which can be destroyed or closed. This is abandoned about halfway through the game without warning, which left me struggling with one level for some hours before realising that it was no longer possible to clear out all the Akrid and explore. Endlessly respawning enemies are almost always a bad idea and this is no exception. Particularly if you don't tell the player that there's no end to them.

I've mentioned that the plot is terrible. It's really difficult to care about what's going on; it's really just a matter of killing some bugs, killing some humans, killing a boss, and then repeating. It's again hard not to compare it to Halo; the plot in Halo was very poorly told but it least it felt like something important was happening. That's just not the case here.

Some good points: the music is excellent. It's not the kind of thing you'll be humming after you stop playing but it's still very, very good. The graphics are also clean and sharp, and most of the main character models are good-looking (although the major enemy is so cartoonish as to be funny). The Akrid bosses are suitably impressive, and while they're not always exciting to actually fight they at least feel appropriately epic.

There's also multiplayer, which I played at the 2006 Tokyo Game Show prior to its release and adored. I can't say whether it's any good in the final version because no one's playing it; you can't find a game for love or money. I can't help but feel that valuable development time went into an online mode that no-one bothered with when it could have been spent making the single-player experience not suck.

I've played both the XBox 360 and PC version and the 360 is definitely superior; the PC one is, essentially, an afterthought, right down to still referring to the 360 controller scheme when describing how to play. It had some stability issues for me as well, but that may have just been my PC.

Lost Planet isn't an awful game. For example, I played it all the way to the end, which isn't something I always do. On the other hand, it's distinctly sub-par. There are so many really, really good shooters out there on the market that there's just no reason why you should ever have to play something less than awesome. You're best served by spending more time with Halo, Gears of War, Resistance, FarCry, Crysis or something else of similar pedigree, and let Lost Planet remain lost.


SPLastic said...

Hey Greg, great to see you posting again.

Nice review - I never played the whole thing, but what I did play felt mediocre.

I was wondering: given the time that this game has been out, why have you waited so long to review it (not trying to criticise, just curious)?

And have you tried the Banjo-Kazooie Nuts & Bolts demo yet? Great fun, even if it is completely different from the originals.

Greg Tannahill said...

I bought it way back when I got a 360 (last year) but it got displaced by Final Fantasy XII and then by Mass Effect and then by - well, everything. Last month I figured enough was enough and picked it up.

Anyway, that's the long answer. The short answer is that I don't get paid any money to blog here or to fund the purchase of new games so essentially I play what I feel like playing and review it when I'm done.

I wasn't a big fan of any of the late 90s mascot-driven games, Banjo-Kazooie included, so I'd naturally assumed that I'd be similarly unimpressed with a new iteration of that franchise. I haven't yet seen reviews so I'm not clear one what's different about the new one that would make me change my mind.

SPLastic said...

Fair enough about buying and reviewing - I had the same thing with BioWare's Jade Empire.

For my friends and I, BK holds a huge amount of nostalgic value, harkening back to (my) early gaming days.
Having said that, I recently replayed the original BK and found it a highly entertaining experience, with chuckle-worthy comedy driven by the mascots.

Greg Tannahill said...

I keep wanting new Sonic games to be good, and Sega just keeps spitting in my face and laughing.

Metaphor for life, really.

SPLastic said...

Would make an interesting catch phrase:

"Life's a Sega business strategy."

...this opens up a whole new world of gaming-related phrases!

Greg Tannahill said...

Well, actually, I bag Sega out a lot, and for good reason, but although their first-party titles are made out of lose they're occasionally known to make some good decisions as a publisher; case in point is Monolith's Condemned which I'm loving a lot right now.

SPLastic said...

Condemned was indeed a good game - as was the sequel, until halfway through.

I think you recently mentioned the Mirror's Edge demo. I played that today and was thoroughly disappointed.
Assassin's Creed got the parkour moves right and had an open world environment. The problem was the game didn't stay fun.
Mirror's Edge was linear to the point that I died whenever I tried to do something slightly off the beaten path.
That said, I'm still going to complete the full thing - and take it back.