Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Lost Planet: Fantastiating

It certainly is.

"Fantastiating", in case you're wondering, is one of those horrific made-up words. It's an unholy alliance between "fantastic" and "infuriating", and it describes Lost Planet pretty well.

I've played through four out of ten missions in the single-player campaign, which has taken me about three hours. So the single-player campaign is quite short, but that's not the problem.

Here's the problem: we've all already played Dead Rising. Dead Rising was such a brilliant, ingenious piece of work that we expect nothing less from Lost Planet, and it is less. It's not a bad game, it's just not a great game, and great is what we wanted. It's what we always want.

The basic gameplay mechanic in Lost Planet is that you are constantly losing thermal energy (being on a frozen planet and all), and you replenish that energy by killing enemies. There are exceptions, like the occasional storage tank, but generally you have to maintain a certain rate of carnage to stay alive.

That's a nice idea. Unfortunately, that's the only idea in the game. In Dead Rising, there were multiple paths--you killed zombies, you saved humans, and you took photographs. All of these paths helped you gain experience, they all played very differently, and the required elements of story-advancing missions, in many cases, took up only a fraction of the available time for the mission. In other words, you had plenty of time for freelancing.

Lost planet? One path. Zero freelancing. Move, kill, advance. Move, kill, advance. And sometimes that's fun--the game looks absolutely spectacular, certain enemies are fantastically impressive, and in five-minute bursts, the game is lots of fun. It's even fun when you're remembering a play session. It's just not as much fun during the play session, because it's very repetitive.

Theoretically fun elements abound. Snow, snowmobiles, grappling hooks, awe-inspiring creatures, mechs [Dear mech nerd: I know they're not exactly mechs and don't specifically fulfill the rigid requirements of the canon. But they're close enough.]

The measurement of actual fun, though, is much lower. You get to ride that snowmobile for about fifteen seconds, at least the first time. Those awe-inspiring creatures? Their weak points are labeled like a Powerpoint presentation. The mechs are relatively unresponsive, and when you're trying to jump jet quickly to avoid getting blasted, it will drive you crazy.

This is also one of those games where you're blown away for the first hour or two, but then your enjoyment starts to drop off steadily, because you start noticing how some of the coolest moments actually wind up annoying the hell out of you.

Smoke and particle effects, for example. They're absolutely incredible, and at first you'll be stunned by how amazing they are. Then you'll get in a boss fight, and you won't be able to see a damn thing after something explodes--but the boss will still be pounding you. How he can see, I don't know, because I sure can't.

It's incredibly annoying, but it's even more annoying that they missed an opportunity to do something incredibly cool. If they had a thermal imaging sensor that could be activated to let you see a heat signature through all that smoke, it would have been spectacular. Plus, using the sensor would cost you thermal energy, so you'd have to ration its use.

They also could have implemented force fields for the armor--which also would have cost thermal energy to use. I mean, it's the future and we're in outer space--why the hell wouldn't we have force fields? And it would have looked very cool, some kind of glowing blue aura that would have protected you for a few seconds.

They don't do any of these things, though. At it's core, Lost Planet is a relatively standard third-person shooter with the steadily dropping thermal energy (aka "health") as its only even vaguely interesting game mechanic.

And force feedback. Holy Mother of God, does this game use force feedback. You have heavy weapons, all your opponents have heavy weapons, and you feel it--force feedback does an unmatched job of creating the impression of mass, and it's never done it as well as in this game. Combine that with the terrifically atmospheric environments, and it's a game that looks and feels very convincing.

If only it consistently played that way.

I will say one thing about Lost Planet, though: it has style. It has so much style that it's hard to believe that the gameplay isn't at the same level. Capcom is doing some very interesting things creatively, and Lost Planet wasn't very far away from being a great game.

If you're looking to try something new for a few hours, Lost Planet is an excellent rental. I'd definitely recommend renting first before you put sixty dollars down on the counter.

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