Monday, 17 May 2010

Review: Lost Planet 2 (360)

A giant insectoid-like beast busts up from the snowy ground with an almighty roar. Immediately it catches me in its sights and begins to charge. Armed with only a simple machine gun and a few paltry grenades, I engage the enemy, dodging its first attack before turning around and plugging it full of lead. Some of my shots bounce off its hardened shell but others directly hit its yellowy fleshy tail instead, resulting in another hollowed roar from the creature. At this point I make a hesitant dash for a nearby semi-destroyed building, hoping to gain at least momentary cover.

Inside awaits more of the vile Akrid parasites. It turns out that I’ve just entered this creature’s makeshift nest. Immediately, without fail, I begin to blast my way through swarms of smaller spider-like Akrid, and into the pulsating eggsacks, safe for a short while from the chaos outside – my team are busy getting slaughtered by the huge beast outside. After clearing out the half-standing structure of all its living inhabitants, I take my beef back outside with me. Guns in full blaze I throw everything at my disposal against the giant beast whilst its intently distracted – shooting mercilessly at its now red little tail - and after another roar, plus the obligatory pool of blood and puss, it finally comes crashing to the ground.

Looking around, there are wide-open spaces for miles, the view of snowy particles being blown throughout the air, and the sheen of the glistering white environment reflecting back the light given off by a obscured sun. The Akrid beast is dead, oozing puss and drenched in its own blood, before shattering into a thousand frozen pieces. It was remarkably beautiful and ugly at the same time. The hard exterior shell revealed its intricate markings, while its fleshy body is both soft, and solid at the same time, covered in sheen and detail. Everywhere you look there are wondrous sights full of character, all contained in and around some lovely white vistas.

Welcome to Lost Planet 2! An experience that starts off unsurprisingly like the first game. The stunning visuals, quite possibly some of the best seen on any console to date, along with the tried and testing third-person gameplay mechanics, are every bit as polished as they were the last time around, although now feeling a tad dated. In fact, for the first few minutes or so, Lost Planet 2 is nothing but a solidly made and pretty entertaining action game. Insanely large creatures, huge guns, and lovely environments combine to form a familiar but fun element of shooting action. Much of what was so good about LP1 is also still reasonably good here, and while many of the little niggles are still present too, there are larger issues that you’ll be complaining about.

However, shortly after things take a turn for the worst, as parts of this sequel’s poor design begin to break through the solid foundations built up by the original game. It’s pretty clear that Capcom were keen to have a different gimmick driving how LP2 works, and to this end two distinct elements have been shoehorned into the experience.

One being the multiplayer focused single player campaign, in which you are merely part of a four-man team. And the other, a revised continue and checkpoint system which bares more than a passing resemblance to the hardcore games of old, ill-suited for the gameplay on offer here. These two elements are inexplicably linked together in a way, in which on there own wouldn’t pose so much of a problem, but together they conspire to break the game on so many occasions, leading to numerous bouts of frustration and fist clenching anger.

Keeping things together is the return of the thermal energy meter from the first game. Unlike in LP1, your thermal energy (TE) gauge isn’t constantly depleting. Instead it continuously accumulates more TE as you kill and collect it from fallen foes and various data points scattered around your environment. When you take damage, and as your health bar begins to runs dangerously low, you have the option of using this TE to restore lost health, thus preventing you from loosing a precious life. You’ll certainly be needing this boost, as in LP2 most large enemies have almost ‘instant kill’ attacks which leave you very little time to escape for cover, or simply in many cases, regenerate your health.

To make matters worse, the game is always pushing you towards an offensive solution. Done mostly in order to recoup lost TE as you battle it out amongst the native wildlife and nomadic Snow Pirates, putting yourself in harms way during times in which a more carefully thought out approach would be preferable. TE however, is the least of your concerns later on in the game, with the lack of save points and temporary checkpoints making this part of the experience a frustrating and sometimes an unplayable one.

The checkpoint, life, progression, whatever you want to call it system in the game, centres on something called the Battle Gauge. You start off with 500 battle points, and receive 500 more for every checkpoint you reach (data points that you activate), or 1000 if you happen to be piloting a VS suit. Every time you die, you loose a certain amount of battle points, and are respawned from the nearest data point. Loosing all of your battle points however, means that you loose all of your checkpoints and instead have to replay the entire chapter all over gain.

Chapters can range from anything from 20 to 50 minutes to complete, depending on both their length and player skill level. Either way, it means that if you get stuck on a particular boss, or mission, and end up constantly dying, then you are gonna be replaying a vast amount of content again and again before you get it right.

It doesn’t help that the game isn’t exactly signposted when it comes to telling what to do. Especially I have to say, with regards to some of the boss battles, which not only require you to work out the correct solution of dealing with them, but also working as a team to bring them down. Unfortunately, the complete lack of CPU controlled AI makes this task an infuriating one. It’s all too common in LP2 to have certain parts of the game in which working as a team is essential to score a solid victory, without the frustration and hopelessness which occurs during solo play.

The boss battle at the end of chapter 3 is a good example of this. Set upon a speeding train, you are tasked with battling a giant sandworm whilst attempting to prevent the train from being obliterated. Right at the front of the carriage you are presented with a handful of giant ammunition shells lying around, and a huge gun-turret to load them into. Aiding you in this task, is a small, rather illegible diagram showing you where on the train to load these shells, and the also the position of the engineering room, required for fixing up the train as it sustains damage.

It is clear that the game wants one person to load in the shells, another to distract the boss, another to look after the engine room, and someone to take control of the gun turret. This is great if you’re playing with four other people, but by yourself, it’s a hopeless mess. The key here is teamwork, something that your AI buddies don’t have a clue about. They’ll simply stand around getting killed and leaving you to do all the work, making the challenge so much harder. And as you are running back and forth trying to load the shells you’ll be frequently attacked, being thrown off the train and forced to restart the whole encounter all over again.

With two or more people playing this doesn’t become so much of an issue, making finding a solution for dealing with a boss easier to find, and coordination almost second nature. Of course playing with friends is likely to yield better results. But either way, the multiplayer sessions allow the game to be far more playable than going it alone. It’s just a shame that the single player campaign seems to be completely tacked-on the end of the game, like LP2 was designed to be an online only experience.

During online play the battle points system still gets in the way, which is unfortunate. With all four players sharing the same battle gauge, each player can only afford to die two or three times at the most before the gauge runs out and everyone starts the entire chapter again. On your own you could afford to take a more few chances and die a handful – or two - of times before exhausting your battle gauge, even though the overall fight is made much harder without a coordinated team behind you.

That said Lost Planet 2 isn’t a bad game by any means, it’s actually pretty good at times. A potentially great experience, let down massively by Capcom’s insistence on shoehorning in new and unwanted gameplay mechanics to a system which didn’t require radical change. The return of the TE meter works in the game’s favour, and the core gameplay on offer is almost fun as it was in the first game. However, it’s just that the new elements that have been added really threaten to break apart the game, and on many occasions they do so almost effortlessly. When this happens, all of the hard work and solid gameplay mechanics built up by the original LP is completely overshadowed, leaving an experience which is an excise in frustration.

Visually the game can’t be faulted. It looks stunning! LP2 delivers some of the most detailed texture work seen in a videogame so far, along with splashes of intensely delivered particle and smoke effects. Again, being some of the best we’ve seen. The Arkrid creatures are all incredibly detailed; lots of impressive shader effects, bump mapping, sheen and reflections. The environments, like with the first game, are filled with wide-open sprawling vistas, packed full of personality and intricately crafted characteristics. Most of all, the entire game looks and feels distinctly organic, never looking like a fake plasticky resemblance of reality.

It’s rather unfortunate then, that the gameplay fails to live up to the technical heritage on offer, with the solid core experience broken down and compromised by the developer’s need on including new and gimmicky features. All Capcom had to do was to take what worked in the first Lost Planet, and then up the ante with this sequel. Being bigger and more bad-ass, doesn’t mean better, and although it is clear that Capcom wanted to have a scale that was so much wider than in the first game, they have failed to provide suitable gameplay and progression system to really back this up.

In the end, Lost Planet 2 is one of 2010’s biggest disappointments, failing to live up to the standards set by the original game, and placing too much emphasis on the multiplayer aspect. Not enough thought has being put into solo play, and it shows. That, along with the ridiculously outdated (for this style of game) save and continue system, makes this sequel a rather substandard experience for all those concerned.

The original Lost Planet, as it stands, is a much better choice if you want to experience some of the delights of E.D.N III, and although this sequel does still deliver some (very brief) flashes of brilliance, it also completely misses the mark most of the time.


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