I love video games. Where else am I going to perform rocket launcher surgery on the inner organs of giant insectoid aliens who can squish me under their toes like an ant, before they flush me out their, err, digestive system into the seat of a battle Mech alongside three of my fellow space-pirates? A Mech, that is, which can combine with other Mechs to transform into Voltron. Alas, real life doesn't offer enough such opportunities. In fact, neither do most video games. The only one I know of is Lost Planet 2.
So it's a shame that the game is a clunky experience from the get-go. Especially at the get-go. Once you learn the finer points of the opening menus, get past the first volley of nonsensical cutscenes with which the game attempts to scare off prospective players, and figure out that this is a game where you're punished for dying too many times - or letting your co-op teammates die - by having to replay entire 30 minute chapters, you've acclimated yourself to most of the indignities that the game inflicts on you. What you don't get used to is the continual surprise; the mad inventiveness which continues almost throughout the entire 15 hour main campaign and makes every other shooter of the past year look so by-the-book that Lost Planet 2 starts to feel otherworldly. The level design is as varied as anything I've played this generation, and often great. The game throws total changes of pace and new controls at you as rapidly as its plus-sized insects.
Actually, here's another criticism: There should have been more insects. There are plenty of memorable boss battles in the game, but there are also plenty of military complexes and large scale firefights with enemy humans, and though these missions are a nice change, they never feel quite as polished as the alien battles. The shooting of giant bugs in their pulsating weak spots is gratifying work, but fighting human enemies feels a bit off -- everyone has a few more hit points than you expect, and people who get knocked over have invulnerability while they're on the ground. It feels almost like a laggy online deathmatch, even in singleplayer -- no one dies quite as quickly as you expect and, when they do, they're often faking, and ready to pop back up in a second or two.
While this makes the campaign uneven at times, even the levels with mostly human opponents have some really nice surprises. Early on you find a fortified enemy position which is suicide to charge, but which has a sewer system underneath and behind it that allows you to completely outmaneuver your enemies if you take the time to explore (the game doesn't tell you to sneak around at all, it just kills you efficiently, and you have to figure out the rest on your own). A little later on, a pretty straightforward factory level turns into a labyrinth of interconnected conveyor belts that feels more like something out of an 8-bit Megaman game than something from a modern shooter, with Mechs blasting each other and getting dropped to their deaths off of treadmills. In an outerspace level, a tiny shuttle in the orbit of a planet grows to the size of a massive spacestation as you jetpack your way over to it, a beautiful illusion of scale that reminded me of Katamari Damancy's world-altering perspective shifts.
But as for the main draw, the insect battles are spectacular, and not just visually. Each one warrants a really different approach, to the point that I actually wished the game would repeat itself a little and give me a second take on some of the battles, so I could, for example, jump inside a new alien's mouth and shoot up its organs before the tides of its stomach acids would wash me away. In the middle of the game, one confrontation transforms gameplay from a shooter into a squad-based puzzle game, where you and the team have to operate a giant tank, loading the guns, cooling the engines, rotating the turret and clearing the decks while trying not to get knocked off or eaten.
Let there be no ambiguity: This is a co-op game. Everything is group based at the core. Mission failures are triggered not by how many times you die, but by how many times your team dies. One of the basic weapons is a shield that creates a force field, allowing one player to tank MMORPG style while allies fire from behind. Teammates can climb into transports you fly around the battlefield, or hitchhike on the arms of the Mechs you pilot (or even help you pilot some of the bigger vehicles).
The single player experience is exactly the same as playing the campaign online, except that your AI teammates are a lot less fun to make it through a mission with, and luckily, the game doesn't penalize you when they die. The AI isn't horrible - in fact, the normal approach of having AI teammates take cover and do almost no damage wasn't taken here. They contribute a surprising amount of firepower at times, but with none of the creativity that comes out of the four player experience and the overload of options the game throws at you. In fact, the big boss battles are clearly designed around the co-op experience, and doing everything yourself feels too deliberate and tends to drag on too long. This is not a game to buy for the singleplayer. Unfortunately, the two player splitscreen is also disappointing, with screens that are only slightly bigger than the picture in picture on your TV. I'm barely exaggerating - what could use half the screen uses less than a quarter. It's always a nice feature to have in these dark days, but this is one the the worst implementations I've seen.
So with the rough edges and more disappointing modes than fun ones, why play this game? All I can say is, Lost Planet 2 is a game that needs to be explored. If you like to work your way inside the world of a game, finding concepts and secrets that work in ways you'd never imagined they could, this is a rich world to explore. On the other hand, if you want a game that delivers you a smooth, entertaining experience right out of the box, no fiddling required - if you have a pretty clear idea of what you want in a game, and it isn't to explore an interactive world with its own unusual rules, avoid Lost Planet 2.
This is a console game very much in the classic PC mindset. Complexity and a glut of options leads to a slow start and some confusing menus, but if you're the type to stick with it, the game is going to grow on you. It took me five minutes just to find how to start a splitscreen game the first time I turned it on. And then I sat and watched a ten minute series of cutscenes, followed by five minutes of the weakest gameplay in the entire campaign, followed by another series of cutscenes. Thankfully the movies are skippable, although in online multiplayer the game waits for each player to press start, a major oversight that gets exponentially worse when you're playing with people you don't know who keep dying, draining the team's lifebar, and sending you all back to the beginning of the chapter right into the same cutscene. The story is easy to forget even when you're in the middle of playing, the voice acting sounds like they gave a bunch of anime voice actors lines being written on the spot by someone's fifth grade class, and the cutscenes (which are all rendered in real time) are a waste of time better spent playing, though the fun of seeing you and your friends' custom characters acting out various iconic action scenes does redeem a few of them.
So, Lost Planet 2 goes out of its way to alienate you... rather than getting right to the aliens. Don't say I didn't warn you. But underneath its spiky shell, there's a lot of fun to be had with LP2.
There are so many vehicles that some of the vehicles have their own vehicles. The proper name for a Mech is a VS, but there are also tanks VS, helicopter VS (both gunships and transports,) hovercraft VS, giant bionic spider VS, and VS that are just turrets, some so large that they stick up a few storeys above the tanks they're attached to, and charge up to unleash laser beams wider than a Brooklyn apartment. There's a hidden depth to the Mechs that feels like a long lost approach to game design, something from back in the days when you could play a game for weeks and suddenly realize that a certain button combination at the right time uncovers some secret the game was in no hurry to reveal to you, and suddenly your VS turns into something else entirely, some robotic angel you may later come to doubt happened outside of a dream. Or something you could just look up on the internet.
One of the basic mechanics of the game is a grappling hook that shoots out and then pulls you hookshot-style straight into whatever it's latched on to. The mobility it grants does a great job of balancing the basic trooper against the less mobile VS scattered around most levels. Many of the levels are built around the freedom the grappling hook gives you - massive, multilevel complexes where the objectives can be approached from any angle you can zip a cord to. The implementation isn't perfect, though. It can be glitchy at times, most frustratingly when there's a fence or barrier in your path as you zip along through the air - if you run into something big enough the cord breaks, and on several levels when you're zipping between parallel trains or huge battle cruisers, it's pretty easy to launch yourself over a railing and into an impressive looking death spiral.
In the same way the game design distinguishes itself from other shooters, the uniqueness of the sci-fi setting makes it clear the developers somehow missed the memo on the new industry standard of aping current blockbusters like Halo or Gears. The aliens, even many of the small ones, are visually fascinating in design and animation. Some don't look like insects at all, instead belonging to some odd ecosystem with its own logic that resonates inside the game. Above all, the variety of the environments is impressive, spanning deserts, jungles, arctic wastelands, naval bases, warring trains, ocean floors, planetary orbits, and indoor levels that manage to create a series of different moods, thanks in part to some nice music that drives things forward later in the game. Framerate drops happen on both the PS3 and 360 version, but don't regularly hurt gameplay, and the trade-off is that there's probably something pretty memorable going on when they do occur.
I saved playing the competitive multiplayer for last, and honestly I was expecting to find Capcom had at least done this one part of the game in the established and proper way. Instead, I jumped immediately into a game of twelve on four, with the smaller squad tasked with sneaking around the map undetected and capturing waypoints, while the rest of us hunted them down mercilessly. The next game I joined involved one team piloting a giant spider VS while the other team attempted to destroy it. There are only about eight maps, but the ones they've included are good fun, with plenty of VS toys scattered around the battlefields. In fact, in several games I joined people were more focused on playing around with the vehicles than actually fighting the other team or completing objectives. One particularly odd multiplayer map looks like a maze crossed with a paintball arena surrounded by stadium seating. As the fighting starts an announcer shouts generic commentary on the proceedings. There's also a scoreboard looming over the battlefield.
The competitive multiplayer, while not offering a really disciplined unlock system like most online-oriented shooters, is the kind of chaotic fun that I'm sure I'll come back to over the course of the year. Actually, the experience system in Lost Planet 2 isn't bad at all, though it somewhat confusingly crosses over between the campaign and the competitive modes. Money earned allows you to play a slot machine, which unlocks everything from new weapons and combat gear to some emotive gestures that may put your avatar's masculinity into question.
The ideal Lost Planet 2 experience is to get the game with a bunch of friends and play through the campaign online, each on your own full-sized screen. Playing with strangers can be fun as well, and matchmaking is good, but the punishing penalty for a team that dies too many times and the trust system in place for skipping cutscenes means it's going to be hit or miss. Meanwhile, singleplayer is pretty dry, and splitscreen is probably unplayable on a small TV.
Well, you've been warned. Now, if it still sounds like a place you want to go, make sure you don't miss it.