I’m just going to come right out and say it: I’ve never been a fan of the Lost Planet games. It’s just a personal opinion, but I’ve always found the controls to be clunky and not responsive enough, the story delivery to be sloppy, and the core gameplay to be filled with solid ideas that just aren’t any fun. I say all of this because I want you to know where I’m coming from when I tell you that Lost Planet 3 is one of the most enjoyable games I got to go hands-on with during E3 2012.
The upcoming Capcom-published sequel is in the hands of an entirely different developer for its third console bow. Spark Unlimited has an admittedly so-so track record between current-gen FPS titles Turning Point: Fall of Liberty and Legendary, but by all appearances the developer has risen to the challenge of breathing something fresh into the Lost Planet franchise. You’re still running around an icy planet using a variety of firearms and mech suits to take on bug-like creatures with glowing extremities marking their weak points, but the overall quality of the experience feels much more polished, even here, many months out from its 2013 release.
My brief hands-on time offered up a good representation of how the game will control in various situations. The mechs of previous games are sort of back, only this time they’re proper, giant-sized behemoths that you’ll use your grappling hook to get into (in a canned animation). They don’t carry any weaponry (or at least the one in the E3 demo had none) but a grasping claw and an arm designed for drilling are plenty deadly in melee combat.
Then there’s the protagonist, Jim, who feels much more agile than the protagonists of the previous games. The E3 demo pick up early on, with Jim being sent out into the frozen wastes of E.D.N. II in a sequence that seems designed to offer up a taste of the game’s core mechanics. The mech is a sturdy piece of machinery, but it can’t handle extreme cold. When a storm picks up and freezes it in place, Jim must head outside — keeping the cold at bay with collected thermal energy is no longer a concern — a shoot the ice off of the mech with his machine gun.
This creates an opportunity for the game to throw some of the native life at you, in the form of four-legged beasties that are roughly the size of a great cat. Combat feels smooth and response, with Jim able to dive-roll clear of any incoming attacks with a simple button press. The goal here is to keep the creatures at bay while shooting ice off of the vehicle.
A later sequence set inside of an ice cave pits Jim against one of the larger Akrid, a giant-sized, scuttling bug-like creature. The key here is to remove the creature’s two claws by shooting out the glowing joints for each one and then dive-rolling clear of its charges and getting behind it to chip away at the ice on its back, where its weak spot lies. Defeating it leaves you with a fountain of thermal energy to collect; it’s back in Lost Planet 3, only this time it’s a resource that you can use as currency for weapon and equipment upgrades.
The world that Spark has constructed for this prequel isn’t a fully open one, but it offers a lot of freedom and optional content nonetheless. Using a “hub and spoke” design, you’ll explore the icy landscape from a central base location, gaining access to an increasing number of locations as you advance the story and pick up new tools that offer a greater range of mobility options.
One such “side quest” involves finding and using thermal maps to hunt down pockets of heat scattered around the planet. When you discover one of these locations, you’re able to put down a heat-collecting thermal post. There’s then a choice to be made: do you leave the post be for awhile to gather more valuable thermal energy, which will almost certainly result in Akrid building a nest around it, or do you return quickly for the smaller reward?
The wilds of E.D.N. II also hide audio logs for the lost contractor whose role Jim now fills. As you find these optional bits of exposition, you’ll learn more about what happened to your predecessor and the planet around you. There’s more to find as well; Spark isn’t saying exactly what, but it seems that certain collectibles will even tie in with the upgrades you receive.
Lost Planet 3 might be a sequel, but it looks like it’s going to be worlds ahead of its predecessors. Spark is laying down some great ideas here that evolve the core values of the series in seemingly enjoyable ways. There’s still more to be revealed about the world — it seems that players can expect more than just frozen plains and ice caves — and multiplayer, which is confirmed and nothing more, but even this early peek shows promise for the 2013 release.