Believe me when I say there’s nothing I like better than stomping around a giant ice planet and exploding swarms of alien monsters with ballistic weapons.
And yet the experience of playing “Lost Planet 3” (PC, PS3, X360; $59.99; rated T) has been curiously unappealing, despite the fact that it’s entirely about ice planets, alien swarms and ballistic weapons.
A straightforward third-person sci-fi shooter, “Lost Planet 3” is a prequel to the first two installments. You play as blue-collar hero Jim Peyton, who’s accepted a lucrative hazard-pay contract to join the mining team on the frozen planet E.D.N. III. The planet is rich with a vaguely defined thermal energy source that can be mined and shipped back to Earth.
Unfortunately, that same energy source also powers the planet’s native inhabitants, a menagerie of lethal beasties known as the Akrid. The aliens come in various forms, from swarming little soldier things to the giant behemoths featured in the boss battles. The planet’s thermal energy runs through these creatures like blood, and when you blow them away you get a kind of deadly arterial lava spray. Good times!
A strong story
“Lost Planet 3” is strongest in its story and characterization aspects. Jim is a likable hero, courageous and laid-back in an Indiana Jones kind of way. He exchanges regular video messages with his wife and baby back on planet Earth, and the game sets him up nicely as working-class hero.
In the mining depot, we meet Jim’s colleagues, a ragtag group of laborers and mercenaries trying to get by on this most hostile of planets. The designers have clearly put effort into these characters, and the dialogue is loose, authentic and often pretty funny.
As the story proceeds, we learn that Jim’s employers – the military-industrial NEOVENUS Construction company – may have a covert agenda. The miners are ostensibly on the planet to extract natural resources, but the company won’t let them defend themselves properly against the Akrid. Miners die and disappear on a regular basis, and there’s a bit of intrigue concerning the facility’s bipedal Utility Rigs (similar to Ripley’s Power Loader in “Aliens.”)
A repetitive chore
The story and setup are squarely in the tradition of hard science fiction, but actually advancing through the narrative in campaign mode is something of a chore. For long and often tedious stretches, “LP3” is a repetitive grind as you complete a series of too-similar missions. You’re tasked with retrieving an item or fixing broken equipment. You’re attacked by swarms of Akrid. You fight them off. You return to base.
The fights aren’t particularly challenging, either. “LP3” introduces some limited cover-based combat this time around, but for the most part you can just wade into battle and dispatch the Akrid with your superior firepower. Jim’s weapons are regularly upgraded by way of a limited purchase and crafting system, but aside from some basic tactical options, one gun is usually as good as the next.
For the bigger Akrid, combat requires that you strike the alien in a particular soft spot, marked by the gooey glow of thermal energy. The Akrid appear to be some nasty hybrid of reptile and insect, so anatomy can get interesting as you look for those soft spots.
The game also sprinkles in occasional quick time event (QTE) gameplay, in which you have to mash buttons in reaction to on-screen prompts.
OK for older kids
The one returning element that does work is Jim’s ability to climb into his giant bipedal Utility Rig. In earlier games, the Rigs were fully weaponized, but in this prequel story they’re equipped only with claw, drill and winch. This presents a pleasant combat challenge because the only way to defeat Akrid opponents is to get up close and give them the old grab-and-drill treatment. It gets messy.
You can upgrade your Rig along with your weapons, but that requires trudging back to base and walking through a seemingly endless maze of corridors, elevators and blast doors. I found myself reluctant to return to base, simply because it takes 15 minutes to get to the quartermaster and back.
“Lost Planet 3” certainly isn’t a bad game, and it’s safe for older kids who don’t mind a little rough language and a lot of splattering aliens. But shooter fans will probably want to opt for the game’s co-op multiplayer mode.
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