Just when (thanks to sophisticated shooters like Gears of War or Rainbow Six: Vegas) you thought the run-and-gun shooter was perhaps passe, along comes Capcom's Lost Planet: Extreme Conditions, which demonstrates that old school gameplay can be wedded successfully to next-gen graphics.
There's no denying that Lost Planet feels like a melange of several titles, including Starship Troopers, Dune, Serious Sam, Painkiller, Doom 3, and John Carpenter's The Thing, but the game wears its influences lightly. It doesn't feel derivative, but the echoes of those other games are there, as well as Capcom's trademark end boss clashes.
Story and Gameplay
While a lot of care was obviously paid to the visuals, level design, and enemies, the story is a mish-mash of sci-fi elements that never really comes together and often makes literally no sense. Why is it that so many games' stories never rise above the level of amateurish science fiction? Here's the quick version: In the relatively distant future, Earth colonists on a frozen planet battle an bug-like alien race called the Akrid, as well as human space pirates. Wayne, the hero of the game, is seeking revenge for the death of his father by the huge alien creature, Green Eye, as well as fighting the pirates for control of the planet's energy sources. Even in the early days of speculative fiction this story would never have made it out of an editor's slush pile. It doesn't help that the English version of the game is poorly voiced by incredibly bad actors. In short, the cut scenes and dialogue that set up each mission can be safely skipped.
In contrast, the game itself plays really well and is ton of fun, if decidedly old-school. Although the planet is a beautifully rendered snow and ice world, a fair number of levels are indoors and these are nicely done as well. Basically, you fight small and larger Akrid as well as human space pirates and human controlled mechs, each of the ten levels ending with a boss, each boss having that one fatal flaw that makes defeating it a tactically simple (if sometimes protracted) matter of endurance, weapon selection, and timing.
All enemies, as well as many elements of the environment, leave a residue of energy which you need to collect to power your protective suit. Additionally, there are PDAs (energy stations) located at key points in the game that recharge your suit before or after a battle, as well as point you towards the next goal. Except possibly during boss battles, it is rare for your suit to run out of energy. Many objects in the environment, such as fuel dumps or junked cars, can be blown up and the energy collected. Although the environment is not totally malleable, a fair number of objects can be destroyed.
Controls (movement, weapons, aiming, etc) are fluid and there are alternative control mappings for players to tweak. There is a large variety of weapons and they are abundantly placed in the world. You are rarely far from some form of weapon or ammo. Unlike many games, you cannot snag weapons from fallen enemies.
This is not the only throwback to earlier shooters. There is no cover mechanic either, and enemies are decidely stupid, at least at the easy and medium difficulty settings. The Akrid are often large and powerful (or come in the small, swarming variety) but all have a weak spot that is pretty obvious; the human space pirates rarely seek cover or even move much, making them easy pickings with a long range sniper rifle. Some of the boss level mechs, outfitted with lasers and rockets, are quite a challenge to bring down, but this is rarely due to their superior AI.
It is also interesting to note that, except for the boss battles, a player could simply run from the beginning of a level to the end and never engage an enemy, though mowing down the Akrid and picking off the pirates is the core of the game.
Graphics, Design, and Sound
Lost Planet is a great-looking title. Environments are quite convincing, detailed and varied and really convey the look of an abandoned settlement quite well. Frame rates are smooth, even during the more frenetic firefights. The Akrid are, for the most part, riffs on giant insects, sea creatures, reptiles, and even the sandworm from Dune, but they're interesting and fluidly animated. Figure models are relatively detailed and convincing, though lip synching is way off in the cut scenes. One has to wonder why a female soldier would expose quite so much of her chest to subzero temperatures. Who I am to complain?
Sound is a mixed bag. Weapon effects are done well, and intense battles with many weapons and sounds can become a real cacophony of noise. Creature sounds are fairly subdued, and as mentioned, the voice acting is pretty awful. Enemies have a limited and repetitive repertoire of verbal reactions and responses.
The musical score is appropriately dramatic during battles (though mixed pretty far in the background) and virtually nonexistent the rest of the time.
Since computer-controlled AI in the game is a little disappointing, the various multiplayer modes add a bit more tactical challenge to the experience. There are four multiplayer modes (basically deathmatch, team deathmatch, last man standing, and capture the point) and eight, well designed, and very large maps. Net code is tight and it all runs well. All the weapons in the game are available in multiplayer and the various mechs are a blast to battle in and with, and during the single player game you can unlock skins to use in multiplayer.
If games like Call of Duty 3, Rainbow Six Vegas, and Gears of War hadn't upped the stakes of what a shooter can do and be, Lost Planet would really shine. Taken for what it is (a high budget, sci-fi, old-style shooter with a low-ball story) it's a lot of fun. It's a short game, clocking in at around 8 hours on normal setting, but it has legs due to the strong multiplayer component and well-designed maps. You can put your brain safely on hold, skip past the wince-inducing dialogue, and have a lot of action-packed old school fun.