Prequels are a risky undertaking for any developer, especially one that’s coming into a series that suffered from a bumpy second installment. While it looked absolutely incredible, Lost Planet 2 was a nightmare for solo players and even with up to four live players tackling the near completely plot-free campaign, the core gameplay had too many flaws to be fully enjoyable. Spark Unlimited (taking over from Capcom’s internal studio) has been working hard for the past 2 1/2 years on Lost Planet 3 and as a recent demo build proved, the developer is showing off their best, most polished work to date. While it’s usually impossible to gauge how the final retail code for any game will be based on a demo, after playing through it and watching others play, it’s clear that the team at Spark is cooking up a blend of excellently done cinematic storytelling and solid gameplay that so far, manages to be equal parts thrilling and extremely well paced.
LP3 once again takes place on EDN III, but as a more story and character-driven prequel, the new focus is making for a more engaging experience in my eyes. Between the brutal cold, super powerful storms that are hell on man and machinery and roving packs of assorted Akirid, the planet is definitely looking like a really bad place you wouldn’t want to visit even if you were being paid to. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the position the game’s protagonist, a miner named Jim, finds himself in. Working the mines here too far away from his wife and child, he’s one of a small group of humans stationed on the planet trying to make a decent living under the worst of conditions. When we first see Jim, he’s waking up after another night spent sleeping in his rig, a huge mech equipped with a drill on one arm and a claw on the other. The first few minutes of the demo played out in a great cinematic sequence that showed off some top-notch performance capture work and excellent voice acting from the same actors used to model the lifelike characters. It was quite clear that for both Capcom and Spark, delivering an actual well scripted story this time out that’s focused on a single character and how he deals with the cards he’s been dealt in a few areas is key.
Unlike the space pirate hero cyphers in the first two games, Jim’s got a lot more personality and comes off as a regular working stiff you’d want to have a beer or two with if you knew him. He’s got his share of human flaws such as a bad knee from years of climbing in and out of his rig and in fact, the opening cinema showed an overeager mining tech attaching a cable rig to Jim’s rig that allowed him to zip-line up to the mech’s cockpit so he wouldn’t have to worry about his leg. Jim isn’t happy about the mod, as he didn’t ask for it, but after giving it a test (with a nicely amusing result), he decides to keep the new attachment. Of course, this new bit of kit will come in handy soon enough. Once control of the mech is allowed, it also becomes clear that Spark put a huge amount of work into making the cockpit view height, movement and general look and feel of the rig as realistic as possible. The sense of weight and walking speed is just right, controls were flawless and this tutorial section also allowed for a bit of interaction with some frozen door locks that needed to be forced open using the mech’s claw. After that and shattering an icy wall or two, Jim ended up having to walk through a brief, but powerful storm that froze his rig where it stood.
Kicking the now frozen cockpit open and zip-lining to the ground below, Jim is then accosted by a small pack of big mountain-lion sized Akrid that could be taken down by shooting them, or when one leaped forward and knocked him over, by stabbing it in the mouth with his knife via a QTE. I was told by Senior Producer Andrew Szymanski that a third option of quickly dodging the creatures, shooting the ice off the mech and zipping back in to use the claw and drill to kill them could be done, but it was a bit tricky to pull off without taking some damage.I did get to do some mech-based Akrid bashing soon enough after getting back into the rug and strolling into a different part of the map on the way to one of the demo objectives. It’s definitely easier to deal with Akrid inside the rig, but it was made clear that players will have the freedom to fight however they wish in these outdoor sections.
It has to be noted that yes, the game is taking a page from the Dead Space series with its wrist-mounted GUI, environment suit that uses glowing lights to represent remaining health and weapons that show ammo remaining when drawn, but these elements aren’t here to “rip off” Visceral Games work at all. That and Jim certainly isn’t coming off as an Issac Clarke clone with a lumberjack beard AND nope, the demo isn’t anywhere as gory or future Gothic-influenced as the world Visceral has crafted for their hugely popular franchise. As I played, it was clear to me that the dev team simply figured when they begun the project that they may as well be one of the next developers to use a similarly smartly streamlined interface. Hell, if it works (ad it works quite well), why not, I say.
After killing off the beasts, blasting ice off the rig with his gun and zipping back inside, Jim made his way into a cave up to a point where he had to exit because the huge mech couldn’t fit into the area ahead. I was told that if I chose to explore around the outdoors more, I’d find a few secrets and hidden items in out of the way places (which is something I love doing in games like this). Tempting as it was to hop back inside the rig and go exploring outside in the blasting wind and blowing snow and ice, I decided to press onward and head up a ledge into the small tunnel ahead of the rig. Exploring too far away from the rig’s communication range had the minimal HUD fuzz out and eventually disappear, adding a nicely eerie tone to the exploration. Soon enough, Jim discovers he’s not alone as there was a rather large shelled crab-like Akrid that turned up for a bit of boss battle action in a large circular cave.
Taking down the thing required destroying each pincer then lots of dodge rolls combined with plenty of shots to the glowing back when the creature slammed into a wall. Taking it down and then shattering the quick-frozen corpse was satisfying and challenging, but there was more to explore. The main goal of the mission was to plant a beacon at a certain point, as the miner that had the job before failed to do so. Once the beacon was planted, there was a sudden flash of energy as the ice around the beacon vanished and a surprised Jim found himself looking at the entrance to what appeared to be some sort of underground base. Of course, a bit of exploration was in order, and here the demo got a bit more tense, as darkness, glimpses of skittering critters and dead environment-suited bodies that littered the base were all that initially could be found. Fortunately, that shotgun Jim found a bit earlier, plus some extra ammo for his main gun in the base helped out it dispatching a few dog-sized Akrid ankle biters that dealt some nasty damage if they were able to leap onto poor Jim.
There was a circular room with a spinning generator to activate in order to proceed past some locked doors, and of course, once this was done, noises from where Jim came from and had to return to meant there was a bit more combat to tackle before he was able to make a safe exit. Some shooting and a few tossed grenades later, the small pack of Akrid were toast and Jim was able to exit the base a few yards away from where he left his rig. Naturally, as soon as he stepped outside, there were some of the wolf-like Akrid scampering about ready for a fight. However, running like hell towards the rig and zipping up into it was the best course of action as while sprinting, another huge crab Akrid burst through the snow and came after Jim. Eeek. This particular boss battle was quite a lot of fun, as inside the rig, Jim needed to use more precise attacks with the claw arm and drill combo. Remember that Alien Queen versus Power Loader fight from Aliens? Well, as Szymanski noted to me later, this was the inspiration for the boss battle here and yes, it’s just about equally awesome.
Blocking swings from the crab, grabbing a pincer and drilling into it at the joint to break it off, then going after the other pincer made for quite an adrenaline rush, but the declawed and still pissed off crab wasn’t going down without a fight. To end the battle, Jim needed to block and avoid the charging creature and drill into its back until it was dead. I actually got lucky and managed to finish off the thing in less time than I thought, more likely than not because I was so focused and thrilled with the combat here. However, no sooner than the boss went down and was shattered into bits and Jim was about to get himself ready for a weary trip back to where he started his work day, the camera zoomed away from the rig as a whole field of crab Akrid started popping up from the snowy ground, making for a cool cliffhanger ending to the demo.
Rather than sticking with Capcom’s verastile MT Framework engine, Spark has chosen to get the most out of Epic’s equally flexible Unreal 3 tech here, and the game looks phenomenal so far. Solid art direction is everywhere with excellently detailed characters and environments plus the aforementioned performance capturing and sound adding up to a game that draws you in right away. There were some great scripted moments where something fell over or broke loose inside the destroyed base camp that made me jump a little, expecting an Akrid or three to pop from around a corner. Combined with the tight controls and inspired storytelling, LP3 is looking like a really nice surprise in the areas where it needs to be great. Spark is focusing on the single player aspect and while there will indeed be multiplayer modes, they weren’t discussing them at all. Szymanski noted that more details will be revealed at some point when the team is ready to show off that part of the game. I’m gathering it won’t be a big PvP deal unless there’s some miner vs. Akrid action, but again, we’ll see. I do know that Jim’s rig will get upgrades as the game progresses, but info on those mods will come later.
As for co-op, it’s not here at all, but that’s a good thing, as it allows the developer to make the game they want to make and not shoehorn in wider indoor maps and more changes to the game’s pacing (ending up with something that doesn’t fit the story they want to tell). With a few too many games that feature co-op destroying their narratives (e.g., two playable Master Chiefs in the original Halo wrecking the whole otherwise epic “last remaining Spartan” tale Bungie spent years working on), a developer going the Half-Life route and sticking to their guns makes me quite happy. The big thing for Spark at this point is to get the game done, male sure it’s tightened up and as bug free as can be and finally, get gamers like YOU to want to give their game a go when it hits stores in early 2013. Me, I know I’ll be there just to see where the story goes and experience a fresh take on a franchise that looks like it’s on the way to a brand new beginning worth experiencing.