BEAUTY VERSUS GAMEPLAY: Lost Planet is like a Frankenstein’s monster of B-movie influences.
The longest-running debate among video-game fanboys is whether graphics “matter.” Gameplay is inextricably linked to graphics, both because games are a visual medium and because the advanced processing power that allows for better advanced graphics also creates the potential for keener AI, more realistic physics, and vibrant, living game worlds. On the other hand, when developers focus too much on the look of a game, it can be to the detriment of the gameplay. Lost Planet: Extreme Condition neatly illustrates the problem: it’s gorgeous enough that you may not realize how little is actually there.
The premise is certainly appealing to the jacked-up-male demographic that the Xbox 360 targets. Lost Planet is like a Frankenstein’s monster of B-movie influences, joining the Arctic setting of The Thing with the bug-like alien foes straight out of Starship Troopers. You can also climb into enormous, mechanical “Vital Suits” equipped with ordnance sufficient to level a small city. On paper, this game is right in any shooter fan’s wheelhouse, and on the surface it seems to deliver on that potential.
Along with the recent Gears of War, Lost Planet shows that developers are starting to understand how to exploit the power of the Xbox 360. The technical achievement is impressive enough, but this third-person shooter also moves beyond the conceptual limitations you usually find in science-fiction games. Forget drab environments painted with browns and grays — Lost Planet is set on a blinding white tundra. Monsters lurking in the shadows have become a pervasive device in shooters, so to see hordes of Akrid streaming across a snowfield provides a fresh jolt. The wide-open vistas and aged architecture give an unexpected beauty to the whole affair.
The gameplay, on the other hand, is not similarly next-generation. Your character can lug only two weapons at a time, plus grenades. The minimal platforming involves jumping and using a magnetic grappling hook that’s less fun to play around with than you might think. (In multiplayer, however, the combat possibilities the grappling hook offers open up.) Mechanics that are meant to be different and exciting are often anything but. The Vital Suits are neat for the massive firepower upgrade they afford you, but the use of vehicles is nothing new. Given how stodgy the VS controls can be, you might prefer to walk.
What’s strangest about Lost Planet is how unbalanced it feels. Portions are insultingly easy. The Akrid hordes are cannon fodder; the space pirates you battle are controlled by monumentally dumb AI. Frequently you’ll find yourself blasting away at one pirate while another stands unmindful just yards away. Massive boss battles are nothing more than exercises in pattern recognition and go on far too long with too little a margin of error. And the controls don’t always respond as they should. Actions like reloading and switching weapons ought to be instantaneous, yet all too often you have to stop and wait for your character to accept the command. Against stronger bosses, this can be the difference between life and death.
So is Lost Planet worth a try? Depends on your sensibilities. Those looking for the next big audio-visual sensation will not want to miss it, but you can put me with the anti-graphics folks on this one. I’d rather play Tetris.