It's hard to remember a console game that's been so publicly playable for such a long period prior to its release. Lost Planet: Extreme Condition received a single-player demo way back in May last year and a multiplayer demo towards the tail end of 2006, meaning anyone with an Xbox 360 and an internet connection could sample the game well before it hit stores. It's certainly a modern way to drum up hype for a game, and it worked a treat, with internet forums rife with posters desperate to get their hands on the retail version. For better or worse, though, Lost Planet's pre-release awareness campaign turned out to be far more modern than the game itself.
A lot of effort has clearly gone into creating a story for Lost Planet, which sees an earth-like world covered in ice and snow, inhabited by humans and an alien species known as the Akrid. Unluckily for the humans on the planet, Akrid are more or less a species of bugs of all shapes and sizes, but they do harvest and store precious thermal energy. This glowing orange liquid is at the heart of the game's story, being the vital resource the main characters are after and what keeps Wayne, the game's pivotal character, alive. Before too long, a story of revenge and survival is set-up, and this plays out in-between the 11 missions that make up the game.
Lost Planet is a third-person shooter and a simple one at that - although a back to basics shooter isn't really a bad thing. For a large portion of the game, particularly early on, Wayne moves around on foot, and the Akrid are by far the biggest threat to his life. These bugs range in size from dog-sized walking and flying nasties that constantly spawn from gruesome looking nests, to amazingly large beetle and crab-like monsters that wouldn't be out of place in the Starship Troopers movies. Anyone who's played the demo will know how incredible the larger enemies are, and the way they break out of the snow to enter the scene is never anything less than breathtaking.
Being a lone man (something later human enemies constantly remind you of), fighting enormous beasties isn't easy, but a few things give you a slight upper-hand in most combat situations. The most obvious are the 'attack the weak spot for maximum damage' glowing yellow areas on the Akrid. Every one of the bugs in the game has a weak spot so clearly signposted that knowing how to take them down isn't a problem, but doing so isn't as simple as it looks. For one, each type of bug will attack in a different way, and many are capable of lunges from a fair distance, making a still Wayne, a dead Wayne.
Well, he would be dead if it wasn't for his nifty use of thermal energy. Wayne is fitted with a special adapter that allows him to harness the planet's energy (seen in-game as pools of orange liquid) to keep him alive in the extreme conditions, and it also doubles as a handy way to restore health lost through enemy attacks. This thermal energy store depletes over time, so it's best to keep moving and to pick up energy left behind from slain Akrid. Your recharging health makes the first third of the game remarkably simple, as it's nigh on impossible to die, with only severely punishing attacks doing enough damage to reduce your health to an unrecoverable level.
While the constantly depleting energy pushes you through the game, it makes exploring the environments a rather risky act, especially considering that the game only saves permanently at the end of each level, with checkpoints often not coming at the right point to save you re-playing a lengthy portion of a level if you die. Wandering off path isn't something you'll have to do often, with thermal-energy-giving posts scattered around the levels pointing you in the right direction, but there are numerous tokens to collect in each mission, if you're into that kind of thing.
When on foot, Wayne has one more trick up his sleeve, and it plays a vital part in a number of the game's vertical levels: he can use a grappling hook to reach high platforms and to quickly evade enemy attacks. It's a nice addition to the fairly formulaic third-person shooter gameplay, but it's simply not as great as it could have been. You can't propel it out while in mid-air, so there's no flashy trick grappling for us, and you can't aim directly above (something which also affects shooting), so you'll find yourself doing a bit of shuffling around near a vertical wall to make sure you hit the wall at the right place to launch Wayne onto the platform above.