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.
Walking around is only one of the ways to get about in Lost Planet though, with Vital Suits (VS for short - mechs for all intents and purposes) providing a more lethal way to tackle the pesky Akrid. Wayne can hop in and out of these mechs whenever he wants, but like pretty much everything else in the game they'll only run while you have thermal energy to power them. Sadly, the mechs can blow up if they take too much damage, but it's worth the risk given that they pack a lot more fire-power than on-foot Wayne and leave behind huge thermal energy deposits when they explode.
The whole VS/mech aspect of Lost Planet is actually quite surprising, not in their inclusion, but in how much of a part they play in the whole game. During later missions you'll rarely want to be outside a mech, and you'll be searching around for more weapons to pick up and new machines to get into. The variety is great for a game that isn't focussed entirely on mech combat, with jumping, hovering, flying and tank mechs all available at some point during the game, with an extra special VS appearing at the close of the game. Action from within a VS has a MechAssault feel to it, but the variety of enemies and their large numbers makes Lost Planet a far more exciting game to play.
All this brings us to boss battles. The majority of levels feature a boss at the end, and these are where the old-skool feel is most apparent. Tackled in Vital Suits and on-foot (on-foot is usually only used as a last ditch attempt once all the available mechs have been blown up), you're generally locked into an arena-like area, with an Akrid or VS boss sticking to a strict attack pattern while you try and spot its weakness. With the Akrid bosses this isn't too hard, seeing as bight yellow areas once again act as clear indicators, but the mechs prove to be far trickier customers - not that a few Akrid bosses won't cause trouble.
The bosses are great, and provide a spectacle that only next-generation systems are capable of, but boy, can they be annoying. Lost Planet is a game that'll take somewhere in the region of seven hours to finish, unless you fall foul of a few of the bosses. My clock time read a rather depressing 12 hours on completion, with three bosses sticking out as a big reason for this extended play time. Unless you've groomed yourself on titles like Devil May Cry 3 and Ninja Gaiden, the difficulty spikes in Lost Planet will have you cursing, tearing your hair out and generally feeling rather fed up. It's not game breaking, but for a lot of people it will spoil what is otherwise a superb action game.
Outside of the campaign you get a fairly complete online multiplayer experience for up to 16 players. At first glance it's pretty standard stuff for a third-person shooter, with favourites Elimination and Team Elimination being your typical deathmatch and team-deathmatch modes. The thermal posts seen in the single-player game make an appearance online too, and gaining control of these not only gives you thermal energy, but also gives you radar control, which can make a big difference to the outcome of a game.
Of more interest are the Post Grab and Fugitive Hunt modes. Post Grab is a Battlefield-esque mode that tasks each team with controlling the thermal posts on the map, while Fugitive Hunt pits every player against a single player in a game of hide and seek. Long-term players will also appreciate the persistent levelling up of online characters, giving a reason to keep playing beyond a simple online ranking and Achievement points.
Both the single-player and online game modes are complemented by some of the most impressive visuals seen on the Xbox 360. Environments look a little bland when you move indoors, but the snow covered landscape and more urban environments from later in the game look phenomenal, and the enemies and bosses look and move with a quality that would have only been possible in pre-rendered movies a few years ago. A fair bit of tearing and the odd moment of slowdown is slightly disappointing, but nothing to get too worked up about. Audio doesn't fair quite as well, with what can only be described as 'wooden' voice acting, but background music and sound effects are spot on, and the surround sound even helps you out now and again by pinpointing Akrid locations.
All in all, Lost Planet: Extreme Condition feels like a hardened old-skool title wrapped up in some lavish next-gen visuals. Annoyances with the save system, checkpoints and difficulty spikes are likely to mar the enjoyment for a fair few players, but there's still no question that Lost Planet should be experienced. Online multiplayer is also an option once you finish the campaign, and a recent patch suggests that Capcom isn't going to leave problems untouched for months. A fine addition to the Xbox 360 library and hopefully the start of another successful Capcom franchise.