Lost Planet: Extreme Condition
Summer is the time for cinematic blockbusters. We lap up all the flash-bang-whiz, pulse racing, eye widening, ear assaulting action and ask far fewer questions of the shoddy plot development, non-existent characterisation and terrible acting than we might at other times - after all, outside the cinema it's sunny and life is good. If Capcom were relying on this same seasonally generated thirst for carnage and generosity of spirit with Lost Planet, then the British weather this summer must be annoying them almost as much as it has annoying us.
Yes, this is the PC sibling of the Xbox 360's popular Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, now sitting on the 'Games for Windows' shelf in a shop near you, and although its pros and cons are bound to divide opinion, for me, it's the gaming equivalent of an explosion riddled, one-liner based action film that thrills and dazzles the senses for a while, but, upon reflection, suffers sorely from a lack of depth or challenge.
The plot of the game is at once both cliched in its simplicity and mind-boggling in its presentation; by which I mean, if you bother to follow the intro sequences and ever increasing complexity of the cut-scenes, you'll eventually wish you had just gone with your initial grasp - "so it's just a story about a man wanting to avenge the death of his father, on another planet" - and skipped the rest. The said man, Wayne (for all the Waynes out there complaining that their name is never deemed cool enough for a hero, at least one who isn't running a cable channel from his basement), is on E.D.N. III, the eponymous 'lost planet' (where, like Narnia, it's always winter and never spring) as part of a human effort to defeat the insect-like alien overlords, the Akrid. At the start Wayne can't remember much about his back-story, but he's up for it because it was an Akrid that killed his father... or was it?
Beyond the dull and over-complex plot, there are some interesting and unusual features here. The most important of these, is the way in which (because no life form can survive on the freezing tundra of E.D.N. III without the aid of Thermal Energy), you are forced to keep the pace of your journey high by collecting 'T-Eng' from the beings you kill, replacing your ever depleting supply. Although this constant need for T-Eng collection is one of the game's most novel features, it is also one of its largest flaws. While there is no doubt that it injects the gameplay with an exhilarating pace and dynamism, it acts against the game's major strength - its graphics.
There is no doubt that it is the aesthetics of this version that sets it apart most significantly from the 360 incarnation. It sounds fantastic and in DX9 mode it packs a powerful visual punch; however, if you have a top of the line rig (and I mean top of the line) at the max, DX10 settings, you might well find yourself blown away. This having been said, you have no real time to stand around gawping at your beautiful surroundings; not only does the game throw you in at the deep end with regards to all-guns-blazing opponents (expect to be confused and to die a lot when you start out), but even if you found a gap between attacks long enough to have a gander about, you'd dare not do so for fear of losing all your Thermal Energy and dying that way. In addition to this, Wayne seems to have some problems with looking around anyway, the most significant of which being that (like dogs) he can't look up.
That brings us neatly to where, for me, this game comes unstitched - the controls. Attempting to navigate the menus with a keyboard will immediately inform you that Capcom believe that in the 'Games for Windows' era, everyone now has an Xbox 360 controller plugged into their PC. This idea is reinforced by the menu prompts, which all say things like "Press B to go back". Then, when you actually start playing the game with your keyboard and mouse, you'll soon discover how easy it is to control, far more so than on the 360. Moving and aiming far more accurately than you are able to with a controller becomes possible relatively quickly and renders some of the end of level bosses significantly less tricky to defeat. These sharper controls also highlight the relatively poor strategy of the computer opposition. Most of the bosses move and behave predictably and the AI of the human opponents is weak - like, shoot someone in the head and their friend standing next to them doesn't notice sort of weak.
Still, back to the positives: Wayne can use a decent array of weaponry with weapon choice yielding pleasingly different levels of effectiveness against different types of enemy. Another plus are the Vital Suit mechs which combine more powerful weapons with abilities such as hovering, performing double jumps, or transforming into drills or mechanical spiders, and generally wreak all sorts of mayhem. Mind you, T-Eng disappears at a much more rapid rate when you're in control of one of these bad boys and therefore they are only really usable in short bursts. If you want to bring some of the carnage at less T-Eng cost, however, you can rip off one of the guns from a mech and wear it on your arm, which is cool. Unfortunately, these strengths simply cannot distract me from the more significant weaknesses. The thrill of being periodically at the heart of beautifully rendered, enjoyably bewildering, explosion fuelled action simply doesn't make up for the really slow pace of movement on foot, the animation lags when you get knocked over or attempt to climb, and the linear, almost platformer-esque progression, which, cumulatively, account for much more of the playing experience.
The truth is that for many PC gamers the tag 'console port' sends shivers down the spine, and if cross-overs like this one are going to deaden that reflex and carve out a dedicated following, they need to be more distinctively PC-honed in conversion and provide more longevity than the twelve rather straightforward one-player levels Lost Planet offers. Of course, it was probably intended that that crucial 're-playability' factor be provided mostly through the multiplayer mode. Well, if that was the plan, then they probably should have thought a lot more carefully about the online functioning. Many complaints from early reviewers pointed to a simple lack of online opponents and frequent crashes, and although these faults have improved in the couple of weeks since release, questions remain about the stability of online play and why Capcom hasn't wangled Microsoft Live compatibility to allow Xbox and PC owners to slug it out together. Furthermore, Steam continues to strike me as a giant pain in the buttocks, and although it should allow for the quick and easy distribution of the updates that LP desperately needs, the fact that even the singleplayer mode is so tied tightly into the framework is frankly just another annoyance.
So, if Starship Troopers is your favourite film and you're looking for a new game to play for a couple of days and then use it only to prove to friends that the abilities of your brand new PC are beyond those of their next-gen consoles, then this is a suitable choice. If, however, you are looking for something more, I would look elsewhere.