Early on in Lost Planet 3, main character Jim Peyton says "I'm here to work". The 32-year-old isn't a prophesied saviour or a man of action who's sworn vengeance for fallen comrades. He's a dad who taken on gruelling work so that his family can survive in a future where Earth's energy woes have led to riots and global strife. That average joe backdrop — and the things that spin out of it — make this sci-fi shooter a shade more interesting than most others.
This Lost Planet cares about story — and the things that make narratives move like character motivation and themes — more than its predecessors. Those games were all about shooting at ever larger beasties while trying not to freeze to death. While that is part of this game too, Lost Planet 3 feels a whole lot like it's trying for weight. Corporate greed, personal moral failings and disillusionment all crop up in the game.
Peyton works as a contractor for a interstellar corporation called NEVEC, mining frozen planet E.D.N. III for thermal energy and resources to make ends meet. That work happens in extremely hostile conditions with inhumanly cold temperatures and vicious insectoid lifeforms called Akrid constantly trying to kill you.
The lead character's construction as an everyman — complete with a family man dynamic for added emotional relatability — is meant to distinguish him from the wise-cracking or stoic protagonists in so many other games. His folksy accent, the crew of salty fellow contactors he rolls with and the other affectations peppered through the game are also meant to point at an idea of working-class heroism.
Most of the guys in Coronis Base are presented as plain-speaking folk out to make an honest living. Sure, there's a predictable assortment of types: the company man in charge, the resentful scientist, the wise-cracking tech wiz, to name a few. However, they all get an added layer of characterization that adds depth. The company man keeping the planet's big, dirty secret? Turns out he's got deeply personal reasons for doing so. The weirdo scientist who disregards ethical boundaries? His calls home are to his mother.
But it's Jim — who, at first, simply wants to avoid drama and earn credits — that most feels like a well-drawn average guy. A victory strut after an early mission reveals you can listen to a country-rock playlist your wife made you to remind you of home. 85% of his paycheck gets sent back home to earth. That's a big chunk. And the weekly video messages that he and wife Gracie send to each other feel truly heartfelt, sketching out a relationship that feels truly adult. Jim may play a bit like Gears of War's Marcus Fenix but he's no super-soldier. When he answers the call to heroism, it seems like he will do the right thing because you've gotten to know him.
Together, all these considerations team up to try and tell the player that they're not just here to shoot things and that there's something to think about as you upgrade guns and explore icy caverns. Doing side missions to earn more money feels apropos for this game, even if they amount to a whole lot of "Hey, Jim, can you do this? Hey, Jim, can you do that?"
The aforementioned shooting is capable but not exceptional, for the most part. You switch between run-and-gun and cover-based gunplay throughout the game, battling Akrid as small as housecats or as tall as apartment buildings. It's a carousel of "find the glowing spot and shoot until dead," for the most part. Bigger Akrid have the usual puzzle-like patterns to figure out during boss battles.
Thankfully, the Utility Rig — a giant two-legged mech with claw and drill attachments that Jim rides around in — add a nice change of perspective. It makes you a first-person behemoth that towers over the Akrid that swarm all over you in annoying fashion when you're on foot. But the rigs aren't invulnerable. Physical combat while in the Rig (which Jim calls Gertie) comes with its own hazards. Taking out the giant-sized Akrid enemies in the Rig will require a bit of block/grab/attack choreography. Suffer too much damage and Jim gets popped out of the Rig while self-repair routines running, which can leave him on foot and sometimes facing off against those much bigger insectoid lifeforms.
And if you get caught by one of the violent storms that wrack E.D.N. III's surface while in your Rig, you'll have to get out and shoot the ice off. Even worse, you'll have to fend off attacks while doing so. Blasting off the ice off of Jim's rig felt a bit like bringing a tow truck in for service or having to change a flat in the middle of a torrential downpour. You gotta take care of the vehicle you depend on to live your life or else you're screwed, especially considering the other more handyman-like tasks that Jim will need the Rig for like fixing stuff around the base.
On the subject of being screwed, Jim's workaday routine falls apart when he discovers the secrets lurking behind the colonisation of E.D.N. III. It's here that LP3 simultaneously feels most stilted and interesting. Some aspects of the revelations that Jim learns about the planet stretch believability but they're preceded by tense combat and ugly evidence of corporate malfeasance that serves a counterweight.
Lost Planet 3 clearly could have used a bit more polish. It occasionally stuttered for me, and inputs sometimes went unrecognised. Overall, the game felt twitchy every so often, too. None of this broke my play experience but it still feels worth noting. Despite the occasional roughness, the banter, quirks and loneliness of the game's cast kept me wanting to play. Even if I had strong suspicions about what was going to transpire — you can feel the imprint of Alien, Dead Space and other space horror tales — I wanted to see them Larouche, Braddock, Roman and the others react to the actual happening. Spark Unlimited's release is like a lot of games nowadays, in that it uses controls, mechanics and even narrative beats that are familiar across a broad swath of titles and genres. That's not necessarily a fault since that familiarity can be a kind of shorthand. "Oh, X is reload and Y is weapon-switch. Cool, I can hit the ground running then." The bigger question is where that familiarity leads you, in terms of overall experience, once you hit the ground running. The jumping and moving-things-around in Papo & Yo was standard stuff — albeit sprinkled with magical realism — but it led players to an incredibly emotional climax. The plot beats in LP3 didn't surprise me but they did affect me. I felt like I got some understanding of what drove the workers, scientists and leaders of E.D.N. III and when the storyline's reversals happened to them, there was a palpable ache.
Lost Planet 3 is a slightly above-average shooter that somehow manages to make its take on family, legacy and responsibility feel genuine. It's a surprising mix. Part of Lost Planet 3's uniqueness is in how it kinda says that workers' lives are the currency for larger organizational movements. Scores of nameless individuals died building the railroads, oil pipelines and electrical grids we take for granted today. Lost Planet 3 puts one of those kinds of people in the role of hero. It's less of a power fantasy and more of a reflection of what you gain and give up with a working life.Note: Lost Planet 3 offers multiplayer options, too, and this review will be updated once we've had time to assess what the online experience feels like.