The atmosphere is thick with sweat and probably tears. Improbably dressed men and women lunge menacingly at you from every direction, ducking into freshly wrought trenches as you prowl amongst them, a giant pack strapped to your back and bloodlust in your eyes - all the while you're conscious that if you don't hurry, you'll run out of energy and it'll all be over. Time's against you, and you're just ONE MAN against an ARMY OF SIN.
Yep, E3's pretty rubbish. Fortunately, Capcom gave us a bell the other week and invited us to pop by and see all its E3 games before we even got on a plane, which we duly did. Amongst them, Keiji Inafune's Xbox 360-exclusive, third-person action game Lost Planet, in which you play a bloke called Wayne, who for reasons unknown wakes up one day upon a hellish tundra, pursued by a mixture of Starship Troopers bug rejects and camouflaged storm troopers, with nothing but a few shreds of clothing, a glimmering health bar and a lot of extremely big guns and giant robots to help him.
Why he's there will presumably come out in the story, but we didn't have time to worry about that because the level of exposition in the two-part E3 demo is frozen at absolute zero - and it's not the only thing. Both demo levels are almost completely set in the snow or icy caves, and one of the game's key features is a thermal energy bar ("T-Eng" in the screenshots) - an ever-decreasing number that has to be topped up by shooting all the bugs and soldiers you can get your sights on, and then collecting up the bizarre orange goop they all drop when they're dispatched. There's a nice flipside to this too - the alien-esque enemies, called Akrid apparently, each have a glowing orange element to them, either hidden at the back or apparent during a particular phase of their attack pattern, and if you hit this they immediately turn to ice and smash to bits when your next round hits home.
Wayne can carry a pair of guns, which can be swapped out in a Halo style arrangement for anything you find lying on the ground, and these range from assault rifles and shotguns to sniper rifles, rocket launchers and energy guns. And while the level design is fairly linear, there's room for a bit of improvisation, particularly in the second level. Here you find yourself at the foot of a hill, with a wall of metal at the top representing your goal, and a network of snowy trenches, barb wire fencing, burnt out vehicles, tatty brick buildings and all manner of humanoid enemies in between. Not to mention a big mech and a couple of missile-launching platforms off to one side. Tricky business. It's fun trying different approaches - legging it with an assault rifle on full-auto, picking enemies off with a handy rifle, or maybe using your ever-present grapple tool to haul yourself up onto the roof of a small building where a rocket launcher's waiting to be found. Enemies swarm out to greet you, often racing into buildings to find cover, so it's handy you've got a decent stock of grenades to clear them out - and the mechs aren't just for show either.
In the other level, you're slowly introduced to these walking beasts, which boast a much higher T-Eng level, a rocket-assisted double-jump, and of course much more impressive Gatling and shotgun side arms. Control is a lot more rigid when you get inside, as you'd expect, but they're still quite manoeuvrable and you can even stomp on enemies if you get close enough. There's also the option of changing weapons and, rather interestingly, you can even hop out and do this externally. Better, you can actually pull the Gatling off the side of the mech and walk around with it on foot. Cool, but not half as much fun as sniping the pilot out of an enemy mech and pinching that when you feel like you weren't supposed to.
The combat's fun - largely because of the control system and the quality of the visuals. As your bullets and rockets find their targets, the landscape erupts in fiery showers of snow, leaving you to cut through the smoky aftermath. It's a great effect, and it feels good to play. It's a third-person game, and uses the typical two-stick approach, but the camera doesn't follow you inch for inch; there's a bit of wiggle room before it actually starts turning, so you find yourself actually aiming at enemies rather than just doing the old trick of strafing to find them with the crosshair - so often an annoying necessity in games with large analogue dead zones and such. Headshotting enemies with the rifle is a lot easier than it is any number of similar titles, and while the demo doesn't allow you to invert your aim, apparently this will be sorted out.
That said, it's hard to say the combat's fun because of the enemy intelligence or a need for tactical awareness - at this point, it's actually not that hard to stay alive, and it feels very gung-ho. The game seems to use a Halo-style recharging shield system, but it also seems to recharge whether you're under fire or not, and you only really come unstuck if you run out of T-Eng, which isn't very often. There's definitely a lot of good to be said for stomping around hangars taking on hordes of Starship bugs (they really are the spitting image), or creeping through caves gunning down flying beasts, but you don't feel like you're in much danger at this stage.
This is most apparent when you're up against the bigger enemies or bosses. Giant bugs launch themselves out of the ground and try and stomp your mech with spiky legs, but a brute force approach puts paid to them, while mech versus mech battles are very much firepower over fleet-footedness. The boss battle at the end of the first stage, meanwhile, involves a sort of spiny armadillo which curls itself up and spins around the roof of the cavern you're in, and the idea is to concentrate your fire on its glowing orange weak spot - once you're in a mech, it doesn't take long to sort him out with a few well-placed rocket launcher rounds, and while it's certainly a spectacular encounter, again it's more of a showpiece than a struggle.
As E3 demos go, Lost Planet's definitely a looker. It's explosive fun, with a few nice concepts to get your head around. We're also promised 32-player multiplayer over Xbox Live, which should be interesting. Ultimately, the E3 demo gives the impression that it could go either way, but providing Capcom's refinement of the health system works out, Lost Planet could be stellar.
Lost Planet is due out on Xbox 360 this winter.