Once upon a time, Earth was a bit rubbish. So we left. We got on spaceships, and flew off to a place called E.D.N. III. I don't know why it is called that - perhaps they had a competition, and that was a little girl's entry, and the little girl had some sort of horrible brain cancer and they couldn't say no despite the fact nobody was really keen on it.
Anyway, despite all the snow and the violent giant insects who killed lots of us, we decided to stick with the plan to colonise E.D.N. III. One reason for this was that the giant insects there released helpful blobs of orange when they perished. This "thermal energy" helped sustain us in the cold. And so we invented mechanical exoskeletons - or Vital Suits - in order to kill lots of insects and harvest their juice. The end.
That's roughly what happens in the boring cut-scene that sets the stage for Lost Planet, but things quickly improve. For instance, you're immediately being chased through an abandoned city by a gigantic beetle monster thing that smashes through skyscrapers in an attempt to spawn a glacier and drop it on your head.
Imagine the Bantha from Return of the Jedi but ten times bigger with the ability to spit massive rods of killer ice. This bit of the game's immediately brutal, giving you just enough room to stay ahead as you run down side streets glancing back over your shoulder in alarm, before climbing up a staircase and running along gangways that cut through the skyline, your eyes permanently fixed to the king of the cockroaches razing the city below you.
It concludes as you don your first Vital Suit, along with dad, and jump back to ground to face it. The "Green eye" it's called, and dad looks worried. As well he should be, because ten seconds later it belly-flops on his head.
Lost Planet, due out on 12th January, is sort of a bit like Halo meets Dune. On the one hand there are the things that lead you to draw up the Halo comparison - the unknown world with big secrets, mankind displaced and outnumbered, the two-gun weapon system, the rechargeable health bar, the fact that Keiji Inafune said it was his answer to Halo.
On the other there's the Dune element - factious bands fighting for control of sprawling, perilous and apparently lifeless terrain, and the idea of killing others for their lifeforce, and great concern over the wasting or casual dispensing of thermal energy. (That and it has giant desert worms in it, and Wayne looks a bit like Paul Atreides.)
But really it's not like Halo meets Dune, because it's more like Capcom meets Western shooter design. There's the immediacy and relentlessness (and the central preoccupation with guns) of the combat, and there's also the attempts to play in the same league as games like Half-Life with its giant set-pieces.
As well as the chase-level opener, a later mission sees you fighting your way to a mountaintop, with a giant flying monster playing various roles along the way - bombing you with explosive eggs as you fight through gullies full of insects with flowery heads that appear to have been routed through Day of the Triffids on their way from Starship Troopers; knocking you off your feet, as you emerge into the sunlight from a base cut into the mountain and it swoops past you like a banking airliner; and tackling you head on as you manoeuvre a Vital Suit into the basin on top of the mountain to conclude the battle.
The Vital Suits are obviously Japanese mecha in many senses, but they form only part of the combat. They're certainly essential to the boss fights, which generally occur at the end of each level, with their clunky movement offset by massive gatling guns, rocket launchers and lasers, but a healthy chunk of the action takes place on foot.
Here you move with the left analogue stick and turn with the right, but there are some Capcom-y sort of distinctions. For a start, twisting the right stick around doesn't immediately turn the camera, but actually moves your aiming reticule around a little invisible circle in the centre of the screen. When it reaches the boundary, it starts to tug the camera around with it.
To compensate for this obsession with the centre - presumably invented because the combat relies a lot on strafing side to side rather than addressing multiple targets from one position - you can also swivel 90 degrees at a touch of the left or right bumper, allowing you to follow the path of a passing enemy without needing to make a mess of the sensitivity settings.
Action sequences can be split into two main camps - snow pirate (human) and Akrid (insecty things). Snow pirates fight like men, with big guns and big numbers. Akrid are a bit more interesting - there are weird flying fish-skeleton style enemies that spiral towards you like biological missiles but shatter at the slightest brush of lead; there are armadillo-style creatures that form balls and roll at you and then need to be shot in the tail when they stop; there are spidery creatures whose egg sacs need to be targeted; and there are our Starship Triffid friends from earlier. The unifying element of these diverse creatures being their glowing orange thermal energy weak points.
It'll be interesting to see what other variations Capcom comes up with here - with the giant worms (which take a hell of a beating, but - judging by the available Achievements - can be slain) hinting at huge-scale encounters as well as tactical variety.
There are other elements to the combat too, not least of which is the presence of the aforementioned thermal energy, and data posts. The former has probably been drilled into you sufficiently by the Xbox Live single-player demo - an ever-decreasing number in the top-left of the screen represents thermal energy; its decline hastens in cold conditions; and you need to top it up by topping enemies and nicking their orange juice.
Data posts also refill your thermal energy, and they also furnish you with map data to access through your PDA (press the Back button - you know, 'Select' for Xboxes - and you can view this along with current objectives), and checkpoint your progress. On occasion in our preview build you need to take over a data post controlled by the snow pirates. We imagine there'll be full-scale fighting over them later on - particularly given that activating them is a case of standing next to one and hammering the B button for several seconds to deploy the post's communication equipment in your colours.
There are nice touches throughout. As well as being able to pick up weapons (two maximum, mind), you can also dig things out of the snow by rapidly tapping B when you come across a telltale icon. Elsewhere there are little hidden spinning coins that can be shot, presumably to help obtain Achievements. And, still our favourite, there's the ability to pick up one of the mech weapons when you're on foot and use it yourself (the other helpful thing about picking them up being the ability to rip something rubbish off your mech's arm and replace it).
One thing we haven't mentioned much yet though is the grappling hook, or "anchor". Deployed with X, it allows you to hop to rooftops, gangways and platforms above you. There's been some suggestion that it doesn't play much of a role, and it's true that it feels a bit shoehorned at times - with an awkward sequence that involves climbing the inside of a dilapidated building not exactly inspiring confidence. But in actual fact it can be quite useful.
For a start, if you tumble off a ledge it catches you, and allows you to rappel down or pull yourself back up. Moreover, it plays a tactical role in combat, where the high ground can be invaluable. Enemies can do a bit of clambering, but as in the game's second main level, the ability to scale higher planes allows you to avoid direct combat and make use of ranged weapons like the rocket launcher, or the satisfying sniper rifle. Being able to change approach rather than simply bounce off the same problem is a healthy sign.
What's perhaps less so is a range of technical, control and AI issues that render our copy of the game more of a promising preview than a solid first impression.
Often spectacular and seldom afraid of throwing its weight around - with gorgeous snowy vistas and snowfall effects particularly worthy of note - the frame rate is however noticeably dodgy in places. It's also possible to get into inescapable situations - sandwiched up against a wall relentlessly clipping through the Green eye's icy attacks on the prologue level, for example.
It's also impossible to say anything authoritative about the quality of the combat at the moment because your enemies are often incredibly hapless and unfinished. Cautious players can sit at a distance and snipe enemies with the rifle or machine gun, as they refuse to move or pay attention to people dying right next to them. In one particularly silly section, it's possible to avoid death in a room full to the brim with nasty thrashing insects by simply standing on a crate, while another bridge-top battle saw a worryingly flighty mech enemy help us out considerably by simply leaping off into the abyss below.
There's an awkwardness to the controls at this stage, too. Landing from a jump halts your momentum, so you tend not to jump. You also have to turn Wayne to face the way you want him to jump; realistic, perhaps, but maddeningly out of tune with what Prince of Persia and co. have taught us about intuitive platform game design, and in a game that includes its fair share of jumpy platform bits.
Wayne also can't look up beyond a certain angle, and the turning system isn't quite right. Even upping the sensitivity, you find yourself falling back on the bumper right-angle turns, but it's the middle ground between slight turns and those right angles that are most useful and yet hard to find; it might be better if the LB/RB buttons spun you only 45 degrees. Annoyingly, it's also impossible, in this build of the game at least, to alter any of your options from inside the game - you need to exit out to its main menus to do so.
Then again all of these things can be tweaked before release, and the signs overall are far more encouraging than they are discouraging. There's a variety in Vital Suits that sees you transforming into a snow-speeder, skating across deserts at high speeds, hover-jumping and clashing in customisable forms. Combat takes on many forms, with many still elusive. Objectives vary and settings are full of intrigue and set-pieces worth experiencing.
And if all that's not enough, Wayne's dad is called Gale, suggesting that the family's a reference to Natural Born Killers. Plus, we're not sure Gale's dead. Oooommm.
So we're keeping an eye on events on E.D.N. III, one way or the other. If the flaws in the preview build are ironed out, it could be stellar. All should become a bit more clear when the multiplayer demo emerges later this month. If that takes off, we might just hop on the next flight and pack our mittens.
Lost Planet: Extreme Condition is due out exclusively for Xbox 360 on 12th January 2007.