Version tested: PlayStation 3
Jun Takeuchi wasn't exaggerating when he described this sequel as "almost a totally different game". Unlike the lonely, icy adventure that constituted the original, the hugely ambitious Lost Planet 2 has been re-envisioned as a four-man multiplayer adventure in a variety of climates. You still get to activate data posts and shoot the obvious, glowing orange weak spots of terrifying insectoid behemoths on a regular basis, but that's where the similarities end.
Most of the changes seem grounded and well-intentioned on the face of it. Who wouldn't want a more varied, expansive and technically astonishing follow-up to an already highly promising game? Being able to experience the intensity and chaos alongside up to three friends offline or online should help Lost Planet 2 to be one of 2010's most desirable shooters.
However, unexpectedly, the very things that make the game sound so appealing are also the things that conspire to undermine your enjoyment.
A few weeks ago, Takeuchi opined that "everything has improved" in Lost Planet 2, but that depends how you like to enjoy your videogames. If, for example, you want to play the game's central Campaign mode on your lonesome, you should be prepared to adapt to a run of unusual and often inexplicable design choices.
As if to underline its uncompromising positioning as a multiplayer game, Lost Planet 2 offers no save system at all, no checkpointing during gameplay, and any in-game 'death' simply respawns you at the nearest data point.
Rather than give you a stock of lives, the game starts you off with a limited number of Battle Gauge points (depending on difficulty), and dying reduces that by 500, or 1000 if you happen to be in a Vital Suit mech at the time. Run out of Battle Gauge points and you have to start the entire chapter from the beginning, potentially costing you anything up to 45 minutes of wasted time.
During the first couple of mildly challenging episodes, this doesn't feel much of a problem at all, with only truly incompetent play likely to get you into trouble. But once the game starts to turn up the heat at the end of episode three, having to replay numerous lengthy sections to get back to where you failed is hand-gnawingly irritating.
When you start to really dig into why you failed, you notice some irredeemable AI flaws during solo play. We're more than happy for shooters to be designed from the ground up as co-op experiences, but one of the main things that made games like Gears of War and Left 4 Dead special was the fact your enjoyment didn't hinge entirely on playing them with a group of friends, because your AI partners were intelligent enough to ensure it was extremely good fun either way.
You'd expect the same to hold true of Lost Planet 2, but the buddy AI is often hopelessly out of touch with what's required, and when it winds up costing you up to 45 minutes of playtime you'll be baying for blood. To give the AI its dues, when faced with a basic corridor firefight it almost always holds its own, but when it comes to the crucial moments where teamwork is mandatory, it's routinely hopeless. Fail a further four or five times and you'll really wonder about the logic of such a progression system.
One memorable boss encounter requires all four of you to work together to reach the end of a train, load a giant cannon, rotate it to face the right direction, cool the engines and get one guy to actually fire the thing. And yet with no means of instructing your team to do anything, you're left haplessly multitasking.
That's assuming you can work out what the game wants from you in the first place. With only an obtuse diagram in the top right of the screen offered by way of explanation, you're left stumbling around in an annoying trial-and-error loop until you figure out the correct operational sequence.
These moments of incendiary frustration are hardly one-offs, either. Later in the game your team is instructed to protect a hatch door from being opened, but unless you personally oversee that precise part of the map yourself you will fail every single time. And rather than the AI members of your squad covering your back while you're shooting choppers out of the sky, they let enemies through unchallenged and you're forced to repeat the whole sequence again.
You might imagine that all of these little issues would be solved when playing alongside friends, but there are irritations unique to human co-op play as well. The main issue without doubt is the Battle Gauge system. In single-player, team member deaths never deplete your stock of points, but when played alongside fellow humans they do, and the implications of this logic are ruinous.
On the infamous train level at the end of episode three, getting knocked off the train to your death is notoriously easy, meaning that you'll likely be ill-equipped to handle the lengthy boss encounter, and have to play the entire chapter from scratch five or six times before you're in a strong enough position to take the monster down. Even willing volunteers were left trailing in our wake after that.
Although this is hardly unique to Lost Planet 2 among Capcom games, you also spend a great deal of time at a complete loss as to what's going on. The narrative across six distinct episodes flits from one group of bizarre individuals to another, without any coherent explanation as to whom you're controlling or what their motivations are.
Delivered with a peculiar detachment, this lack of explanation may be a conscious attempt to give the game an enigmatic air, but the result is that it simply feels like a series of unconnected events where the common theme is shooting gigantic insectoid behemoths with obvious glowing orange weak spots. Maybe that was the point.
All the time you're busy mouthing obscenities at Lost Planet 2's deficiencies, the more benevolent critic within you wants to put an arm around Capcom and offer credit for all the things the game does extremely well. The combat feels solid and satisfying, with well-honed control mechanics that gel within seconds, so in terms of the basics you'll have no complaints at all.
Another thing that's never in doubt is the startling visual feast laid on by the team's phenomenal art talent. As the first game to benefit from Capcom's new MT-Framework 2.0 engine, it takes an already grandiose-looking game to phenomenal new standards, with a regular procession of truly outstanding set-pieces of monumental scale.
Likewise, Takeuchi's pre-release claim of "around 40" boss creatures was no idle boast, and even some of the more routine encounters involve screen-filling creatures of your worst nightmares. When it comes to facing-off against one of the 11 main boss creatures, you'll definitely know all about it. From hideous, giant-train-munching sandworms to monstrous tentacled creatures from the deep, you'll truly appreciate the craft that's gone into these deadly obscenities.
But as impressively fearsome as they may be as a spectacle, they're often not that much fun to actually battle against. Most boss sorties descend into a wearisome, drawn-out war of attrition, smashing rockets into their obvious glowing orange weak spots over and over, climbing into VS suits and emptying thousands of Gatling Gun bullets into them until bits eventually fall off. Then those bits regenerate, so you repeat the process as you chip away tiny chunks of their health bar.
As a four-player co-op mission, these epic scale battles can - at times - feel quite exhilarating as you work together to distract the lumbering form towering above you. But the longer you plough through these sections, the more it dawns on you that there's no skill involved - it's simply a case of hanging in there long enough.
Some of you will be singled out by the boss and be completely powerless to avoid their all-consuming attacks, and some of you will be merrily blasting away on the sidelines. You'll win eventually, but it mostly feels like a hollow victory based on how well you conserved your Battle Gauge points prior to the boss fight, rather than your skill in the conclusive battle. This is definitely no Monster Hunter.
To compound matters, the post-round scoring system that determines who performed best feels entirely arbitrary. Sometimes you'll play the lead role, putting yourself in harm's way, take all the risks and end up with a paltry C rank, while your less active support partner gets consistently superior awards simply because they didn't die so much and picked up more loot. Injustice!
Elsewhere, the game's competitive 16-player multiplayer modes remain in familiar territory. As with the original, Elimination, Team Elimination and Post Grab make the cut, with two maps reserved for Elimination and a further five for Post Grab. Two release-day maps are also promised.
Although servers remained inactive at the time of review, our extensive hands-on sessions in April revealed these modes to be a huge amount of fun, albeit within a recognisable template, with endless rewards and customisation options likely to make it a facet of the game that will prove even more popular than it did last time around.
The wealth of experience-based rewards and customisation may well prove to be a real draw for players over the long haul. The sheer volume of costumes, emotes and unlockable weapons available to skilled players give the game the kind of long-term appeal Capcom specialises in.
If a skilled video editor were to cut together the best bits of Lost Planet 2, you would end up with the most persuasive montage of gameplay footage in recent times. Bombastic in scale and seductive in its epic ambition, it looks every inch the instant shooter classic. Sadly the hands-on reality tells a different story. Filled with hair-tearing moments of abject frustration that defy logic, mixed with fist-pumping moments of total exhilaration, it's a quite bizarre game of two halves.
Almost equally fun and frustrating whether played in co-op or in single-player mode, it's a game you'll both love and hate in the same breath.
6 / 10