Lost Planet 3 leaves the multiplayer monster hunting and arcade action of the last game behind, instead focusing on a surprisingly appealing, narrative single-player experience.
"He's got a wife and a kid, and he's had to take this dangerous job, because times are tough," my Lost Planet 3 demo handler told me while giving background on the game's protagonist.
"He's just a blue-collared everyman," he explained. In response, I rolled my eyes hard enough to emit an audible sound.
And yet, within just a few minutes of playing, I was actually kind of invested in the plight of Lost Planet 3's plain-looking protagonist, Jim, who must face equal portions of deadly, ice-encrusted monsters and the drama of a tension-fueled workplace. He misses his wife and son, and neither he nor they particularly want him to be where he is. His reluctant bravado to bring home the space bacon, and the pains of the distance therein were shared in a series of lovingly written, animated and acted cutscenes which bridge nearly every gap in the game: Loading screens, tutorials, and so on.
Spark Unlimited is effectively recapitulating back from the Monster Hunter-esque design of last installment in the franchise to the considerably less-arcadey original concept behind Lost Planet: Extreme Conditions. It attempts to generate fear — not the fear of losing, but the fear of dying, a distinction which defines the horror genre. If there's a hitch in Lost Planet 3 so far, it's that it didn't really succeed in that goal during my demo.
Maybe it's because the bright lights of the E3 show floor make the generation of that fear impossible, but I think it's actually because of how powerful I felt. That's genuinely not a knock against the game: It didn't feel like a survival horror game, but it did feel like a survival game, and it does some neat stuff with that designation.
A lot of that is built on Jim's fulltime job as a miner of the thermal energy stored deep within E.D.N. III's frozen surface. He extracts that sweet, sweet orange juice with his own personal Rig. It's equal parts vehicle, weapon and mobile home, peppered with touches of flair such as a hula doll and a plush pilot's chair — a presumably comfy one, since that's also where Jim sleeps. It's his rig, and his rig alone. He actually gets a little defensive when Gale, an easily excited mechanic, outfits it with a retractable hook for streamlined boarding. His protests are like those of a protective parent, which is awfully endearing.
Jim's just there to do a job.
After taking a freelance gig from under a combative co-worker who — understandably — doesn't want to be torn apart by space monsters, Jim receives a stern, but concerned warning from his boss. The generators in the facility are on their last legs, he explains, and they could really, really use some thermal energy. He speaks with the authority of a hard-nosed boss, but the familiarity of a friend. So does your shrewd rival, actually. Everyone in the facility has bonded in the face of impossible, possibly life-threatening difficulties, which makes them easy to instantly care about.
The whole office seems oddly accustomed to the harsh environment, which further diminishes fear. The Akrid and frequent, mile-high ice storms aren't killers to these men — they're inconveniences. They're obstacles to be cleared with the help of a 15-foot-tall mechanical suit. But as well-equipped as that suit may be, it's certainly fallible if pushed too far, requiring their riders to exit the relative safety of the cockpit and ... well, get out and push.
As Jim descends into the depths of a submerged, abandoned freighter discovered after blasting his way through leagues of frozen ice, he's beset by Akrid. Even as he's attacked, he doesn't seem afraid as much as he does annoyed — not because he's afraid, but because he's working.
Both Jim and his mech possess satisfyingly sluggish horror-game controls, but the "attack the orange part" motif of the past Lost Planets makes its unfortunate return. It further enforces the enemies' role as annoyances: Their weaknesses glow with neon light, which is more garish than terrifying.
But that's okay! I genuinely like the direction Lost Planet 3 is moving in. It feels less like an action or horror game, and more of a simulator of a man doing an unbearable but necessary job. There's a nobility in that which simply doesn't exist in the plight of the world-saving hero or unlikely survivor. If Jim does any world-saving, or emerges from E.D.N. III on top of a pile of corpses, he probably wouldn't have meant to. Jim's just there to do a job.