If the late 1990s was all about deathmatch, and the mid-Noughties belonged to the ever-inadequately-defined ‘casual gamer’, then the past two or three years are beginning to look more and more like the golden age of co-op. Gone are the days of poorly optimised bolt-on splitscreen, offering much the same objectives and threats you’d face in solo play at half the frames per second. With gaming at its most extrovert thanks to the growth of online networks and greater audience breadth, team spirit is absolutely everywhere.
There’s the comradely claustrophobia of Left 4 Dead, the family-friendly enmity of New Super Mario Bros Wii, the glitzy group careerism of Rock Band. Once a tertiary feature, co-op has become a significant part of the action game package in particular: recent heavyweights Modern Warfare 2, Splinter Cell: Conviction and Resistance 2 boast standalone two or four player modes with their own distinct mechanics, experience systems and even storylines.
The history of the Lost Planet franchise reflects this industry-wide shift. The first game, rushed out for Xbox 360 launch, gave us an underwhelming if handsome solo experience and some enjoyable head-to-head. The second might have gone the same route, but was re-blueprinted in response to fan demand as a full-blown squad epic, with ‘l33tspeak’-fluent, emoticon-spamming AI players filling in for missing fleshbags should you tackle the campaign on your lonesome.
Even given this welcome change of emphasis, we weren’t expecting the results to rock our socks off. But on the strength of the first three episodes, Lost Planet 2 is about to do exactly that. Capcom has crafted a game that doesn’t just settle in nicely alongside such first-glance comparisons as Gears of War and Army of Two, but actually, in many respects, supersedes them: a bold new alliance of classic arcade devices and bleeding edge design ethics that should, assuming the last four episodes are up to snuff, prove mind-expanding on either side of the Pacific.
Call it quits a couple of chapters into the first episode, like some partakers of last year’s demo, and you could be forgiven for thinking the opposite. The nuts and bolts of Lost Planet 2 hail from some well-plundered toolboxes: it’s a third-person shoulder-shooter with precision aim, a shaky-cam sprint, machine guns, shotguns, sniper rifles, grenades and the odd fearsome bipedal mech or ‘VS Suit’. Cameo appearances from Marcus Fenix and Dom Santiago in the Xbox 360 version don’t exactly help Capcom stand apart. Nor do some slightly dodgy controls. A crouch toggle would be nice, given the absence of lock-to-cover.
What does help, though, is an early open-plan face-off in and around a tropical mining facility. At this stage, the Battlefield-iness of the game’s respawn counter or ‘Battle Gauge’ and associated, player-activated respawn points or ‘data posts’ comes to the fore, as your squad locates, powers-on and defends turbines around two mighty drills, keeping the full clutch spinning for long enough to crack the shafts.
Posses of insouciant body-builders with sacks over their heads rappel from the surrounding jungle (relatives of Resi 4′s chainsaw man, perhaps?), easily picking out the infiltrators in the sand below, and suddenly your short-range grappling hook stops being a laughable gimmick and starts being a fiddly but absolutely bloody necessary means of escaping the crossfire. Meanwhile, in the depths of the mine, battle commences against rocket turrets as more self-interested team-mates quest for tastier weaponry and hidden globs of T-ENG, the syrupy golden substance that fuels your health-recharging ‘harmonizer’.