Feature-for-feature, Lost Planet 2 should be an improvement over the original. It sports four-player online co-op, a robust multiplayer mode complete with unlockable goodies, and impressive visual design with lots of variety and artistic flair. Yet amazingly, this third-person sci-fi shooter represents a major step backward for one important reason: It isn't much fun. Not only did developer Capcom not address the problems of the original, but it exacerbated them. Fundamental design flaws inhabit almost every gameplay mechanism. Awful mission design leaves you wondering how to proceed; abysmal AI makes playing on your own an exercise in masochism; and an overreliance on knockback attacks and other bizarre design choices are sure to inspire worldwide epidemics of controller-throwing rage. Not even replacing your three useless AI companions with real-life buddies alleviates all of the pain because the frustrations are woven into the very fabric of the experience. Entertaining multiplayer modes and some enjoyable, larger-than-life battles against looming insectoids lift Lost Planet 2 out of the abyss, though even those aspects aren't without their problems. This is a beautiful game you desperately want to like, yet it goes out of its way to punish you for it.
At least the sequel offers up a lot more variety than its predecessor. You'll sprint through a number of diverse locations, and fantastic visuals really bring the planet of E.D.N. III to life. Some frigid areas hark back to the original, including the prologue, which features great Lost Planet standbys: giant mechs known as vital suits (or VSs), enormous aliens called akrid with glowing orange spots (hint: shoot them!), and snow flying everywhere. In other levels, red light bathes industrial corridors, lightning flashes brightly above a turbulent sea, and cyclones sweep across the desert plains. There is a ton of eye candy to take in, and plenty of attempts to vary the pace. Over the course of the game, you will rush through the desert on a roaring speeder; defy gravity in the blackness of space; and bring down a giant akrid from the inside. Jungle shootouts, battles on conveyor belts, and a boss fight in a sandy ghost town--conceptually, the game's got all the elements of a full-featured, varied, and beautiful shooter.
Unfortunately, Lost Planet 2's scattershot mission design squanders the goodwill the early hours generate. Early levels take just a few minutes to complete, too often coming to an end just as things appear to be picking up. Later levels are brought down by abysmal signposting and other botched basics. One late-game chapter takes place within a towering tube in which you activate data posts located at various levels. But unlike in most games, Lost Planet 2's minimap doesn't indicate whether an objective is above or below you. (This is but one of the game's countless "Game Design 101" failures.) You might wander aimlessly, searching for those posts or the terminal you must reach to end the mission, simply due to the game's communication failures. A late boss fight is just an endlessly boring march through one linear corridor after another, composed mainly of firing at pulsing orange pustules, rather than the larger-than-life encounter you'd hope for at such a climactic moment.
But if there's one mission destined to be remembered as one of the worst shooter levels of all time, it's certainly one involving two speeding trains. The first two-thirds are mind-numbingly frustrating, particularly if you tackle the campaign on your own. A couple of enormous rocket turrets pummel you, easily knocking you off the train and wasting precious respawns, all while your AI companions run in place, stuck against doors that don't open. Many of Lost Planet 2's levels are designed to kill you should you get knocked out of them, which is a bizarre design choice considering the frequency with which you get knocked back, and the force with which it happens. But what makes this level worth special mention is its staggeringly awful final third. A giant worm akrid attacks the speeding locomotive, a diagram of the train you've never seen before appears on the screen, and you're told--absolutely nothing.
As it turns out, you need to do several things in this sequence: load ammo into the giant weapon up top, extinguish fires that erupt down below, use side turrets to whittle away at that akrid, and so on. But you're left to figure all this out on your own. Once you do, the tasks are at least manageable if you have co-op buddies along for the ride. If you're on your own, you get absolutely no help from the putrid AI, which might help load the giant cannon but will otherwise wander about as if dumbfounded by the whole scenario. They don't activate the extinguishers, man the turrets, or do anything else the mission desperately requires. And should you fail, you start the entire lengthy chapter from the beginning.
Unfortunately, Lost Planet 2 is loaded with even more baffling design choices that often make it anything but enjoyable. The game doesn't play by any consistent set of rules. Sometimes, falling into water means instant death, yet some chapters take place exclusively underwater. You get a grapple hook to pull you to higher ground, yet there's no rhyme or reason to what surfaces you can grapple to. Furthermore, the game goes out of its way to wrest control away from you. Tumbling akrid knock you back and send you flying--as do rockets, and shotguns, and big balls of goo that do incredible amounts of splash damage. Some akrid attacks freeze you in place and force you to wiggle an analog stick. It takes a long time for animations to finish, so you might find yourself in an inescapable knockback loop that's impossible to recover from. Yet while you can't interrupt a long knockback animation in progress, your humanoid foes can interrupt anything you do simply by shooting at you. Forget throwing a grenade or healing yourself while being shot at: a single bullet will interrupt the action. This is far from standard practice in shooters, and for very good reason: it isn't fun. Yet almost all of Lost Planet 2's challenge comes from the incredible cheapness that results from all of these factors. It certainly doesn't come from your brain-dead enemies, which are so dumb they might stand there and stare at you from 10 feet away, yet never take a shot.
It's best if you replace your moronic traveling companions with some real-life buddies. This isn't a perfect solution, but it alleviates some of the pain. Some fights, particularly against the giant bosses, are actually enjoyable this way. With a full contingent of players, you can see how the game might have even been epic, had it focused more on shooting and less on keeping you from it. One player gets in one of the many different types of mech suits, another rides on the mech's side, while others pummel the oozing creature above with rockets. Yet even co-op play doesn't turn out to be as simple as you'd want. There is no drop-in, drop-out play, so you can't join a friend already in progress. More importantly, you can't join a buddy at all if you haven't already played to that point. (If you want your buddy to help you through the train level but he's only in episode 2, it's a no-go.)
The respawn system can also add to the frustration. The entire team shares a pool of points that depletes when someone dies. When it drops to zero, it's game over. You can add points to the pool by capturing the data posts spread around levels, which is a real boon, and the entire idea is solid on its own. Should an AI player die, there's no penalty, but a co-op buddy will deplete the pool if he dies. When it's so easy to get flung off a racing train, off a space station, or into a deadly pool of water in certain missions, co-op play can be as exasperating as a solo effort. Nevertheless, there's something intrinsically likable about three or four friends lumbering about in armored suits, filling akrid with lead and watching the thermal energy drip from their sensitive spots.
Like most of Lost Planet's visual aspects, the cutscenes look great and convey a great deal of action-movie gusto. Unfortunately, they don't tell much of a tale. The original Lost Planet was not big in the story department, but it still made the attempt, and at least you got to know a few of its leading players. Lost Planet 2 doesn't even try. Its characters are nameless and have no discernable personality. A group of speeder-piloting bandits are apparently meant to inject a bit of humor, but they come across as embarrassing racial stereotypes. Without any character development, proper story exposition, or a better antagonist than a faceless corporation you know little about, there's no reason to care about the fate of this attractive world.
Competitive multiplayer is the main reason to visit this planet. There are a robust number of modes here, along with an intriguing and occasionally silly system of persistent rewards meant to keep you invested. Many of the modes are shooter standards: Elimination, Team Elimination, and variants on two-flag Capture the Flag and Conquest, called Akrid Egg Battle and Data Post Battle, respectively. Fugitive mode has returned as well and pits a small team of lightly armed fugitives avoiding capture against a fully equipped team of hunters. This can be a lot of fun, particularly inside an arena filled with digital spectators. Some modes come in several variants as well. For example, Team Elimination victory conditions can be customized so that the first team to use up a set number of respawns loses, or the victory might go to the team with the highest point total. These modes can be further customized by the host in a number of ways, from setting the default weapon types, to setting the number of mech suits on the map. The mechanical drawbacks of the campaign can still be an annoyance here. For example, the shock created by plasma grenades stuns players and the armored vital suits for so long that those grenades practically constitute a win button. But the vertically designed maps and cool mechanical monstrosities can lead to some enjoyable shootouts.
Lost Planet 2 offers a problematic but intriguing system of persistent rewards to keep you invested. The crux of this system is the points you earn while playing, which in turn can be spent on a chance to earn something useful at the game's slot machine. Rewards include new weapons you can add to your default loadout, passive bonuses to equip, and new parts for customizing your character. They also include emotes and titles, called "noms de guerre." It's an intriguing system, but over time it lends itself to disappointment. Unlocking a new shotgun for multiplayer matches is cool, but most of the time, you're getting a new nom de guerre or an emote. So now you can run around with the words "lookin' for love" floating over your head and perform a new kind of fist pump. Customizing your weapons and appearance is great, but the more useless rewards make this system feel unnecessarily padded. It isn't actually a reward if receiving it makes you feel disappointed. But if you get into this system, you will enjoy faction battles, where five factions fight it out for control of a larger world map, a la Chromehounds and EndWar. Stellar performance there means more chances for useful goodies.
On paper, Lost Planet 2 sounds like it should be the only sci-fi shooter you need. There are full-featured online modes, a good-sized campaign that supports up to four players, and gross alien bugs that demand to be shot. Furthermore, the game is beautiful, generously stuffed with small details and boasting a great cohesive art design that refuses to be overshadowed by the impressive technology that powers it. But all of these important features are wrapped around basic mechanics gone horribly awry. Too many missions are either broken, tedious, or downright frustrating, and basic mechanics are focused on removing control from the player in lieu of providing a legitimate challenge. There should be a sense of triumph when you defeat a gigantic creature after a protracted struggle. In Lost Planet 2, you're just relieved that it's over.