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Lost Planet 3: bursting with character

Lost Planet 3 isn't the hum-drum shoot-a-thon you're probably expecting, but one of the most character-filled sci fi stories the industry has produced in years.

One of my favourite things about being in games media is how many more titles I get a chance to try out that I might otherwise never have heard of. Of course, the downside is I sometimes have to get along to events and produce comprehensible coverage on subjects I have little knowledge and zero interest in, but first world problems, am I right?

That's the attitude I took into a recent Lost Planet 3 preview session. "I cannot muster even one quarter of a sub-standard f**k about this game," I text to a friend. "I thought I was sick, but I ran a diagnostic and it turns out I already have a surfeit of shitty generic third-person sci fi shooters. Who would have thought?"

I get quite sarcastic when people make me put on clothes during business hours.

Luckily for poor old Capcom, whose staff probably wouldn't enjoy the full force of my vitriol, I really liked Lost Planet 3. Spark Unlimited has taken a middling shooter formula and layered it in the gift wrap of charisma +30, resulting in a game with the increasingly rare virtue of personality. The few hours I spent with the opening chapters presented me with more interesting, well-written characters than in the last half-dozen triple-A releases I've played; better banter than I've heard outside of a Marvel movie in the last six months; and an itch to get to the bottom of whatever the heck is going on on E.D.N. III.

Despite the snowy, slightly-creepy vibe, what Lost Planet 3 reminded me of most immediately is not Dead Space 3, which took rather cheeky inspiration from its rival, but the TV series Firefly. Although producer Andrew Szymanski didn't confirm the inspiration, the jangly, acoustic guitar which punctuates the score lends a definite western feel to proceedings, and the well individualised characters and constant banter have a very Whedon-esque feel to them.

At first, the aesthetic of these characters threw me a bit; features are slightly exaggerated, but well-animated, so it ends up skirting the edge of the uncanny valley. After a few minutes I forgot about it and came to think of Jim Peyton's nose as quite normal, giving me more mental space to concentrate on the dialogue.

I won't attempt to reproduce the back-and-forth between Peyton and his new colleagues, but I will say it's not overtly funny - just very well-paced and natural-feeling. It's worlds away from the stilted nonsense most games produce. The voice acting is suburb - accents be damned - so that even small, incident encounters, like a tech greeting you in the hallway ("oh! A new person!") feel somehow real. You want to talk to these people; your mini-map will guide you from A to B but there's a real temptation to get lost in NEVEC's sprawling base camp instead, chatting with the locals.

Of course, by sticking to your assigned path, you'll meet the main cast, and these more fully-fleshed characters are naturally going to be more interesting. Peyton's first encounter with his boss and the chief science officer at the camp has him walking in on a situation fairly crackling with unexplained tension, and even at this very early stage in the plot I was already pricking up my ears, wondering what was going on underneath the surface.

Developers often wank on about how they want the player's journey and the protagonists' to have synergy, so that in effect, the two of you make the same journey. Unlike every other instance of this claim I have ever encountered, Lost Planet 3 looks set to live up to it. Jim Peyton begins his journey interested only in acquiring credits, and if you're anything like me, your first instinct is to do the same, unlocking new weapons and racking up cash on a satisfying orange display which tracks your lucrative actions.

As events unfold, our friend is drawn into the drama surrounding NEVEC on E.D.N. III, and in a similar way, I found myself drawn into the game's worlds. I actually wanted to talk to NPCs and watch cinematics. Apart from BioShock Infinite, which definitely had its share of "oh shut up already" moments, I can't think of another game in the last few years that hasn't made me want to mash the skip button with almost every dialogue.

Peyton will spend about 40% of the game lumbering around in a thankfully not too slow rig, a kind of all-purpose engineering mech later tinkered into combat readiness. Here in the rig, he can receive video messages from his far-removed wife, whose photo is wedged up by the top of the windshield; these messages make the lonely treks adventures in human drama as the pair cope with their voluntary but unwanted long-distance separation. Payton, of course, cannot answer the one-way communications, so he, like the player, listens in silence. This symmetry is surprisingly poignant and a refreshing take on the good old audio log or video file system.

Mrs Peyton is also kind enough to send through a mixtape of her husband's favourite music from home, which you can fire up in the rig; this adds to the atmosphere rather than detracting, as the warmth of the country tunes contrasts in the still rig interior contrasts with the silent, blisteringly cold exterior. When Peyton exits the rig, the sound trails after him a short distance, reminding you there's something to come back to.

Another world, far from the shores we know; a hostile environment filled with riches; relatable people caught up in a tangled and rapidly collapsing situation. From what I saw, Lost Planet 3 offers a sense of place and time rarely equalled in video games. I'm greatly anticipating it.

We'll have more coverage of Lost Planet 3, including an interview with producer Andrew Szymanski, over the next few weeks.

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