The last time we caught up with Jim Peyton, he was growing accustomed to life in the white of a frozen planet. As we saw in the first game, survival in the pre-thaw colonies of E.D.N. III is a relentless battle for thermal energy. And it's not just meat that feels the cold. The vast metal gears and machinery of the human settlers are constantly seizing up, and every mission that the mercenary engineers undertake tends to attract the interest of the native Akrid monsters.
The odds aren't completely stacked up against humanity, though. The engineers get preposterous mech rigs to leap into, and the Akrids advertise their weak spots with glowing red bulbs of thermal energy. It'd be a real evolutionary problem, if they had any natural predators.
In the mission hub where Jim works, there's a sense of up-against-it community. Jim gets his jobs from a foreman with a nice line in manly banter. An eccentric engineer fits Jim's 20-foot-tall rig with an automatic winch, that lets him zip into the cockpit in an emergency. We see Jim watching and recording messages from and for his wife and kid. The script is well-written enough to get across a sense of community.
It's a human warmth that was surgically undermined in that first demo, and transplanted with an unsettling uncertainty. A scene in the middle of the action involves Peyton behaving erratically, the subject of a psychological observation. It slipped into the story without explanation, and disappeared quickly, leaving behind some obvious questions. Are the messages from his wife real? Is the action a relived memory in the mind of a broken man? And if so, what was the horror that broke him?
Speculation aside, there's something very concrete and unexpected about Lost Planet 3. The Unreal Engine is performing at its oily peak on E.D.N. III, with crisp lines and an icy-smooth sixty frames per second. LP3 shows that there's performance to be wrung out of this long-toothed generation yet, and the close-up textures don't suffer like they do in RAGE and Dishonored. There's a small and temporary downside - the camera is very sensitive, making it easy to overshoot your target with a snip of the thumbstick. But that's something you quickly learn to moderate.
The action in LP3 is split between on-foot sections, and sections in mechs of various sizes. In our first demo, we took on an Akrid crab, which we shelled and minced with our claw and drill. In this latest demo, there's a similar encounter, but it takes place some hours later in the game, when Jim Peyton is in a state of bizarre, idyllic satisfaction. He's managed to find the relaxing routine at the heart of near-lethal, intense encounters with massive murderous beasts. He's still in contact with his loving family, and his friendships have blossomed in the camp. It's a classic case of too good to be true: either none of this is real, or it's a state of satisfaction that needs to end soon, for drama's sake.
"People lose their minds out here after a year," says our mission-dispensing foreman. But Peyton seems confident, "I keep my sanity and wits with the regular messages from my wife." Having seen an M. Night Shyamalan movie or two, we immediately think: "Ah! He's not sane at all!" Then we think: "I bet his wife is going to be the final boss!" It's not easy having your dramatic expectations tinkered with. It makes you jump to all sorts of crap conclusions.
Our mission takes us to a broken comms dish by a small isolated station. It's deserted, remote, but for some reason there's very little tension. Perhaps that's because of the battle we've just had in a cavern with three grim, fingery insect-spitting sphincters in it. It's hard to rebuild a haunting sense of psychological isolation when you're firing an assault rifle into a wall-mounted arse.