(Spoilers: in this game you shoot very large guns at very large bugs)
This fuckin’ sand worm has been harassing you since you started this chapter and now it’s time to take your revenge.
Your group of pirates has stolen and lost (due to bug monster interference) a train, made a stop off in a bandit village to steal another train, and is now in the process of hijacking yet a third train. Why? Because, I don’t know, it passed by you on the tracks and it had a huge gun on it and that’s the kind of giant train gun that a train thief waits his whole life to steal. In essence, this train gun is the train thief equivalent of the Maltese Falcon. The Maltese Falcon didn’t shoot bullets as big as a grown man, but the metaphor otherwise holds.
So you grappling hook your way onto this third train and, just as it looks like you’ve secured your rightful place as new owner of the coveted train gun, the worm from Tremors that wrecked your first ride pops out of the sand and decides it’s got nothing better to do than trash this one too.
But now you have a GIANT TRAIN GUN. Suddenly, the tables have turned! You are ready to kick some ass! …then the cutscene ends and you’re staring at a diagram for the first time in the entire game. Slowly the realization dawns on you: uh, guys… does anyone know how to fire a train gun?
The train gun is a puzzle, and your AI Teammates aren’t exactly a fantastic sounding board for ideas. “Okay guys: how do we fire this thing?” … “N-no answers? Anybody?” … “Well, I see you’re picking up giant bullets and putting them in the giant bullet chamber. So that’s a start. And now… you’re getting more bullets. Well it looks like if I jam this button it extinguishes fires. Uh? H-hey guys, I think there’s probably something more to this encounter than just picking up bullets…”
The basic operation of the train gun is such: stick a bullet into the breach, energizes the bullet to make it stronger, rotate the gun to get it into position, then hop into the cockpit and fire the charged shell at the giant bug monster. Meanwhile, the bug-worm-thing is attacking you, ramming you, shooting spores at you, trying to swallow you whole. If it moves to eat you, you’d better be ready to shoot it in the mouth before it does. Someone has to repair your train when it gets damaged, and it’s certainly helpful if one of your team mans an anti-aircraft gun and shoots down the little flying bugs the big guy is spewing out.
With only two of us playing we were constantly overwhelmed. Two people lets you share the load. One player aims and fires, the other chambers the next round. Even so, we had barely enough time to load the bullets before one of us had to go below decks to repair. Our first time through we never even saw the helicopter on the back of the train! Even if we had, there’s no way we would’ve found time to fly it. We barely managed to keep ourselves alive at points!
With two people it was tense enough to be scary, but never so frustrating that it stopped being fun; I can see a solo player going insane on this level. The AI is programmed to load bullets, yes, but they can’t figure out how to repair the train, man the turret, or even super-charge loaded shells. Watching the lumbering computer characters stare around like useless dopes must be as frustrating as watching a team of bots kill each other endlessly and without strategy in an FPS. Lost Planet 2 by yourself is playing a solo game of Capture the Flag. Yes, there are computer characters on the map. You may jump into the back of the jeep, feeling like you pulled off one of the most exciting flag grabs in recorded history, but victory is a little shallow when the opponents weren’t paying attention to you, and your team mates are content with banging the jeep into the wall over and over again instead of driving you back to base.
Competitive First Person Shooters of a certain era could run simulated matches with AI stand-ins instead of other players, but nobody would mistake Unreal Tournament with bots for a match against real people–the functionality exists, but it’s a shadow of the actual game. Same too with Left 4 Dead. There is a ‘single player’, where the game is unchanged, but all your friends are replaced with computer controlled characters who do stupid things like heal you when you’re only down to 40% health, or ignore you when you’re getting smoked, or run off a balcony trying to save your life.
Reasonable people don’t expect magic from these stand-alone modes, but these same people rate Lost Planet 2 by a different standard. Why? Because if it a game has cutscenes–my word if the game has a story— then it must be a single-player game, and that necessitates the ability to play by yourself! There exist AI Teammates in Lost Planet 2 for the same reason there exist AI Teammates in Left 4 Dead: because people are going to complain if they can’t play the game alone.
But, as they make the concession allowing you to do so, the designers would almost certainly prefer you didn’t use it. They can’t make an AI Teammate act like an actual human being. And since they can’t, then everyone’s gonna freak out about how garbage the AI is. Still, they keep putting garbage AI in games. I guess people would freak out more about not having it than they’d freak out about having it, but it being terrible.
Anyone playing the train mission by themselves would complain about its difficulty, its complexity, the stupidity of your AI helpers. Maybe rightfully so. It was a mad house. You can turn the gun relatively quickly by activating levers outside of the cockpit, but once you’re in the gunner’s seat you’re subject to its ponderous rotation speed. That means if your partner is occupied, you might not be able to turn fast enough to get the perfect shot. There were plenty of times where, with one or the other of us busy loading bullets or dealing with nattering, flying insect cannon fire, Graz or I fired off a half-aimed shot to stun the worm and prevent an attack. Our vision obscured by the back blast, we’d suck down a breath: did we hit the weak spot and stop him, or is he going to come barreling through the gun smoke and kill us?
In that split second, blinded by the smoke, and maybe an attack’s coming or maybe it isn’t, I would cringe, my heart would skip a beat. Not in the stupid writing-about-it-hyperbole way, these were my physical responses. When smoke clears, and the attack doesn’t come, you rejoice. Seeing the crater you bored into the worm’s hide, you holler and scream “Fuck you!” with hardly the time to savor your victory because you’re already barking at each other to get moving on the next salvo. Keep moving, no time to celebrate, he’s coming back for another pass.
Yeah, I could see how that could be too many things to do for one person. Nobody to help rotate the gun, nobody to keep the train repaired. But for two? This level is one of the best video games has to offer.
Is it fair to penalize a co-op game for its lackluster single-player experience? If its stated intent is for you to get three other people together and kill a giant salamander (from the inside out, by letting it swallow you so you can shoot up its guts) then it’s hardly the game’s fault if you decide to go it alone.
So I sit here, and I think about dashing up from below decks, nearly getting hurled from train as it quaked in impact, begging Graz to wait before she loaded the next bullet because I needed time to charge it. But we can’t wait because in another second he’s gonna ram us again, and then we are going to die. The moment it’s charged I am screaming at her to fire. We are out of bullets, the worm is out of life, and he’s coming up from behind to swallow us whole. The AI has been negligent in their duties, or maybe they’re already dead. I don’t know, I don’t have time to look. I jump over the railing to the bottom level, pray that I land on solid ground, and grab the first shell I can find. I don’t know if I’m going to make it in time. We are freaking out, we are losing it; this is over, we are definitely dead.
Okay it’s in! I loaded it! FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE.
A week later I still go “Wow, that was amazing.” Video games are all about giving you more spectacle than you can handle, but cinematic allure can’t wow me by itself. When we rode a giant dinosaur-thing at the end of Gears of War 2 it barely felt like we were in the same room together, and we forgot about it as soon as the credits rolled. Gears of War had a train mission too, didn’t it? It’s hard to remember. I certainly didn’t fire a giant gun during it.
Lost Planet 2’s ethos is “figure it out.” The scope of the big, giant worm was impressive, no doubt, but it sticks with me because of the mechanics of the simulation. The Train Gun isn’t about giving you a crosshairs and telling you to shoot why your NPCs scream “aw geez, we’re so screwed!” It’s about throwing you into a makeshift simulation with a pile of tools and telling you to make do.
Things like six-foot-long explosive shells and shooting up a salamander’s insides make it easy to forgive all the stupid things Lost Planet 2 does. I can deal with freezing in place when I switch weapons, or the too-long knockdown animations, or the cumbersome controls, or the generic mission objectives. I piloted a robot that turned into a submarine. Graziella sliced through an entire robot armada with a laser sword while I supported her in a helicopter. We stormed a beachhead like D-Day and on the other side was a mechanized bug monster with laser turrets.
And we fired that train gun. And none of it was scripted, at least not in the way we mean when we use that nasty, awful word. Scripted sequences mistake spectacle for resonance. But compare your average turret sequence with crash-landing a Hornet onto a walking battle tank in Halo 3. Lost Planet 2 no ‘helicopter mission,’ it has missions with helicopters in them. Maybe you wanted to fly that shit, maybe you didn’t feel like it. And maybe, doing it by ourselves, that all would’ve sucked, but that’s not Lost Planet 2. Lost Planet 2 is a co-op game; if you’re playing it by yourself, you’re not playing the game they made.