Grand Theft Auto V.
Blockbusters necessitate careful planning. Not so much on the part of their own producers – the people pulling the strings, orchestrating each move towards commercial dominance. More so the other games producers around them, those staring into their own release windows and thinking, 'Shit.'
Grand Theft Auto V is coming. And where a GTA leads, little of significance follows for a while, the release landscape retreating to a state of relative calm. You can't argue with the simple maths behind the series; it sells software by the millions. Other games just don't.
So, ahead of such a monolith, there's been a scramble for gamers' attentions and, more pertinently, their pounds and pence. Summer can be a downer for those who prefer blistered thumbs to sunburn, but 2013's hottest months have witnessed a spate of high-profile new releases.
Pikmin 3, Saints Row IV, Splinter Cell Blacklist, Mario and Luigi Dream Team, Disney Infinity – these recent releases are not pan-flash works of passing fascination, but fully formed articles of intrigue and no little entertainment. Okay, so Saints Row IV's roots as a platform for DLC (downloadable content) are evident – but face it, using superhero telekinesis to toss polygonal cars into virtual pedestrians is a sure-fire way to light up any evening in.
There's been the usual seasonal crap, too – Dark, an undercooked vampire romp, and the epically flawed Ride To Hell: Retribution rewriting the rule book on how not to ship a game. If a friend recommends it, because it's "so bad it's good", break their hands immediately.
Lost Planet 3.
Rather less offensive is an entirely unexpected sequel: Lost Planet 3 (developed by Spark Unlimited; published by Capcom; available for PC, PS3 and 360). It's a franchise that never really found a notable audience – 2006's original Lost Planet: Extreme Condition was a then-platform-exclusive relic of the 360's early days, and 2010's second title possessed only limited co-op appeal.
So why has Capcom gone back to the icy wastes of the series' extra-terrestrial setting, the planet of E.D.N. III? Perhaps creator and creative director Kenji Oguro saw potential in the characters of Lost Planet – those hardy souls sent to the other side of the universe to try to solve a little problem called Earth.
Yup, the world is dying, again, so a company with humanity's best interests at heart has rocketed a bunch of miners, scientists, wise-cracking layabouts and a semi-engaging protagonist to a faraway place, where the usual rules and regulations don't quite apply. They're out there to investigate a fantastic new energy source, but – brace yourself for the surprise – all doesn't quite go as planned.
Sound familiar? Lost Planet 3 borrows a cavalcade of cues from established sci-fi fiction, from Alien lore – the portentous strings that greet the player at the menu are pure Jerry Goldsmith, the composer behind the Alien soundtrack – through to Star Wars (you're basically on Hoth) via Starship Troopers' insect-like indigenous wildlife, the Akrid.
But the setting is fairly well realised – storms rampaging across external environments – and the colony that serves as a base of operations is authentically utilitarian. The prequel-styled narrative is reasonably effective, too; not only does it mean that newcomers to the series can join in, but also that developers Spark can completely forget about the DOA storyline of Lost Planet 2.
Lead character Jim Peyton is likeable, even if he looks like a chimera of Cage and Travolta from an alternative, entirely more distorted Face/Off. Jim's messages to and from his wife back on Earth comprise this game's heart, and that's almost enough to make it a memorable experience when combined with the occasional jump scare and the novelty of switching between third-person (on foot) and first-person (when in Jim's mechanical "rig") gameplay.
But there's a pretty significant problem here. From the combat – waist-high cover, two weapon options, shoot the baddies where they glow orange, the inescapable QTEs (where you perform actions shortly after being prompted by a message on your screen) – through to the myriad parallels with sci-fi games and films, every second spent playing Lost Planet 3 is one where the nagging sensation that you've seen this before threatens to cloud out any enjoyment whatsoever.
A functional shooter latched to a semi-decent story, with limited challenge but coercive enough to keep you progressing, this is an exemplary expression of expertly engineered mediocrity. It's a B-movie attraction that only gets a C for effort.
Gameplay in Rayman Legends.
So what should you be playing before GTAV? For the purists out there, it has to be Rayman Legends (developed and published by Ubisoft; available for PC, 360, PS3, Wii U), a game so impossibly beautiful – in both irresistible looks and intuitive mechanics – that it's a glorious upper after 2013's releases of utmost earnestness, the likes of The Last Of Us, BioShock Infinite and Tomb Raider.
There's no real story to speak of. Something's mentioned about nightmares and you have to rescue these little blue guys called Teenies, who squeak "save me" whenever your avatar of choice – and there are several to choose from, despite the titular lead's headline presence – is close to one.
But no story is no problem here, as levels unfold rapidly with nary a dull moment. New perks, bonus stages, collectibles and abilities are unlocked regularly; environments continually challenge and fascinate. The difficulty creeps up, but always at a pace the player is comfortable with, each stage ranked from one skull (positively horizontal) to five (reattempting the same section 18 times and loving every iteration).
There's lava to avoid, amusing enemies to splat and secrets hidden within what feels like every screen. There's a bit where you play as a duck beside Murfy the fairy, who munches through walls with a press of a button. There are battles with a multi-screen mechanical dragon and an irritable Mexican wrestler with hands bigger than a hatchback. There's no real explanation for any of it. It doesn't matter.
This is design genius at work. Ubisoft Montpellier, take a collective bow, please. Legends is gorgeous, more like playing a cartoon than any game based on The Simpsons has been. It's like Looney Tunes come to life in your living room. Its visuals are a dream, and its controls instantly understandable but necessitating time to master. It's a deceptively complex affair – a two-dimensional platformer with more content than any garden-variety RPG. Get sucked into this, and GTAV may pass you by without registering a single gunshot.
Rayman Legends might just be 2013's greatest game. It has no cinematic aspirations and exudes minimal blockbuster potential. It's firmly entrenched in the old-school camp – a throwback in genre terms, but such a pure, honest and heart-warming experience that it's right up there with Castle of Illusion and Super Mario World in the pantheon of classic platformers. Play it and feel brilliant.
Lost Planet 3 tested on Xbox 360, Rayman Legends on PlayStation 3. Both games are available on August the 30th. Grand Theft Auto V is released on September the 17th.
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