Dead Space 3 is upon us. Yes, Isaac and co. are back! And by “co.” I guess I’m referring to the dozens upon dozens of former humans who now reside somewhere in the grooves of Mr. Clarke’s stompy shoes. But this time he’s brought a friend! A friend called John ManHeroSomething. And John has stompy shoes too. Spoiler alert: in the pantheon of the greatest shooters of all time Dead Space 3 will take its place somewhere between Half-Life 2 and Daikatana.
If you’ll recall a couple years back I wasn’t overly fond of Dead Space. It was a fine experience in many ways but I felt that, overall, it missed on its potential. It came out of the gate with a distinct advantage in that almost everyone loves the Trapped-On-A-Spaceship-And-Horror-Ensues genre of System Shock. The game itself had a very striking introduction and immersed players quite well with the no-HUD system. Despite that the game didn’t take long to turn derivative, repetitive and loaded with filler and cheap scares. Once finished with it I didn’t touch the game again and I skipped the sequel altogether.
But… second chances, right? So I’ve given the second sequel a shot. I watched a 5 minute summary of the series so far and it sounds like what I missed in the second game is this: Isaac goes to a space station to deal with more necromorph business, crazy people try to kill him, they fail, mostly, he meets a woman who, it appears, emotionally replaces his maybe-dead-but-who-knows girlfriend Nicole, they get scared and some stuff happens, they help each other and survive and leave the horrible space station. I hope there were no spoilers in there. Who am I kidding? I don’t care, neither should anyone, Dead Space’s story is total fluff.
So Dead Space 3 begins with Isaac “I took the same MIT courses as Gordon Freeman where they teach tech-y folks how to be utterly fearless and badass in case shit goes awry” Clarke and some honky named Shootington McChristmas crash landing on a planet called Your Life Must Be A Bummer If You’ve Crash Landed Here! When we meet Isaac in Dead Space we’re supposed to think oh, that’s neat; they’ve named him for two science-fiction luminaries, maybe this game will be diff– oh, monsters jumping out of closets…I see. So now they’ve introduced a guy named John Carver!? I can’t even muster up the necessary breath to push out a capitalized “lol.” It’s basically EA’s way of saying “yeah, we tried the whole horror thing, but we don’t care anymore, fuck it.” John Goddamned Carver. Okey dokey, then. It’s Gears of Space.
My first impressions don’t lie: after two minutes of walking around in an extreme blizzard some very pedestrian necromorphs just kind of walk on screen and say “Hey, remember us? Shoot the legs then stomp our heads.” I oblige. Just when I thought I was in for complete disappointment, quick time button pressing swoops in to get my adrenaline flowing! An original climb-out-of-the-falling-scrap-heap straight out of Uncharted 2’s intro. Back onto your feet, Isaac. The blizzard subsides and one thing is certain: with each passing year developers are creating prettier and prettier skyboxes to stare at. The weather effects (complete with forced slow-walk) look nice too, and I can already envision scenarios where they could really add to the horror element, but it didn’t work in this instance. Everything else looks the same as before, only the dark and claustrophobic corridors of Ishimura are replaced with the bright and snowy corridors of some planetary surface.
A couple of cut-scenes with no player input occur and a sneak preview of a mini-boss tango follows; it’s the same formula as in Dead Space: shoot glowing limbs, wait till the horror-beast is sufficiently irritated and decides to leave. I know the change in environment is supposed to be just that, a change, but there’s nothing yet remotely frightening, disturbing or even intimidating about any of these encounters. Maybe it’s not supposed to be? It’s building up to something? But even so, there’s no shred of suspense. Five minutes into Amnesia or a Penumbra game I’ve already wet myself; even the original Dead Space has a pants-wetting first level. This is advertised as horror, or at least action-horror, but it’s not succeeding; and I’m not an immune test subject, either. Rather one who is easily spooked: the faux-documentary style of The Blair Witch Project still paralyzes me today as it did many years ago, and I still feel something when watching the classic horror of Hitchcock, or even King’s Shining-era work, novel or film, despite knowing what’s coming. I feel nothing for Dead Space 3’s grotesque necromorphs.
It’s obvious to me at this point that the game cannot be reviewed fairly as an attempt at horror, because I really can’t believe it’s trying to be that. This is more Gears of War than a corridor-crawl. EA has admitted as much by inserting a cooperative mode; interactive horror is ingrained as a solitary experience, which this is not no matter how you slice it. In truth, it may work better as a two-player story. Left on his own in the first Dead Space, I don’t know how much of what occurred actually happened as it was portrayed through Isaac’s eyes. With a partner at all times I have to assume there will be no — or at least fewer — opportunities for ridiculous mind-fucks like “Hey, remember when that woman you were with pushed that button that opened a door for you? Yeah, that was fake. Oh, who pushed the button? Erm…well it’s just a game…gotta go!” Dead Space was so often betrayed by its idiotic narrative, but part of me thinks there might be less nonsense with two minds to keep each other limber. Of course, the entire plot of the first two games revolves heavily around mind control so what’s to say in the final moments your partner doesn’t go *poof* and we get a Tyler Durden situation? I’ll just have to hope they’re better than that.
Pressing onward, back into the confines of actual corridor I am reunited with Dead Space’s crafting and suit-enhancing distractions. To me, this is one of the strangest aspects of the series. Ninety percent of the box stomping you’ll do throughout your travels is to acquire bits of junk that can be used to improve your suit and weapons. My question is: why? In the original I located a finite amount of upgrade components which meant I had to choose which aspects of my weapon to upgrade and which to ignore. That’s fine, I have no problems with weapon crafting, it’s central to many games, and it stands to reason that as foes become deadlier your weapons be allowed to improve. I’ve not gone far enough into the game to discover the full breadth of opportunities, but from what I gather it’s mostly the same as it has been. Minor pieces of junk can be accumulated to gradually improve the health, armor and stasis capabilities of Isaac’s suit, and likewise nuggets of treasure can be attached to weapons to alter their properties and improve them. Presumably there will again be a finite amount of particular components to force players into certain upgrade decisions while locking out others; or at least preventing maximum enhancement to all attributes being simultaneously achieved.
I think that’s a good system, and while I’d rather see it totally stripped down so only the smallest of improvements could be attained, in keeping with the horror spirit of being vulnerable at all times, I understand a lot of people like the variety that a deep crafting system provides. My complaint is that this system forces players to embark on an endless quest of smashing every last crate to bits to gather the junk within. I’ve spent probably 15% of my time with Dead Space 3 stomping on crates and even necromorphs to the appropriate point where candy pops out of them. Then I reach designated upgrade stations and if I have enough candy I win a prize. Is this just a cheap way to make the game several hours longer or do the developers actually believe breaking a crap ton of crates and then having to swing the camera around to see where the loot landed is enjoyable? Crafting materials could be obtained in ways far more elegant, or better yet, crafting materials could be done away with and let’s just say that for every upgrade station you find there is one upgrade to be had. I mean, come on, are we really saying that players who walk around every corner of the map to find and break boxes — something real human beings in horrifying situations would never do, unless they were starving and seeking food — have earned a badge of “completionism” while players who prefer to feel immersed and act normally should suffer?
While I don’t enjoy stomping on boxes I will admit that stomping on partially dismembered enemies to conserve ammunition remains inspired. However, a hyper-stomp feature is now in place where Isaac and Johnny-boy are no longer forced to stomp, regain balance and repeat. You can just stomp-stomp-stomp, and stomp-stomp-stomp you will, as the hordes of monstrosities are often in never-ending supply. A problem I found with this is that the screen shakes violently upon anything more than a single ground pound of the foot. I have vision problems with distances, but playing games several feet away from my TV I very rarely encounter situations which irritate my vision, but this in particular really rattled my eyes and I had to take a second to refocus. Since I suspect there is a lot more stomping to be had, this does not bode well for me.
I’m giving Dead Space 3 a short leash: I’ve abandoned faith in its ability to stir up any horror, but the cooperative mode has enough potential in the right circumstances that I won’t write it off completely. Whether I will carry on remains to be seen; having come in with modest expectations after the original game left me a bit cold, they have already been lowered substantially by the game’s opening level. You could say I have nothing to lose. That too remains to be seen.
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