Saturday, February 16, 2013

A very long REVIEW - Dead Space 3.

If you don't press the start button when Dead Space 3 boots up, a trailer for the game plays.  An accolades trailer from GamesCom 2012, complete with a choice quote from the enthusiast press.

it assures you.  


Depends what you mean by Dead Space.

Launching - and nearly lost - amid a flurry of high-profile, established or otherwise high-profile franchises in the fall of 2008 (along with Mirror's Edge and Valkyria Chronicles, come to think of it), Dead Space was a sci-fi horror action game from a studio named EA Redwood Shores.  EA Redwood Shores - a studio owned entirely by publishing giant Electronic Arts - were previously and uniformly responsible for licensed fare a'la MySims and The Simpsons Game.  

They'd done third person shooters before, sure, but Dead Space wasn't Lord of the Rings or The Godfather.  It wasn't someone else's story or someone else's baby - it was born of Redwood Shores.  They pitched it - it was game they wanted to make, and you could tell they loved it.

In 2008 when Dead Space launched, it didn't clatter against the brick wall of fall releases and disappear into the ether of memory.  It didn't get a cursory glance, to be purchased by a few Wal-Mart shoppers, but largely ignored by the gamer consciousness like their 2005 Bond exercise, From Russia With Love.  And c'mon - From Russia With Love had a seventy-five year-old Sean Connery actually doing the voice of Bond. 

No, when Dead Space was tossed in there, it stuck. It found a place to grip the collective gamer consciousness, and to say it like that sounds less grand than it actually is, so - for the sake of perspective - these are the games that also came out in the fall of 2008: 

Against some of the larger names in the industry, and unlike The Godfather: Backhand EditionDead Space didn't just disappear into the ether. It stuck - because Dead Space was something special.  Y'know... 

(Lazy hand wave.)  ...artistically.  

Because Dead Space wasn't just another shooter.  

Dead Space (2008).  The first view of the Ishimura is a fantastic establishing shot.

It was Alien and Event Horizon.  It was all industrial, tangible science fiction, with a well-paced and layered  and communicated sense of dread that seeped into everything - each beautifully creepy introduction, each sound effect, each story element thoughtfully designed and placed to maximize your sense of unease.  

It was so beautifully crafted. You could see the loving attention Redwood Shores paid to their baby in every gory kill, every cargo door that belts out a screaming wail as it opens, every fumbled plot point - so who cares if the storytelling was merely okay? 

It was all slick, fresh-feeling, visceral gameplay which re-trained your muscle memory to avoid headshots and crack off limbs instead - how charming! - and you explore such a deeply realized world.  The U.S.G. Ishimura felt like you could reach out and touch it, as it thrummed with reflections of classic, atmospheric sci-fi horror flicks where technology is just as creepy and lethal as the baddies that stalk its flickering halls.  A world where you jump at every hissing steam release, and snap your gun up at every crack in the distance.  

With those two unique niceties nestled in to a comfortably triple-A title - phenomenal, tangible sci-fi horror atmosphere and very unique-feeling gunplay - you had something special.   The fact that it was fun to play merely made it more fantastic.  

And that's what I mean by Dead Space.  

Dead Space 2 was a bit step forward in everything from writing to design, I feel, and Dead Space 3..?

Well, it's different. 

Even as it meets its triple-A standard (I love the blowing snow effects on Tau Volantis), there is a far lesser sense of the divine spark and loving care that a studio named EA Redwood Shores once invested in a game called Dead Space, replaced as it is here with a few of the bullet points publishing executives feel so strongly about.

One gets the sense that the studio we now know as Visceral Games did their best, here, to crank out another game for a particular property, strictly adhering to the creative guidelines of the folks who hold the purse strings - just like they did back when the name of the game was Bond. Where Dead Space and its sequel went gleefully towards horror and originality and damn the man - explosive sacs dangling from the bodies of undead babies and monstrous tentacles erupting from what were once infants (replaced here with monstrous tentacles erupting from what were once dogs) - Dead Space 3 doesn't just pull some of its punches.  

It pulls all of them. 

Oh sure, there are still monsters - but gone are the affecting introductions of each type (perhaps the series will never exceed the "Clever Girl" moment, but to see such pacing abandoned entirely is odd). Gone is the theme of Isaac's splintered reality, gone is his unique station in the series' mythos, gone is... the horror.  

If Dead Space 2 is to Dead Space what Aliens is to Alien (and it is), Dead Space 3 has jumped straight to Alien Resurrection.  I like Alien Resurrection.

Its events take place in the same universe, it features the same characters - and you're still thumping around a dimly-lit sci-fi world killing monsters (controls are identical), but that and some art assets are pretty much where the similarities end. If you valued Dead Space for only its thick atmosphere, considered horror and how very unique the gunplay felt, may I suggest you never play Dead Space 3.

If, on the other hand, what you valued was satisfyingly stomping monsters in a sci-fi setting, I have some very good news - because rockin' a weird space suit and stomping the shit out of monsters with a kickass arsenal of crazy space guns is what Dead Space 3's all about. 

And, in that, it is classic Dead Space through and through.  After all, the Dead Space games lend themselves well to replayability, and - let's be honest - the Wyrmidon 's case rings true.  

The carefully-crafted horror, so affecting and exhilarating on its first encounter, is little more than a delay on one's way to the next monster shoot in subsequent playthroughs, and it is there that Dead Space 3 finds its comfort.  The empowering play of blitzing through one's second or third or fourth time with the game is pretty much what Dead Space 3 feels like all the time. 

It's held aloft by DS3's surprisingly deep weapon customization, which may feel deeply alien at first, as it is far less user-friendly than the simple upgrades in DS1 and 2, but it soon becomes a fine way to kill a half-hour as you swap out weapon engines, tips, custom modules and circuit buffs.  Eventually you'll place the final circuit on a ridiculously powerful sniper rifle / force gun combo and lean back from the B.E.N.C.H. - because from within the customization menus there's no way to actually see how much of an impact those Plus 3 Clip circuits actually had - and pull the weapon up to check its ammo readout.  

The weapon construction system is... deeply inelegant, and often frustrating as you will regularly pick up items the game makes a big deal of - [Explosive Module], it says in big bold print in the middle of the screen - and so you'll scramble to the nearest B.E.N.C.H. to check it out, only to discover that, whatever it is, it doesn't attach to any of the parts you currently have, so you can't even look at it or reads its description.  You may have just picked up an awesome weapon tip, but there's no single place where you can view all your parts, or see which other parts they connect to, making the entire thing a somewhat tedious, trial-and-error affair.  

But when you're done, and you pull up a powerful, roaring beast of a weapon that you built from the frame up..?  It feels pretty damned good.  That's your gun.  You built it.  You feel ownership of it and a lovely grim confidence as you stalk Dead Space 3's flickering halls, calmly swooping the camera behind you at a distant snarl, tapping L1 and R1 in a seemingly-single motion to yank up the weapon and unleash a lonely, perfect shot into the chest of an alien monstrosity, dropping it to the floor.  

Comfortable.  Familiar.  Practiced.  Fun.  And if that is how one has classically defined Dead Space - as a sci-fi action game, first and foremost, to be adored for its comfy shooting and alien vistas - then Dead Space 3 is the best Dead Space there's ever been. 

In order to build these delicious weapons, you must first find the necessary parts, and Dead Space 3 invites you to poke around its world via a few open sections which go a very long way towards making its universe feel like a tangible place (without quite achieving the same level of immersion of its more linear prequels).  

You're beckoned off the beaten path to check out the derelict ships orbiting Tau Volantis, cruising about as the little jets on your space suit hiss this way and that.  There are four different debris fields and ghosts ships to investigate - two that are connected to the campaign, one that's a side-mission, and one that's a co-op exclusive side-mission. 

Even ignoring the side-missions, tromping about through the optional ships (which are more atmospheric and do more to flesh out the game's universe than the campaign itself), hours can be lost dreamily floating about, getting lost in the dizzying 360-degree freedom, cracking panels off the sides of ships in the hopes of finding the tip that will turn your recently-acquired telemetry spike engine into a full-on chaingun. 

After the first third of the game, though, you're landlocked on Tau Volantis - and while the folks at Visceral may feel that getting lost in a snowstorm as you wander its icy steppes is as gorgeous and cool-feeling as drifting about in open space, I'm prepared to say they're wrong.  

The side quests are still a delightful bonus - always engaging, always rewarding, and inviting the player to explore DS3's universe that much more - the fact that the side missions continue on Tau Volantis and that you can chapter-hop at any time back to the space field certainly soothes the sting, but it's a shame they led with their best instead of finishing with it. 

Finally, the co-op.  

It works great.  If I'm playing single-player, I can invite you into my game.  Once you receive the invite, you can then choose which save file you'd like to use for our adventure - say, the one with all your most-badass crafted weapons - and you'll show up in my game as Carver, who's otherwise an NPC that purely exists in cutscenes.  

Together, you and a friend do what Dead Space 3 does best - stomp around, shooting the crap out of space monsters with awesome sci-fi weapons.  In terms of netcode and balance it works fine, and it is, of course, fun to jet around empty space with a buddy, shooting at crazy monsters.  Because the action in DS3 is faster than its predecessors - the better to challenge two human adversaries - the classic Dead Space need to sever limbs is thrown out the window. 

You can still cut off their limbs if you want, and it still does additional damage, but where it was once a slick, skill-heavy, thrilling necessity, here it feels like a fools' errand as the new, faster enemies jerk and dash around.  No, better to simply ignore one of Dead Space's classic tenets, and merely put as much ordnance downrange as you can.  

I beat Dead Space and its sequel relying almost entirely on the Plasma Cutter.  There was a trophy for it, y'know?  

And now I use a chaingun with an underslung rocket launcher, along with a scope-less sniper rifle over a force gun.  

Just guns - mostly-normal weapon types you'd find in any other shooter.  As much as I love being able to build my own gun, and as game-breakingly powerful as my creations can be... it feels less like Dead Space.  

Narrative was never the series' strong suit, but the storytelling in Dead Space 3 is easily the worst in the series' history.  In-game, as you stomp around the alien world and human infrastructure, the writing and delivery is on-par with past games.  As soon as a cutscene starts, however, the writing, staging, direction and performances from the cast all tear down any semblance of drama or tension that the game had created in its absence.  

It's frankly, abysmal.  Dead Space went from one of the best-told stories in gaming to the worst I've seen since Deadlight.  

Fortunately the graphics are still decent - or at least, as good as they were in Dead Space 2 - even if the art direction kind of drops the ball, particularly in the latter third of the game when things should have picked up, in that regard.  The music, I would suggest, is uneven - often investing moments with too much energy, and assuming drama or tension that doesn't exist.  

In June of last year, EA Labels president Frank Gibeau said they were conscious of not moving Dead Space 3 too far from horror. "It's definitely not getting away from gore or horror, but at the same time it's opening up to a larger audience," he said

My friends, he lied.  Unless one assumes gore equals horror. 

With Dead Space 3, Electronic Arts has removed nearly everything that made the franchise unique (save the setting) - that which permitted it to grab hold of our imaginations in the fall of 2008, where any other third-person shooter would have been washed away - and in its place, they granted us... accessibility? 

Accessibility for whom, precisely?  The game is still M for Mature.  It's not like a whole new audience has been opened up - and assuming this "larger audience" does discover Dead Space 3, what will they find? 

In trading the deeply absorbing atmosphere and well-crafted horror beats of their solo sojourn into madness for some awesome co-op multiplayer monster-shootie action, I can't feel that the best deal was struck - in terms of what was best for this game.

(Lazy hand wave.) Artistically.  

Because everybody's got multiplayer.  Everybody and their gran'ma can play co-op, but Dead Space was somethin' special - something no other game or franchise really offered, since Doom 3.

And with Dead Space 3, it's now best described as a good third person shooter.  In space.

I'll be honest, I already have a lot of those - but it's a comfortably-playable and often very attractive one,  so at least it's in good company.

Still, trading Secret Sauce for an online feature you can get from every other game in the universe feels like the short end of the stick. The full campaign in co-op is a sweet plum I'll not deny, but when I bought Dead Space 3 I was really looking forward to more Dead Space - and despite 3's luxurious length, comfy shooting and inviting replayability, I somehow got less of it than I'd hoped.

But at least I got it in space.

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