A look at Visceral Games' 3rd foray into the world of space madness.
Dead Space was the game that made me happy I bought an Xbox 360. At the time, my computer was nowhere near prepared to run that kind of a game. I had purchased the console originally for The Orange Box and Bioshock, and nothing else for a good while. It was Dead Space that made me come back to the console, and I was elated to do so.
It was scary, immaculately crafted, science fiction and horror bundled into one package with my name on it. It was a unique take on the third person shooter that revolved around dicing your enemies to pieces rather than running for the usual headshot. As every game with a gun wanted to be Gears of War and Halo, Dead Space was more interested in a new combat mechanic, an intuitive and world-integrated user interface, a series of unique tools for the job, and an arsenal of strange enemies to learn and experiment with. It was truly a fresh experience in every way.
I cannot stress to you enough the importance of taking those arms off. Maybe go for a leg first to hobble him?
From a narrative perspective, it was a tad shallow, but it laid some fantastic groundwork and ultimately paid off on everything it wanted to deliver. With its none-too-subtle examination of how religion can make people a little more than crazy, a new twist on traditional gameplay, and some of the best sound design in the industry, Dead Space was hands down one of the most unique experiences on consoles.
Dead Space 2 was an evolution on the previous title in just about every direction. New tools, new suits, new hacking mechanics (the computer kind, AND the monster limb kind), a new location, and what is perhaps the most solid narrative experience I have ever encountered; cutscenes are straight-up gone. You want a CG movie, go watch Wreck-it Ralph. (No, really, go watch it, it's great.) Video games have a unique space to work with in ways we're typically unfamiliar with. There are only 3 moments in the entire game that the camera breaks off of Isaac. While you can lose direct control of Isaac, you are never removed from the nerve-rending setting of Titan Station. Dead Space 2 was missing giant boss fights, opting instead for big arena set pieces and the occasional "holy crap" set-ups, but it was perfectly executed. I could not tell you a single thing "wrong" with Dead Space 2.
Never breaking camera made for some amazing action sequences, like jetting through exploding space stations.
As you can imagine, Dead Space 3 has some lofty competition from itself...and pretty much only from itself. Games like Amnesia and Slender are more terrifying in their own way, but they’re also built around removing power from the player. But Dead Space 3 was probably Visceral Studios’ most ambitious title. Adding in a full drop-in/drop-out co-op immediately had many worried. How scary can it be if my buddy can just drop in and help me go plasma cutters-a-blazing? The answer: by still being Dead Space.
Drop-in co-op wasn't the only new feature. If you factor in a gun-crafting mechanic, a wardrobe of suits, the most enemies, the grandest locations, and half a dozen different modes: you've got a lot to do. In previous Dead Space titles, all you had was New Game + to go through again and again. This game features 4 modes, each with their own New Game + capabilities, some of which require you to survive the nightmares alone. With all of these crazy new mechanics being implemented into an otherwise perfect run of a series, it's not hard to see how they may have stumbled a few times. I'm of the mindset that trying to expand your game should be valued, even if not everything panned out the right way, and in that spirit, Dead Space 3 is a total triumph. It's just got a few edges that need to be smoothed over if they go ahead with a future installment.
I played through all of Dead Space 3 with the same co-op partner, and I can tell you that it works really well. Puzzles from single-player have cooperative requirements in the two-player mode, making things feel like more of a cohesive tag team experience. There are also exclusive co-op only zones to visit, which sucks to miss out on if you're playing by yourself. However, they're only important to the story of newcomer John Carver, so missing out on them doesn’t really ruin the overall story. As I understand it, those are some of the best experiences in the game. I was running as Isaac, so I missed out on Carver’s freak-outs, and Isaac had little to none. So far, no co-op game has really hit the level of truly asymmetrical gameplay that only those types of games can provide, but Dead Space 3 is so close to that mark, it has me salivating for more.
Co-Op means fun for everyone! And by Everyone I mean two people.
I love the new weapon and armor mechanics. Gone are credits for arbitrarily buying things out of vending machines. Now we have a more "in-universe" mechanic of gathering spare parts as currencies that you use to build weapons, upgrades, health packs and other necessary items. It does a great job of fleshing out the vending machine and bench systems of the previous games. The build-your-own weapon system is fun for a guy like me. You can go as simple as a tricked-out Plasma Cutter (the standard Dead Space tool), or go with a stasis-bullet firing submachine gun with a cryo-torch strapped to it that also happens to help pick up ammo and give you and your partner extra damage. It's a bit weird to look at the system in the beginning, in no small part to a slightly muddled user interface, but when you really start to figure it out, it's an absolute joy. Or, if you don't like it, just buy blueprints with upgrades and move about your business, that works too! The key theme here is options, and I am always in favor of them.
It's like the Build-a-Bear Workshop, only slightly deadlier!
While we're on the topic of weapons and weird designs, there are some particularly frustrating moments in the game where you are required to have a particular kind of weapon. There is no precedent in any of the games for some of these, and if you don't have them, it’s impossible to move forward on the higher difficulties. My partner and I coordinated our weapon types for effectiveness; he didn't have anything rapid fire. As Carver, there are a number of segments where you -need- a rapid fire weapon, because what you're attacking requires being hit a certain number of times, not taking a X number of damage. It's kind of ridiculous as there is no lead up to that mechanic. It's entirely invisible, and only used in a couple instances. We had to stop playing the game at that point for a few hours, read up on how to beat it, and then finish it when we weren't so flustered. That's just never an experience you want in your game, and it's a real odd thing to slip in there.
The story is pretty grandiose, and it's clear that the narrative isn't just about isolated incidents any more. Some people may hope for them to reel it in a bit, but from a narrative point of view, the Necromorph plague is just too big to be contained to small space stations. At this point it's either "keep going bigger," or pack it up and move to something new altogether.
Early in the game, you're treated to hovering around giant, derelict space vessels that give you some real, unprecedented freedom in space. I cannot think of another game that gave me that "I'm in space!" feeling. It was a rush. Unfortunately that whole series of experience and gameplay goes away for the later two-thirds of the game when you reach the planet's surface, and while that makes obvious sense, it is kind of a bummer they couldn't have more on the surface to replicate just how expansive those first parts felt.
But as I've said, not everything works. Transitioning in and out of story sequences is far from as seamless as it was in Dead Space 2, and in many cases (almost every case, if you're Mr. Carver), it's incredibly disjointed. It really is unfortunate they didn't create a second set of camera work for Carver to keep the story locked to each character's perspective the whole time. Even more mysterious: in single player Carver just shows up sometimes because he's supposed to have been with you this whole time, even though he's not helping you take out Necromorphs unless your buddy is controlling him. It's a step backwards in terms of the Dead Space narrative style, but with some more time and refinement, it can be absolutely the best co-op narrative experience in a game. Especially if they emphasize the moments where one character slips into hallucinations and sees things in areas completely differently from the other, or if characters have to split up altogether.
At this point, I've completed Dead Space 3: Awakened, the downloadable content that expands upon the story of Dead Space 3, and the reason I bring this up is because of the common complaint/worry that Dead Space 3 isn't "scary" enough. Some said it isn't "Dead Space" enough, which I don’t really get. There's space and there's death, you've pretty much covered the game's promises right there. But Awakened, if nothing else, will flip that perception on it’s head. While I would gladly defend Dead Space 3's atmosphere and tone, I would bend to the argument, if only a little, that it's less "scary" of a game. Awakened settles the argument that co-op means less frightening, as it is easily the -most- terrifying Dead Space content, hands down.
It gets real in the Awakened DLC.
There’s a feeling that Visceral Studios went big, and it hit pretty well for the most part, but because the games before it were these perfect experiences that were tighter than a facehugger's grip, it just feels a little more flat. It's not, to make a comparison, hollow and devoid of atmosphere like Resident Evil 5, but it is every bit as solid of a cooperative gameplay experience, if not more so. Additionally, the Awakened DLC does a great job of adding to the plot with some of the series' best atmosphere, some amazing battles, and even a pretty unreal ending.
Have you had a shot at Dead Space 3 yet? What were your feelings on the design choices? Were you playing co-op or solo? How would you have changed things up? I would love to hear from you in the comments!