I have a fairly long history with this franchise. Dead Space was one of the first few games I bought for my newly purchased Xbox 360 in the bygone era of 2008. I don’t get to talk about it much here, but I am a devoted horror fan and the mix of Alien like environments with elements of Lovecraftian lore was too much for me to resist.
Horror is difficult to do well. In books, movies, television or games there are a host of failed attempts before you find a gem. Even when something is destined to be a classic like The Thing it may completely collapse on its initial release or may be forgotten until some amateur horror historian like myself comes across it.
The first Dead Space was one of those magical moments where most of the game worked well. The environments were gritty and spooky, you could almost smell the stale oil of the moldering spaceships. The audio engineering was for me a lesson in how to scare people, there was ambient sounds of metal clanking somewhere in the distance, muffled scrambling of something living in the walls and the distant cries of those in distress. Mixed in were enough jump scares and compelling story to make it a worthwhile way for any horror nut to spend their time. The second Dead Space refined the controls, expanded the religious conspiracy story and gave us some unique environments to play around it. My major disappointment with it was a completely unnecessary multiplayer mode that may have taken development time away from the core story. At its heart Dead Space is a narrative focused solo player action story and really shouldn’t try to be anything else.
I am several hours now into Dead Space 3, but wanted to get my impressions down early for those that were thinking about purchasing it while it is still at full retail price. People are complaining loudly that the game is more action oriented than its predecessors. This is unfortunately probably true. A lot of the formula is the same, tunnels with monsters, puzzle levels and bosses. The story is interesting, but not as tightly wound into the gameplay as the previous entries. There are still moments of feeling overwhelmed, claustrophobia and panic of which I am grateful, but not enough for my tastes so far. I don’t really blame the developers for this as the story has spun itself into a bit of a corner. Issac Clarke (the protagonist, get it sci-fi fans, nudge nudge) has become increasingly insane over the series and it is difficult to keep finding situations where his stuck on a ship again with the zombie like antagonists. The story starts off with a bit of a flashback and then in a city which inherently makes the situation feel different from the previous games. The game review site Kotaku is wigging out about this pretty hard and the critics have come out of the woodwork, but overall I feel the game doesn’t deserve the beating that it is getting from people who feel like it isn’t living up to its history.
Here is an industry problem. To do something well you need to take a risk (Dead Space: 1) and do something different from everyone else. If you succeed then you are richly rewarded either with direct dollars or critical praise and in rare circumstances both. This becomes a trap, if your nature is to take risks then you are no longer allowed to do so because you will be accused of abandoning the spirit of the original. If you follow the formula exactly then you are accused of phoning it in and not having any new ideas. It is a paralyzing force and what it creates is probably what we have here, a game that will most likely end up being a solid B when it could have been an A. Too afraid to do anything at all, so it gives us a common denominator, a decent action game with lots of dead space elements.
Games are hard, they are expensive to make and risk is scary. If we fans are so unforgiving of any change or perceived misstep that we crucify any attempt to make things better regardless of whether they succeed or fail then we will drive the software engineers and creative folks who make the things we love into stasis where they are only making Call of Duty variations. I plead with you readers, we do not need another generic war shooter. Give your local video developer a hug and tell them it is ok to get a little crazy, you will still love them in the end.