EA Redwood Shores created one of the best games of this generation (in my opinion) with the original surprise hit, Dead Space. Arriving at a time when real survival horror titles were hard to find, with Resident Evil changing into an action game and all other options fading away from memory, Redwood took a chance and made a genuinely scary and completely thrilling adventure set in the vast emptiness of space.
By taking cue’s from sci-fi horror classics such as Alien and The Thing and spicing it up with religious/cult undertones, Redwood Shores had hit a sweet spot that horror fans had been clamoring for for years. A couple years later the company had switched its name to Visceral Games and would also release the sequel to their horror classic aptly titled Dead Space 2. The sequel would again receive critical acclaim, but there was no doubt that the game was favoring action and set pieces (even with quicktime events) instead of pure horror this time around. While it wasn’t enough to lessen the impact the sequel would have on its fans (the eye scene folks…the eye scene) I definitely became worried for the inevitable third.
The rumors started cropping up late 2011 with hints of Dead Space 3 taking place on a planet made up entirely of snow, later they would be confirmed, and that the game would also feature co-op. Not only would this third entry feature co-operative game play but it would also feature cover based mechanics and Isaac would this time battle fellow humans in firefights. Dead Space 3 looked to be taking after its own creations and was morphing into an all new beast; and similar to being locked in a room alone with those hideous creatures, I wanted no part of it. But this is Dead Space we’re talking about! I had to play it. So I signed up for an early Demo code and I received, downloaded, and played. This is what I came into contact with.
The Dead Space 3 demo features two options, single player and multiplayer. I haven’t tried the co-operative option yet, these impressions are made up entirely of the single player portion of the demo. Your nasty trip starts off with Isaac awaking from an apparent ship crash, freezing and alone it is up to you to guide him away from the wreckage and towards any shelter you may find. As you begin to travel you battle the elements of this planet; the freezing temperatures, the blindness of the winds, and the thick snow trampling underneath.
The graphics and style will be familiar to anyone who has played previous entries in the series. The attention to detail is great and the animations are decent as well, but the snow you find yourself traveling through looks off, as if its just thick goo. Its just strange looking. Another odd quirk is that Isaac puts his hand in front of his face to battle the winds. While I know this is human nature and they’re also trying to have an Uncharted vibe almost (no doubt an inspiration for those Dead Space 2 QTE’s that also show themselves here) this dude wears a massive mask! There is no need for him to be wary of the elements! But I digress, you continue on walking and you eventually run into your first foul encounter with the nefarious Necromorphs.
In the original Dead Space Redwood Shores crafted one of the most incredible, realistic, and downright creepy environments ever put onto a disc. The USG Ishimura was awe inspiring and allowed the developers to naturally create unique set pieces for the player to experience. From the zero gravity sequences to enemies clawing their way out of vents; it all felt organic and terrifying. While this feeling didn’t entirely go away in the sequel, it seems to have the potential to be drying up for this third entry.
While it is feasible to believe that an enemy would be clawing their way through the ducts and passages of a ship, discovering and pouncing at you within an instant, the new means in which Visceral has these creatures jumping at you is just…kind of dumb. While you are traveling in the thick powder enemies now jump up out of the snow once you walk on top of them, ready to attack and trying to get a cheap scare out of you. This mechanic feels awfully forced and, at least how it is used in the demo, the snow in general just feels contrived. The rest of the experience is filled with cheap scare tactics, much like horror films these days. You know why the original Alien or Thing are so fondly remembered? Because they built up tension! Not only were the creatures horrifying, but they were completely original and mysterious on top of being threatening. To add to the drama the environments themselves felt real! They weren’t used for cheap gimmicks. The ship and arctic settings felt lived in, claustrophobic, and alive.
Nowhere during this experience did the snow seem to add anything interesting to the proceedings besides dumb enemies jumping out of it. Why in the hell would an alien just hide in a pile of snow waiting for the very small chance for food to walk on top of it? I know its the same mechanic from previous games, but at least as I explained previously, it can make sense when its happening on a ship! And it can make sense here too! Just make a Necro jump at you from an above cliff or rock, or climb up from below, don’t use the most tired option available. But this aspect is important, because its generally how things feel in DS3. Things feel kind of boring and worn out by this point. Its as if Visceral Games themselves are growing tired of this universe.
So onward you travel, shooting the legs and arms off of the Necromorphs as you have done so many time before, with the same exact weapon as before. One new feature being added to the mix this time however is the option of upgrading and crafting your own gear. Gone are the days of strange vending machines and in are the days of strange crafting tables. Now as you travel the planet you will pick up pieces of equipment strewn about and you will have the option of attaching these pieces to currently equipped weapons or just making new ones altogether. The demo doesn’t give you many options for tinkering with this, but it seems like a decent feature that is at least more interesting than the one previous.
Not far in your journey you encounter a very dumb quick time event that seems to drag on to long and than it is a very quick and easy boss battle. This encounter reminded me A LOT of Lost Planet. With the snowy surroundings and very orange and very obvious target points on the boss, it felt far too simple and generic for an encounter in a Dead Space title. While it is just a tease of things to come later in the game, a comparison to Lost Planet is not exactly good.
Shortly after the encounter you run into a sequence that eventually leads to a showdown between Isaac and Necro’s that are using guns. Yes, you read that right; Necromorphs using firearms. Not only are they using firearms, if you just stand there and don’t fire back, they don’t even move or really aim. The animation is just a continuous up and down motion while firing, and it looks really bad. These enemies are not fearsome in the slightest and just, in this brief encounter at least, come off stupid and clumsy. The sequence following that bizarre occurrence flows slightly better, and that is your first introduction to human on human combat.
While the cover based system Visceral has in place here isn’t as good as it should be, its at least serviceable; whether it belongs in a Dead Space game or not is another discussion. (I say no obviously) Its hard to get a good grasp on how actual firefights will play out in Dead Space 3, because the two that show up in the demo are both interrupted by the Necro’s. In fact, as they appear here, the humans are just more fodder for the creatures as if Visceral are trying to show us just how dangerous these enemies still are even three games in. (I’m sorry guys, but if I can take out hundreds, I feel like this squad of three should be able to kill two with automatic weapons.)
The demo ends with Isaac facing off against a giant drill while an unlimited supply of Necromorphs pour out of the walls to stop you. The scene is definitely the most intense of the demo, but it can also be very frustrating as you attempt to not only freeze and aim at the drill, but also take down and avoid the dozens of enemies swiping at you. So instead of crafting a truly memorable well thought out piece, they are just throwing dozens and dozens of enemies at you again to create the illusion of true peril and tension. Its somewhat reminiscent of the encounters that finished off Dead Space 2, encounters that I absolutely hated.
After this boss battle…with a drill…?…the demo ends with hints of a further bigger hurdle for Isaac. This sliver of Dead Space 3 left me feeling exactly as I thought it would honestly. The series continues its momentum towards action and memorable events, while leaving only faint mirages of its previous intensity and scares. Instead of genuine tension and frights it gives you cheap jump tactics and dozens of enemies. Instead of bringing in new mechanics in clever ways, it takes tired old conventions and uses them in those same tired and old conventions. Dead Space 3 is an amalgamation of what it used to be. Its the unnecessary merger of the last true beacon of hope for the survival horror genre (on consoles that is. PC still has great surprises) with the Call of Duty spectacle that permeates our industry nowadays.
While it definitely reads like I am hugely disappointed with this game (because I am) I am not completely throwing it under the bus just yet. Dead Space 3 will be a GOOD game, but for me at least, its not going to reach anywhere near its potential. In the hope of generating bigger sales EA and Visceral Games have taken a survival horror title and made it a survival action game. This entry will fill the space in your heart that you wish Resident Evil 6 had filled before it had turned to shit. Honestly the best part of this game may in fact be the inclusion of co-op. While that statement makes me completely depressed, seeing what this title has become now, that statement also leaves me with the most hope. With the mechanics of insanity and the two players potentially seeing different events unfold on their own personal screens, co-op has a chance to do something new and exciting, and in this game, that is a much needed feature. I will grab a hold of Dead Space 3 after it launches, but I will continue to miss the original pants wetting formula that it once had.