Friday, August 22, 2014

Impressions #12: Dead Space 3

There are great games that I can play over and over again. They do something so right that it is just a joy to keep coming back. Others are merely okay. Products like them are satisfactory throughout the whole of the game, but they do nothing to stand out from the crowd and inspire further playthroughs or thought on the game. Lastly, some cannot even get that right. Games exist such that they are an absolute chore to get through them. When one of these are found, playing them feels less like entertainment and more like work. What follows is a recollection of my experience with one such game: That would be Dead Space 3, which I had obtained free of charge on PlayStation Plus through their Instant Game Collection. I do not exaggerate when I say that almost every element in this game has a massive problem associated with it. Though I do not mean to say that it is the worst game to ever be invented, I would say that it is a significant step back in terms of modern game design.

The first element I would like to throw under scrutiny was the combat. Anyone who is familiar with third-person shooters will know how Dead Space 3 operates. Enemies spawn in through the various vents and openings, and up to two players shoot them down with whatever weapon(s) they have equipped. Purely in terms of mechanics, the game is functional. All the mechanics are there and they all work well. The problem lies in that the game makes very few, failed attempts to interject any form of variety into this combat. New enemy types do show up from time to time, but they all use similar tactics. No matter which form of space zombie or evil cultist is being fought, the enemy will just attempt to swarm the players with sheer numbers. Even though the cultists wield ranged weapons, their AI does not seem to take that into account all too often when moving them into positions on the battlefield. While enemies do have differences in terms of damage taken/inflicted and movement speed, all of them will charge player characters with reckless abandon. As a result, every fight begins to blur into every other fight.
One way the developers attempt to remedy this is by placing boss battles at specific points in the campaign. Unfortunately, with the exception of the final boss fight at the end of the game, all of these fights are against the exact same monster. This creature, which I can only describe as an “enormous mutant space lobster with exploding tentacles” (EMSLET), ambushes players regularly throughout the course of the game. EMSLET can be defeated by shooting it in its glowing yellow exploding weaknesses until it dies. At the same time, it will both repeatedly charge at the players and come with endlessly spawning space zombies. Like the rest of the combat in this game, EMSLET encounters begin to blur together after about the third one. Considering there were plenty of opportunities to make new, interesting boss fights to keep the game feeling fresh, this is a very quick and lazy way to add content to the game. Feeling cheap, EMSLET gives off the impression that the developers were pressed for time.

Another method Visceral Games used to inject much needed variety in the game is by peppering both cinematic set-pieces and puzzles throughout the adventure. One of the most used set-pieces is the rappel climbs/descent on a vertical plane. Though not particularly offensive, these segments do not feel like they add much to the game. Usually, it is just another form of combat with some added platforming segments built in. In my experience, other set-pieces throughout the game had an uncanny tendency to result in a lot of unfair deaths due to some fault in the way they triggered or operated. Though I freely admit they tend to be quite visually impressive, the number of glitches and poor design choices involved with their execution ultimately made them more tedious than they should have been.
As for the puzzles, they do not really add much to the game either. In fact, they generally cannot even be truly considered “puzzles”. Most of them do not take more than minor brainpower and about a minute's worth of time to solve. Though they try to break up the long slog of fighting endless enemies, none of them last long enough to really serve this purpose. Mostly, these segments serve as nothing more than brief diversions, lacking in both challenge or substance.

Another aspect that feels strange is the co-op. Unlike previous Dead Space games, players have the option of bringing a friend along for the ride. In fact, the only reason I even played Dead Space 3 was because one of my own friends had asked me to join him for the journey. On some levels, the game handles co-op well. Each character gets their own instanced drops, separate from the other character. The benefit to this is that players do not have to compete for resources, encouraging them to cooperate rather than compete with each other. Further, when a unique item is picked up by one player, a copy is immediately placed in the other player's inventory. This way, neither player can miss out on the items picked up. Also, the co-op character, Carver, does feel integrated into the story in a way that makes him feel relevant. He does affect the progression and without him, the story would be quite different, but we will get to that later.
On the other hand, there are weird ways where co-op does not work quite right. For example, there are times where when one player loses all of their health, they are downed for a period. If not resuscitated by their partner in time, they will die. This is fine, but there are also other times where that period will not trigger, and the player will instantly die. What separates instances where that time frame will and will not activate was never made clear throughout the course of the game. It always felt random. In turn, the mechanic itself felt cheap and inconsistent. And while Carver is a character in its own right, there are times when the game seems to forget this. In many scenes, Issac Clarke seems to be ambushed and thrown into the next area of the game by himself during a cutscene in a way that isolates him from anyone else. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Carver pops into existence right outside of view. Since my friend was playing as Carver, this gave him an odd sort of whiplash when the camera switched back to behind Carver after each of these scenes. Ultimately, because of these grips, the co-op feels both imperfect and incomplete.

One of my least favorite parts of Dead Space 3 was the plot. Before I talk about it, I want to admit that this is my very first Dead Space game. All of my knowledge of the lore of the franchise comes from second-hand sources, and not much of it stuck in my memory. For the most part, I came in with not knowing anything about the finer details of the story. Having said that, I do not feel that that was the reason that I was confused about what was going on with the story. Nor do I feel that the fact that I was playing in co-op was a huge contributor to my lack of understanding. The plot is a nigh incomprehensible mess, and at no point did I feel like I had a true grasp of what I was doing and why. Considering how cookie-cutter the whole affair felt, this is quite an achievement.
To me, the game did not do a good job of establishing the cast of characters and why they, in particular, are doing their part to stop the space zombie invasion. Further, the interactions between characters often do not make sense and serve only to add arbitrary drama and conflict. One particular scene springs to mind when I say that. One scene has the obviously traitorous asshole of the group betray Issac, turning him over to the obviously evil religious cult at gunpoint. When Issac Clarke kills him, he goes to his former girlfriend (who happens to be the traitor's current girlfriend). She asks where he is, to which Issac responds “I shot him”, without even attempting to explain why. Scenes like this occur at multiple points in the game, where characters behave illogically to push the plot forward. The villains are as cartoonish as the come. Despite Simon Templeman's incredible voice acting talent, the cult leader's entire character is just the personification of silliness. Nothing he does makes any sense, and he soldier's on with his beliefs despite all evidence contradicting their validity. I remember joking that if the ending was “rocks fall, everyone dies”, I would be happy with that because every character in the game takes a turn at being stupid. Nothing in this plot felt like it worked, and I struggle to comprehend how people liked it enough to approve it for release.

As a whole, Dead Space 3 feels disjointed and incoherent. For every good thing that the game does, two more big mistakes were made at the same time. Despite being a horror franchise, at no point could anything ever be remotely considered scary. The only thing scary about it is that it represents how EA's decision making can completely ruin what might otherwise have the potential to be a good game. The particularly observant among you might have realized that at no point in this rather long piece did I even mention the weapon crafting, microtransactions, and how they affected the game. That is because I have decided to spend my next article talking about exactly that. I look forward to sharing my thoughts on that with you.

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