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Dead Space Thus Far

ead Space Zero G Concept Art
Dead Space Zero G concept art, click for more images from the official site.

My interest with Dead Space first peaked after reading about two key details: Necromorphs (read: space zombies) are the enemy and headshots are not the way to go about killing them.

Fast forward a month and I was stepping into Isaac Clarke’s boots for the first time, crash landing into the USG Ishimura, the ship he was ironically supposed to fix. After spending 10 minutes running away weaponless from necromorphs and screaming like a little girl, I finally got Isaac his first weapon. I then opened a door and stood face to face with another necromorph, immediately decapitating it without thinking. It stumbled backwards onto the floor in what I assumed were death throe animations, so I move Isaac to the next room. Then all of the sudden, BAM Isaac was in a death grapple sequence, and I was mashing the A button as fast as I could to escape my now headless assailant. Isaac freed himself, strafed backwards and deftly took off both the necromorph’s legs. When it stopped moving, he stomped on it for good measure. I ran Isaac to the next room where a plot sequence began. He was temporarily safe. My hands were shaking and I am only 15 minutes into the game.

In anticipation of third installment, here are my thoughts on the series’ strengths and weaknesses thus far, as well as my hopes and fears concerning Dead Space 3.

Strengths

As a standalone single player adventure, the first installment in the series had a lot riding on its plot. Fortunately, the story turned out to be one of its most successful features for a variety of reasons. The first was that the player could relate to Isaac because he was an appealing character. Though he’s initially a Gordon Freeman-esque mute, his objectives are clearly laid out: the shuttle he came in on was wrecked during landing, he’s looking for (and hoping to save) his girlfriend, Nicole, and (as you find out later in the game) all the emergency escape pods were launched so he needs to find some alternative means of leaving the Ishimura (Also the whole trying not to die on a derelict spaceship in the middle of nowhere space thing). As Isaac learns more about the circumstances behind the crew’s infection and its cause, he continues to make decisions that actually make sense and don’t leave you screaming in frustration. Many horror-movie protagonists are fools, Isaac is not.

Dead Space 2 also gives Isaac compelling reasons to fight. He wakes up stuck on a planetary space station called “the Sprawl” mid-infestation, so his reasons for running around instead of escaping are similar. Additionally, he now knows the source of the necromorph plague, which is also slowly making him insane by feeding him terrifying visions and inducing a sort of paranoid dementia. The only way he can escape this nightmarish world and the added mental torture is to destroy the source of the problem.

Dead Space 3 Co-opThis mental torture will continue feed directly into the gameplay of DS3, but in an even more pronounced manner with the addition of co-op character John Carver. Carver is a new character to the universe who was briefly introduced in a web comic episode. I’m particularly excited about this addition because the co-op players will have to watch out for one another’s increasingly psychotic tendencies. For example, player two as Carver might see and attempt to interact with things, but player one as Isaac will see player 2 holding empty air and talking to imaginary objects. This innovative blend of story telling and gameplay is something that I expect to be successful considering Dead Space 1 and 2’s execution of new gameplay elements.

As mentioned before, the series’ main gameplay hook is the concept of “strategic dismemberment.” This creates a lot of interesting situations because there is no one good way to go about dispatching an enemy. For example, if I’m fighting one or two enemies, I always go for the legs because without them the necromorphs move slower and I can conserve ammo by taking my time finishing them off. However, attempting the same strategy with larger groups is far less successful because the bodies of the dispatched enemies grow into a pile so large that aiming for specific limbs becomes impossible. Instead, I started shooting for the enemies with bladed arms first, especially in DS2 where I could use telekinesis to launch said blades into either the dismembered individual or his compatriots. This often proved more effective at saving ammo and doing damage.

Even with these basic tactics in mind, Dead Space’s variety of enemies always kept each battle unique. In addition to the occasional event, such as being dragged through the Ishimura by a giant tentacle, or being suspended upside down by one foot while defending against a few necromorph waves, EA/Visceral Games ensured that you never became bored. They also managed to keep boss battles difficult while preventing frustration by marking these stronger enemies with glowing yellow weak spots.

By keeping their eyes on these smaller details, the developers will hopefully finish Dead Space with the same polish they applied to the first two games.

Weaknesses

By now it’s evident that I like the series, but I’m not without reservations. One of my biggest grievances was with the weapons and upgrade system. The weapons system works by collecting both weapons and nodes, either through game exploration or purchasing them at supply points. Any weapon found could be upgraded utilizing the nodes, which would result in bonuses such as increased damage, reload speed, clip size, etc. This in itself was fine (and fairly standard).

Dead Space Plasma Cutter

The problem was that the most iconic gun of the series, the plasma cutter, was the only gun I wanted to upgrade. This was especially true when I was playing the game on higher difficulty settings. Why? The game revolves around dismemberment, and the gun’s alt-fire capabilities allowed you to change its small 3 dot-line shot to either a horizontal or vertical position of fire. This meant you could always orient it to become the most suitable weapon to saw off an opponent’s limb. On top of that, it was the easiest gun to find ammo for and packed one of the heaviest punches (even before its upgrades). Additionally, even if I found ammo for other guns, this other ammo was always more expensive. You could sell off all the ammo you accumulated for other guns and buy even more plasma cutter ammo, ensuring you would never run out of ammo for your most powerful weapon.

For these reasons, the only time I found myself using another weapon on higher difficulties would be to dispatch some smaller swarming enemies between supply points in order to make sure I kept my plasma cutter ammo levels high to defeat the more powerful ones. Hopefully this problem will be addressed by the new “build-a-weapon” system and not only allow the players to find more effective weapon combinations, but also diversify into several viable personal play styles.

My second grievance was the melee system. DS2 significantly improved upon its predecessor by making sure the ground stomping was easy. This allowed the player to conserve more ammo without having to worry they were going to get mauled as a result of a missed attack. However, trying to punch an upright opponent was still less preferable than basic kiting. Since most of the enemies are melee, it makes sense that this aspect of the game should be difficult, but it was entirely too easy to completely miss the opponent you were trying to hit. Instead it was way more effective to use stasis (a mechanism which allowed you to time freeze opponents) and then back away and take opponents part at your leisure.

I worry that DS3 may have been over-corrected the melee problem with the addition of weapon melee attachments and the ability to combat roll. These capabilities will allow better hand to hand combat efficiency and give the player the ability to more easily put space between themselves and oncoming enemies. These in combination with stasis may make the game a little too easy. We will have to see.

Another annoyance is the competitive multiplayer. DS2’s introduction of this feature was fun, but it was incredibly frustrating without a dedicated team. There was only one game mode and it felt very Left 4 Dead: A team of survivors had to go around and complete various tasks, opening doors or carrying objects in order to access something they either had to destroy or protect from the necromorph team. The one notable difference was that survivors could respawn. This might vary from others’ experience, but it was very rare for me to encounter a team that was good at working together on Xbox Live. The main problem was that the Dead Space campaign was not one that called for teamwork, as Left 4 Dead did. As a result, players weren’t trained to think cooperatively.

Because of this poor original execution, I was looking forward to a possible re-imagining of the multiplayer in Dead Space 3. Instead, EA just went ahead and scrapped the whole thing, which I don’t think was the appropriate response. The game could have easily benefited from some sort of survival or firefight-type game mode instead of the vanilla multiplayer. Co-op is certainly a nice addition and makes a lot of sense considering the storyline framework that Dead Space so heavily depends upon, but I feel as if it was almost an attempt to distract the player base from realizing the potential of the now lost competitive multiplayer.

Finally, in a most frustrating turn of events, DS3 has continued the dreaded pre-order bonus trend. When the pre-order bonuses were first introduced a few years ago, they seemed fairly innocent. Just a little trinket or something that had no real impact on how the game was played; a nice “Thank you” to loyal series fans. Then they started becoming important, useful items that gave an edge to those who chose to pre-order. Those who paid more money for limited editions got a bigger in game boost. With DS3, depending on which website you pre-order from (GameStop or Amazon) you get a different bonus weapon, in addition to extra suits and guns for Isaac and John if you buy the limited edition. This means that even if you DO pre-order the limited edition of the game, you don’t get all the special weapons you might want. We are no longer being rewarded for being fans of the series, but punished for not wanting to spend more money.

Despite these factors, I still expect Dead Space 3 to be one of the better games of the year. Though some of the changes to a great formula have me worried (and EA’s money making ploys irk me to no end), the series’ constant implementation of new ideas has given it a very unique feel. Combine that with a storyline and gameplay and I feel I will be more than happy with the series outcome. Expect a full review after I complete the game.

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