a review of Dead Space 3
a videogame developed by Visceral Games
for the microsoft windows, the microsoft xbox 360 and the sony ps3
text by ben hornsby
Man, when I played Dead Space back in 200X it sure did not seem like one of its sequels would be one of those games designed to be the only game that some people play. Though there it is, right from the main menu: You can buy new personalities for your baby robot-scavengers. There are promises of add-ons and buttons that send you to DLC stores crammed into every nook of this thing. One menu literally says “more to come!”
I don’t necessarily hate any of this stuff; I am not against the idea of videogames as broad entertainment-experiences as opposed to self-contained pieces of creative work (I mean I sort of am but let’s give The Achievement and The Money the benefit of the doubt in this paragraph). Just stop trying so hard. You’re embarrassing yourself. I want to look past your awkward menus that lead to places where I can buy guns with Real Money that are built from various combinations of the dozens of gun-parts found in the game and that are also given to me for free when I type in this code that I have to type in to play online anyway; I also want to look past the menu I have to scroll through to access the screen that lets me type in this code that I have to type in to play online anyway. I want to look past this kind of stuff but when it fills the screen it can be difficult.
But I looked past it anyway – gotcha! – and maybe you should have taken some of that attention away from the “BROADER “USER” EXPERIENCE” and put it into the level design! Actually I’m pretty sure the problem is deeper than that – maybe you should just go ahead and put the attention into the department in charge of hiring the people that work on level design. Because, stuff! It’s not even worth talking about at all! There’s literally nothing there! Every enemy – in the end – poses the exact same threat, and they fill rooms that – in the end – are all the exact same room. Like, I’m not exaggerating. Maybe – okay – maybe you have to be careful about shooting the Guys That Blow Up when they’re too close to you. But that’s it.
And the broader level design (with the exception of the almost-cool spacey parts in the first half of the game) is just as numbing. Go from square room to hallway to square room; repeat this ten times and be rewarded with a gimmick room, like one of the three identical fights against the spider boss thing or the fifteen painful minutes of rappelling up the snow cliff; return to square rooms and hallways. If you see a locked door with a keycard slot: You do not have the keycard, the keycard is in one of the rooms adjacent to the room you’re standing in, and the door leads to an optional fifteen-minute sidequest at the end of which you will open a box that contains some nebulous collection of currencies and gun parts.
Also: The number of rooms that are elevators seems to be equal to the number of rooms that are not elevators. I understand that you probably need to do a lot of loading to produce all these god damn graphics, though since half of the normal doors I walk through make me wait a couple seconds while they literally say “loading” on them anyway I don’t see why I have to ride so many elevators that me and my co-op bro are having conversations like “Whoa: This elevator is red on the inside.” (“…why are there dildoes sticking out of the walls?”) On the plus side: That an alien zombiefreak only crashes in through the roof of your elevator once is the game’s sole sign of restraint.
Didn’t the first Dead Space have some cute little gimmick? It did, and it was that you were supposed to shoot off alien limbs instead of going for headshots or whatever. I played Dead Space 3 co-op on the hardest difficulty and somewhere in the middle of the second disc (lol) I asked my bro how often he was deliberately aiming at limbs and he said “Why? Oh, yeah, you can shoot them off, can’t you?” You can use a pistol-thing or a machine-gun-thing or a shotgun-thing or some other dumb-thing – whatever path you choose you’ll just be pumping ammo into the centers of wiggling, blubbering alien meatballs by the time you’re a quarter of the way through the game. (At the halfway point the game decides to just go full-on Gears of War for a little bit; at the three-quarter mark you’ve returned to meatballs.)
Which brings me to one thing I like about Dead Space 3: The sound of shooting dudes. It’s a bear trap on a watermelon every god damn time you pull the trigger.
Which brings me to one thing I hate about Dead Space 3: The weapons. Oh my god. Is just having a few weapons such an awful idea? If I remember correctly – and I might not – the first Dead Space gave you half a dozen guns that all worked differently and let you upgrade them over the course of the game. Nothing wrong with that! Dead Space 3, on the other hand, has a weapon crafting system that we can say was definitely born as a “response” to “modern” “game design” “sensibilities.”
…I tried to write about the gun-crafting system in detail just now, but enough of these reviews are already over 50,000 words. It is deeply annoying. It’s filled with little variables and things you can craft to tweak numbers around and clip sizes you can modify with modification-things that can be equipped into slots in a menu you can inexplicably access from two different places in the web of gun-crafting menus, and almost none of it matters at all. It is so thoroughly hateable that you should feel free to ignore the opinions of anyone who tells you that they liked the gun-crafting system. (We won’t post any links here.) It is very clearly post-Call of Duty 4 design – that is to say, it was designed by people who A) Know that lots of people love Call of Duty, and B) Have no idea why anybody loves Call of Duty.
Alright, though, it’s okay that the gun-crafting and combat mechanics manage to feel like awful versions of Gears of War and Resident Evil at the same time: This is a Thinking Man’s Shooter: There are puzzles. Here are some of the crew’s favorites, from back to front:
In the last hours of the game you’ll have to open a series of alien doors by inputting alien codes into terminals. The terminals are located directly in front of the doors, and every code is scribbled in what I assume is alien chalk in the immediate vicinity of every door. In addition, interacting with any of these terminals plays audio of some alien gibberish which I assume is the password for the door; if you have subtitles turned on, the password will be displayed cleanly on the bottom of your screen. It literally says “type the thing in the top half of your screen onto the bottom half of your screen” and makes you scroll through alien characters to get to the right ones. This charming “puzzle” takes at least ten or fifteen seconds, and it happens at least four or five times in a row.
There’s a part earlier than that, when you’re wandering through Snow Zone, where Isaac and Bro have to get to the next part of the level and the game needs to put some kind of cutoff there so they won’t be able to backtrack. You’ve heard of this! And we all know the moves: Maybe their ladder breaks behind them, or an explosion blocks the path. Hell, maybe there’s just a cutscene with a relationship-building banter-snippet (“Nice shooting, Isaac.” “You too, Bro.”) and then there’s an invisible wall after. I mean, whatever! Instead:
There’s an Isaac-and-a-half-high wall in front of them with a little mechanical box thing attached to it. You might think, first of all, that they could just help each other up onto a ten-foot-high ledge. Nope! (To be fair their suits are apparently heavy enough that any organic material they step on immediately explodes.) One player has to use their magic Kinect beam to turn the knob in the box, and then – I Shit You Not – a tiny ladder slides out of the side of it and unfolds onto the cliff. The other player has to climb up the ladder while the first player keeps Kinecting to hold it in place, and then he pulls the first player up after him (there goes the heavy suit theory). And then – and then – the game puts an invisible wall at the edge of the ten-foot ledge anyway.
Kinecting is undoubtedly most impressive as the world’s most advanced wrench, though it also has various other vague magic psychic sci-fi powers, like acting as a gravity gun or a slow-motion beam. So:
In the first few hours of the game there’s this part with a giant spiked piston-thing pumping up and down between you and your goal. There are “puzzles” that make you use Kinect on things like this to slow them down, and – lo, behold – the first thing you see when you enter the room is a glowing magic psychic power recharging thing. Man, it looks like these game designers knew exactly what it was you could do! Keep in mind that these magic-psychic-juice-refillers appear in every room that requires to use your Kinect powers to solve a “puzzle”; also keep in mind that your magic psychic juice gradually recharges over time; also keep in mind that you can use it to put enemies into slow-motion constantly and you’ll still have an inventory full of extra magic-psychic-juice-potions bogging you down for the entire game; also keep in mind that you can totally make it past the piston if you just run under it anyway.
What kind of design is this? I mean, look: I understand that I ought to be exclusively playing games on my god damn phone if I don’t want to get furious. And I know that these games are built from bottom to top so that they can be completed by someone with one hand in a bag of Doritos and another holding a Mountain Dew – and also so that they will elicit exclamations of “this is heckin’ awesome” as frequently as possible from anyone with one hand in a bag of Doritos and another holding a Mountain Dew. But hey: We’re not all eating Doritos and drinking Mountain Dew – and those of us that are are not even necessarily jerks! It’s not impossible to do this kind of thing gracefully. Try actually playing Gears of War instead of just reading the Metacritic blurbs, for Christ’s sake.
The games that came out of the conversations I was having while playing Dead Space 3 are the best things that came out of my playing Dead Space 3. For example: A game about flying around in space, picking through junk to find the parts to repair your ship while your oxygen timer constantly ticks down: I would play that game. A game about flying a spaceship while your bro is on an anti-asteroid turret until there’s an explosion out back and you have to hand off the wheel to someone else so you can run back and try to fix the damage: I would play that game. A game that has both those ideas tucked inside of it but treats them with less respect than it does the textures in its elevators: Well, I did play that game, though I certainly won’t play it again.