Last week I talked about why Dead Space 2 does not work as a survival horror game. This week I would like to point out the few things that I liked and that I thought worked well. And no, the story isn’t something I will be talking about today.
Ok, let me get this out of the way before I begin: the story is serviceable. The mystery of the Marker is kinda cool, the Lovercraftian themes are neat and the dead girlfriend thing gives the protagonist some depth. The plot does good enough job to get you from point A to point B and provide motivation for what you are doing. But other than that, it is rather unremarkable. I enjoyed it, but it just didn’t do anything to wow me.
See, I like when the game throws you a curve ball sometimes and blindsides you with a difficult choice or a moral quandary. Video games are an interactive medium, and that’s something they should be doing. Dead Space 2 however went for a linear story that unfolds in front of you like a movie and where your role is to shoot things along the way, and make sure the protagonist survives between the cut scenes. Granted, this is not a wrong approach (it is quite common actually) but unless you have a hell of a story to tell, it results in an enjoyable but entirely forgettable experience. This is exactly what happened here.
As much fun as it is to complain about bad games, I have to give Dead Space credit where it’s due. It is actually a decent game. I enjoyed it much more than Max Payne 3 for example. In this post, I will try to unravel why that is.
I really like the fact that Isaac is not the standard ex-military type character. The fact that Dead Space protagonist is an engineer shows that the designers really did want to make a survival horror game. They dropped the ball elsewhere, but they made the right choice with the protagonist. I think I bemoaned the tendency to use characters with military background in this type of a game before, so I will try not to repeat myself. To put it plainly, when I’m playing a soldier armed to the teeth with super-weapons there is very little reason for me to be scared of the monsters. Still, this point is moot since I already established that Dead Space isn’t even a little bit scary.
Still, the choice of a non-military protagonist is nice. There are actually not that many video game characters with geeky backgrounds. It is actually kinda strange that despite gaming being such a nerd-dominated niche hobby, most of the protagonists are big dumb jocks with either military of law enforcement backgrounds. Gordon Freeman is sort of the exception from the rule – and by that virtue he became sort of the patron saint of the PC gaming nerds. So it is nice to see the Dead Space series bucking the trend and making their protagonist a tech-support guy.
Before I give Visceral Games a gold star for character design, I should probably mention that Isaac is a thirty-something, brown haired, white dude. Not that there is anything wrong with being a thirty-something, brown haired, white dude. After all, I happen to be one myself. Still, it seems that just about every video game protagonist falls into this particular demographic. So whatever originality points they gained by making him an engineer are lost due to his bland and boring appearance.
Game developers, would it kill you to branch out a little bit? I’m about as white as you can be, but I don’t think my immersion would be ruined if my in-game avatar was of a different ethnicity (or sex) than me. For that matter, is it necessary for every character to be good looking and fit? There is really no reason why Isaac could not have been an overweight, middle aged brown dude for example. I mean he is not particularly athletic or agile and does not need to be. The game purposefully makes the walking/running speed slow to force you into making tactical decisions. So Isaac could easily be made to be any age or body type without breaking immersion or making the game play unrealistic.
But I guess I can’t blame them for playing it safe with an already established franchise. So I’ll just be glad to be playing an engineer who uses an array of various functional tools to kill monsters with.
I think the most fun part of this game are the guns. There are a lot of them, and they all work in different interesting ways. In my previous post I mentioned that Necromorphs are essentially glorified Zombies. One thing about killing Zombies is that while it is fun it gets boring after a while if you don’t switch it up a bit. Most games exacerbate the problem by only giving you a few ways to dispatch them: a pistol, a shotgun and a few different but samey riffles. But if you give the players a wide variety of fun weapons, they will screw around forever – which is I believe the core problem with Dead Rising games where the designers wanted to have linear progression, not anticipating the amount of fun players will have just running around and causing havoc with a tennis rocket mounted chainsaw.
Dead Space does not even have traditional guns. It has tools. There are a lot of them, and they all work differently and lend themselves to different play styles. If you are a traditionalist, you can mow the baddies down with the Pulse Rifle which is kinda boring. However if you are like me and you like to mess around you can use rivets, javelins that electrocute their targets, the wide beam line gun the precision dismemberment device that is the plasma cutter.
That last gun was probably my favorite, and not just because it is fun to use. It is also the first gun you obtain in the game, and I thought that the sequence leading up to it was great. Observe:
What’s so great about it? Well, you are an engineer. You stumble upon a surgery apparatus and you convert it to a deadly weapon which you mount on top of your flashlight. This is amazing! This is the type of character I want to play. I was actually hoping all of the weapons in the game will be obtained in this sort of way – that Isaac will build each of them in turn from something he finds in the environment.
Imagine my disappointment when I found a booth in the game labeled “store” which had pretty much all the guns available for purchase from the get-go. I couldn’t hate the store idea for long though, because it provided me an easy way to experiment with all the different available weapons, and ensured that I always had enough ammo for my favorite guns.
Not to mention that the Store/Workbench areas provided the much-needed safe zones in the game.
In my recent Max Payne 3 review I have complained about the combat fatigue. That game was all action all the time. Dead Space 2 while very action packed has a really good balance between combat and non-combat game-play. There are nice stretches in the game when you are just walking around and exploring – they have been envisioned as mood pieces that are supposed to build tension. And it would probably work if I didn’t find Necromorphs hilariously adorable.
Every once in a while the game trows mini-puzzles at you in which you have to “fix” various things by moving around power packs, or circuit boards between the machines, or navigate zero gravity environments and move shit out of the way by mounting rocket thrusters on it. Someone could complain that these bits were just a simple
gravity gun physics gimmick. But you know what? Fuck that someone. I really enjoyed those bits. They provided a nice distraction from all the monster killing, and actually made me feel like I was playing an engineer. They fit perfectly well with the overall tone of the game, and the established character traits of the protagonist. Hell, even the “hacking” mini-game was kinda neat:
I’m usually hard to please when it comes to hacking mini-games, but this one was surprisingly in-obnoxious. It does a good job conveying the idea that Isaac is actually “rewiring” the machine, using visible/audible cues to guide him. Not particularly realistic, but good enough for me. I have certainly seen worse.
Video games are about game-play first and foremost. Dead Space 2 is a prime example of a game which completely fails at it’s primary goal (to be a frightening survival horror game) and yet still manages to be quite enjoyable. Why? Because Visceral Games understands how to make good third person shooters. The developers are keenly aware of the combat fatigue effect, and designed their levels to counteract it. The combat was always frantic, exciting and fun because it was rationed properly, and interleaved with bits of exploration and puzzle solving. The mini-games and puzzles while simple to the point of being silly did a good job providing fun distraction, and go a long way to establish the protagonist as an able problem solver and a keen minded engineer rather than a standard ex-military thug you know from every other shooter.
I guess that’s my lesson for today: if you are designing a game, make sure it is fun to play. Even if you fail at everything else, you may still end up creating something people will enjoy.