Dead Space the first was a great survival-horror game. It was a big success for EA. At the time, John Riccitiello was moving EA in an exciting new direction. He wanted them to broaden their appeal to gamers and create new franchises. To do this, they created games like Army of Two, Mirrors Edge and Dead Space
While it didn’t pay immediate dividends for EA, it did win them a lot of cred from hardcore gamers, and even made them look like the good guys – at least when compared to the attitudes being shown at the time by Bobby Kotick at Activision. Dead Space was a gamble for EA, and more than any other it paid off. They created a game that filled a big gap in the market. The Resident Evil series was no longer about survival horror. Dead Space was the only place for gamers to go if they wanted resource scarcity and low ammunition as they struggled to survive in a claustrophobic nightmare. It was wonderful.
When Dead Space 2 came along it amped up the action… and many thought this was a mistake. It was still a great game with a focus on atmosphere and psychological terror, but it was less claustrophobic and Isaac felt more capable and less vulnerable. You were more of an action hero. Still, sections like the nursery showed that the Dead Space series hadn’t forgotten its roots, and even if the moment-to-moment gameplay was more action based, it still had enough scares to retain the survival-horror fans.
Then Dead Space 3 landed. A lukewarm reception has resulted in Dead Space 4 being canned and the series is now left in limbo. EA slowly morphed the series from survival horror into an action game, and they lost their audience while failing to attract the one they were chasing. In pursuing the most mainstream of audiences they lost their hardcore fans, and this is in spite of Resident Evil’s recent spectacular failure showing how flawed that approach can be.
So let’s look at the mistakes Viceral (and EA) made, and how they could have fixed them.
1. Too Many Enemies
This is a simple one. When you walk into a room in the first Dead Space, there might be a vent. A Necromorph might come out of the vent. It might not. That’s tension, albeit in its most reductive, primitive form.
In Dead Space 2, a Necromorph comes out of every vent. That’s less tense. Vents are a chore, confrontations with Necromorphs are the norm and the tense moments become the parts WITHOUT enemies. Still, there’s tension. Now you get nervous when enemies aren’t around, even if that’s rare.
In Dead Space 3, a posse of Necromorphs are playing poker together when you come in the room. When you kill them, ten Necromorphs come in the window, five come in the door, fifteen come out of each vent, and one just embarrassedly fazes into existence in the corner, before nervously clearing his throat and saying “I was here all along…. I was!”
Dead Space 3 is unremitting in its assault on the player. From start to finish, you fight Necromorphs all the time. Every moment, you are seconds away from another encounter with the cadaverous carnivores. As a result, the pacing of the game changes completely. Suddenly, you’re playing Borderlands. The moment-to-moment gameplay isn’t scrounging containers for ammo while nervously eying a locker whose door is slightly ajar. Instead, you’re managing waves of enemies and working with your team mate to cute a swathe through the crowd that fill up most of your screen real estate. If you glance into a darkened bathroom in a game and see a shadow in the corner, it’s frightening and engaging. When you can’t see the corner (or the bathroom, or the nearest wall) because the screen is full of enemies, tension is destroyed. Sure, mashing through enemies like you’re playing Dynasty Warriors can be fun, but it’s not the kind of fun Dead Space fans bought the game for.
How to fix it: This is simple. Reduce the enemies to a fifth their number. That’s it. Make them tougher, make them faster. Whatever you need to do to balance the game and make it tough and satisfying. But reduce the number of enemies.
At that part where they are bursting out of the planet’s surface, imagine how much more effective it would be if there was just one terrifying Necromorph hunting you. It could be like Tremors. You could convey its approach with rumbling on the pad. But imagine a game of cat and mouse against a genuinely formidable enemy whose stalking you from under your feet.
Instead, you face wave upon wave of fodder enemies, and when they jump up from the ground it’s as frightening as any level in Modern Warfare. Just another monster from the monster closet, put in your path to slow you down so you don’t run through the whole game, unopposed.
Every part of Dead Space 3 would be better with fewer enemies. Dead Space 3’s raison d’etre should be the tense moments before something jumps out at you. Its pacing should be gentle, then sudden. It should be defined by its moments of eerie stillness and silence, not by how incessantly loud it is. Think of Alien or Event Horizon. How many of the best moments in those movies involved shooting?
When you’ve already killed a hundred Necromorphs, why should the hundred-and-first be frightening? Quite simply, confrontations with Necromprophs should be sudden, decisive, brutal and infrequent. Just like in Dead Space 1.
2. Too Much Ammo
In the first Dead Space, I started the game on the highest difficulty. I often did this back then. Most games weren’t so tough for me then (they are now, maybe I got soft), and when Dead Space came out I assumed I could take it down in one playthrough and knock out all the achievements in one go. I could not. It was too tough for me.
The main problem I had was ammo. I didn’t have enough! Over and over I would find myself being impaled, chewed up, stomped or torn to pieces by enemies who derisively ignored my pitiful melee attacks. Why were these fleshy monstrosities raping me so frequently, often literally?
It’s because I wasn’t good enough at the game. I was wasting ammo. I was shooting inaccurately, failing to effectively uses Dead Space’s innovate limb-eviceration-based combat.
You see in the first Dead Space every ammo crate was a treasure trove. Finding some clips for any of your guns was thrilling. When you went into a battle with bullets for more than one weapon, you were thrilled. Correspondingly, when you used too much ammo in a fight you felt terrible – like a failure. You learned to stomp enemy heads to save your ammo. You mastered the games systems, because if you failed to do so then you would be facing enemies as big as tanks with nothing to stop them but your own viscera, which I guess you could use as some kind of garrotte.
In Dead Space 3 ammo is seldom a problem. That’s partly because of universal ammo (mentioned next), but also because ammo is simply widely available. In the first game, you got the feeling that Isaac was out of his depth. He was facing a terrifying threat, and he wasn’t even a soldier. Worse, he didn’t have real weapons. Instead, he was using tools that he found to try to fight off the nightmarish enemies he met. There was a sense that Isaac was in way over his head, and you liked him for that. He was being brave, facing a terrifying opponent with nothing but his resourcefulness. As a player, you were being brave! You were going to take on a monster the size of a truck, and you were going to do it with a fancy Philips screwdriver. Because, FUCK YOU NECROMORPHS!
In Dead Space 3 though, you can’t go five steps without finding more magical gun-juice for your custom cannon. Finding ammo is no longer a thrill; scrounging through the environment is no longer a necessity. You no longer need to weigh up your desire for ammo with your fear of dark corners. That risk-reward element is gone – replaced with more combat.
How to fix it: Put simply, there needs to be far less ammo in Dead Space 3. Just like in Dead Space 1.
3. Too much universal ammo
And by too much, we mean any. The addition of universal ammo is puzzling. While it does support Dead Space 3’s one genuinely brilliant new addition (the weapon crafting) it has a number of other detrimental effects on the gameplay as well. The addition of universal ammo means that you won’t be experimenting with different weapons in Dead Space 3. Instead, you’ll be using just one.
In the first Dead Space, I can remember having some favourite weapons, and some that I hated. While I liked the default plasma cutter, I hated the sub-machine gun as I found it too tough to hit individual limbs with it. Still, there would be moments when I would have to fall back on my most unpopular weapons to get me out of a scrape. As enemies closed in on all sides and I ran out of ammo for my most reliable side arms, I’d have to use the more esoteric or specialized weapons to triumph. And this was brilliant!
There’s a great post-mortem on Far Cry 2 where the games lead developer discusses the rationale behind its design. In that game your character suffers from malaria, resulting in infrequent seizures for your avatar, and your weapon can jam at any time. Both of these are unpleasant situation for the player, but by imposing them on the protagonist of the game, you make the human player adapt to changing situations. Maybe everything is going too well. An assault on a base is going to plan and everything is getting predictable and the player feels safe. Well just at that exact moment their gun jams. Now the player must adjust; they must find a new weapon, change their plan and react. It’s like in Return of the Jedi when Han steps on the twig. Because of that, we get an exciting chase scene and a great moment.
It’s the same in Dead Space. Necessity is the mother of invention, and many of my best moments in that game were when I was out of my comfort zone, using a weapon I didn’t feel comfortable with. In fact, this is probably exactly how Isaac would feel too. As a result, the player and the player’s avatar are as one. Both frightened, both worried about the outcome, both unsure of the effectiveness of the makeshift weapon they carry.
And in Dead Space 3 you never get that feeling. You’re ready for any situation, with a customized cannon of chaos that’s as familiar to you as your own hand. It’s an extension of your arm; a righteous weapon of death and vengeance that is the tool that gets you through any situation. It is your singular answer to any problem you face. At no point do you need to switch weapons to cater for your opponents. You can create a weapon so generalized that it will work anytime, anywhere. That can be fun in its own right, but it’s not Dead Space.
How to fix it: No universal ammo. Let players customise weapons, but force them to use different weapons for different situation, or out of necessity. Sometimes they will even have to use a bad weapon for their situation, like a slow firing rocket when faced with legions of tiny enemies. That’s fine. It makes them scared. It makes them vulnerable. Just like Isaac. Dead Space 3 should make you learn each weapon and respect its power and applicability in each situation. Just like in Dead Space 1.
4. Too much talking
How many tense scenes do you remember in horror movies that are full of talking? I am sure there are a few, but I’m also sure they are in the minority. Tension is best built through silence. The moments between the big bangs and crashes. The quiet before the storm of claws and fangs and gore.
Just watch this clip from Alien. I’ll be here when you get back.
It’s amazing right? It’s weird and moody. When you expect the alien to move fast, he goes slow. Time seems to drag on. But crucially, the sound design is what draws you in. The clip starts loud, but it actually gets quieter as the danger escalates. By the time that Ripley is on her way to try to help, there’s almost no music. The sound actually amps DOWN, making you feel uneasy. But it’s not just the music. Think about what people say in this scene. It’s mostly half-sentences, grunts and moans. Much of it is distorted or cuts off for Ripley. It’s like real life. It’s not obvious what’s happening. All that is clear is that something terrible is happening. Everything has gone WRONG. It’s like a nightmare. The only thing that Ripley says is “Parker”, and her voice is fragile. It trails off into the vast stillness of the ship, and it is bereft of hope.
Now imagine there was not just Ripley in this scene, but a soldier sidekick too. As they head towards the alien, the dialogue goes like this,
“We have a tango at sector 7B. Moving to engage”
“Target sited opening fire.”
“To our left!”
“Got it, frag out!”
“Good shot Ripley.”
“Watch the friendly fire.”
“Reminds me of shooting squirrels back at the ranch on Earth.”
“We got a shit ton…. No! Two shit tons of xenos en route. Time to bug out mofos!”
Ok, ok, I know Dead Space 3 isn’t that bad, but Isaac is one chatty fucker throughout the game. There’s no doubt that a silent protagonist draws you into a game more. In Dead Space, you WERE Isaac. In Dead Space 3, you GUIDE Isaac. When someone spoke to you in the first game, you listened like they were speaking to you only. In the thrid game, when someone says something you tune out, because they’re talking to Isaac, not you.
Now I know that many gamers don’t like silent protagonists. Your character being oblivious to the world around them and refusing to speak, even when directly addressed, can take you out of the game world completely, more so than having a speaking character. While you may say that a silent protagonist would make no sense when there are so many people around, I have a simple solution to that too: don’t have other people around. More on that in the next entry though. Right now we’re talking about chatty Isaac, and I suggest:
How to fix it: Shut up Isaac! Just seriously, stop talking. Shh. I have a big bag of shhush. Shussh! You should be a silent avatar so that we can feel like WE are having the adventure, not YOU. Just like in Dead Space 1.
5. Too many players
Now I could just come down strong here and say that Dead Space 3 should not have co-op That a survival horror game works best when you are trying to survive alone. That the hope of being reunited with another living sole is a powerful incentive to a player, and showing them glimpses of hope in the form of people they might be able to save or get back to can be a brilliant way to hook a player. But no. I will concede that co-op can be a selling point for a game, even a game like Dead Space.
And I’ll go further and say that Dead Space 3 does co-op well. The way that players have different views of the game world is clever, with one player hallucinating things that may or may not be there. That’s very clever.
But the co-op should be distinct and separate from a solid survival horror singleplayer campaign. Dead Space 3 commits two cardinal sins. First, it includes an AI controlled sidekick. No matter how clever these AI sidekicks may be, they reduce the loneliness, isolation and atmosphere of the game and reduce it to a buddy cop movie. Game writing rarely achieves naturalistic or convincing dialogue, and nothing destroys tension like a bad joke or poorly delivered line.
The second sin Dead Space 3 commits is that it blocks off areas if you don’t have a co-op partner, while other parts of the games design are compromised. Puzzles play better with two players, but are simplistic and dull alone. Meanwhile, whole areas cannot be explored without a buddy, and you are faced with literal closed doors. In this way, Dead Space 3 deprecates the singleplayer component of the game to be an optional extra; it’s an incomplete and compromised version of the game. Why? Well the optimist in me says because Viceral wanted to make a great co-op game, but the cynic says because EA want to sell online passes.
How to fix it: One man. Isaac. On his own, against an army of Necromorphs. With little hope and only a tiny chance of success. With only a sliver of light showing through the cracks. Isaac. Silently, stoically. Alone. Just like in Dead Space 1.
So that wraps up my list. Here’s hoping Dead Space comes back stronger or Viceral find another way to craft a brilliant survival horror game just like its first. I don’t blame them for the flaws in Dead Space 3; it seems clear to me that they have been a victim of EA’s greed. I believe EA tried to change the core formula of Dead Space, and when it failed because of those changes they left Viceral and the Dead Space fans out to dry.
Here’s a crazy idea though EA. What about making a great survival horror game in space? What about making it great, terrifying, horror based, dark and moody and difficult? Just like Dead Space 1.