Opinion: Gears Of Dead Space – Another Great Franchise Ruined?
Oh. Dear. It’s fair to say that there’s a great deal of disappointment in the air as gamers begin to pick over the first explicit details of Visceral Games’ Dead Space 3. Indeed, that trailer and that E3 gameplay demo appear to confirm some of the worst fears that fans have held for the future direction of the series. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, behold the videos in question:
Yep, that’s right. Cover-based combat, human enemies with guns, and frenetic co-op gunplay – with scarcely a dimly-lit corridor or tense scene of exploration in sight. No wonder so many enthusiasts of the series have reacted with concern and even anger having taking all of this in. After all, it looks on this evidence as though the much-loved action-horror series is selling-out its moody ambience in favour of even more commercially-palatable adrenaline and third-person shooting, with the end results smacking of Gears Of War meets Lost Planet, with very little actual survival-horror in prospect.
Now, for the sake of balance, there are obviously some mitigating factors here. For starters, trailers and previews for a huge new AAA game – particularly one which is being bankrolled by EA and seeking a mass-market audience – will tend to emphasise epic set-pieces and ass-kicking combat in order to drum-up excitement and show-off a sense of scale and spectacle. It is also worth considering that the game’s co-op feature would naturally be one of the first things to be showcased prominently, as it is a new addition to Visceral’s nifty box of tricks. Further to that point, players can of course also elect to play through the entire experience solo – without an unwanted Resident Evil 5-style AI companion – if they so wish.
Even so, despite taking such disclaimers on board, I have to say that I ultimately share these fan concerns myself. While Dead Space has never been about pure horror, and has always married moments of vulnerability, tension and unease with outbreaks of nihilistic, gory slaughter, it is also fair to say that both the first and the second game were near-perfect examples of how to blend intense, exhilirating action with a creepy, panic-inducing sense of terror. Yet there’s every indication that the horror half of the equation will be substantially toned-down for the third installment, and the combat half substantially upped.
You don’t introduce cover-based combat, third-person gunfights and a wise-cracking co-op sideckick unless you’re going after the big-money shooter audience, and it strikes me that this is exactly what EA are doing here. I’ve recently bemoaned the slide of the Resident Evil series into an even more action-oriented experience, and the way in which every single major horror franchise appears to have done the same has begun to painfully grate. It happened with the latter stages of the second Condemned, it happened with FEAR, and it would appear to be happening again now.
The real strength of Dead Space as a series, and precisely the reason why it has been so successful thus far, is that it has offered something genuinely new and fresh to distinguish itself from other mainstream titles. The very premise of a horror game set in space was enough to reel many in, but those players then stayed for everything from the Zero G sequences to the Thing-like aesthetic of the fiendishly-designed necromorphs – not to mention the ingeniously nasty ‘strategic dismemberment’ technique of tackling said monsters, where picking off limbs rather than aiming for the head proved the order of the day. Perhaps most notably however, it was in offering up a genuinely disturbing and anxious atmosphere throughout the experience that Dead Space 1 and 2 truly stood out from the crowd, putting a new spin on the classic survival-horror template that – although unmistakably action-focused – still offered up plenty of hair-raising shocks and surprises.
By introducing familiar gameplay aspects that directly ape or imitate well-known shooter franchises, rather than attempting to build upon or even add to the more original ideas that the first two games pioneered, Dead Space 3 seems to be embracing the mundane and the ordinary rather than reaching for the heavens as before.
You know what would truly make the third game better than the second? More slow-burning, dread-inducing moments of tense exploration in deserted, pitch-black environments, like the return to the USG Ishimiura. Instead, the developers seem to have leaned incredibly far the other way. Hell, I would have been fine with co-op if it had been based around classic ‘split-up and search’ tactics like in Resident Evil Zero, for example, but here Visceral seem to have simply given Isaac ‘Marcus Fenix’ Clarke his very own Dom to tear monsters to shreads with.
The reality is that is far too early to say for sure whether Dead Space 3 has completely jettisoned horror in favour of non-stop set-pieces and gunplay. And even if it has, it may still be a phenomenal action blockbuster in its own right.
But as far as I’m concerned, cover-based shooting, gunfights with human enemies and co-op combat that has you lighting up everything in sight is really not what Dead Space is about. And if these elements come to dominate, then it might well be a case of yet another great franchise selling out its very soul.
Mark Butler is the author of Interactive Nightmares: A History of Video Game Horror, which is available to download for Kindle, PC, iPad, iPhone and Android.
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