Thursday, January 7, 2016
Since we’re still in that wonderfully empty-ish zone of downtime after the end of fourth-quarter madness but before the start of the 2016 releases, I'm still happily plinking away at my backlog.
If you follow me on Twitter, then you probably already know that my most recent selection was Dead Space 3 from Visceral Games. Although I’ve played and completed all the other Dead Space titles, I can't say that I really enjoyed them… It's kind of funny because I think they all have a lot of potential that they don't live up to, but I keep coming back to them… Because?
Anyway, I had heard nothing but bad things about Dead Space 3, but I knew that it had a heavy multiplayer focus, and I'm always looking for games to play in co-op with the wife. Making the prospect even more attractive, I got two copies for about three dollars each, and that's a pretty hard price to beat – if it turned out awful, we weren’t out much cash.
At this point I'm about 10 hours in, and getting pretty close to the homestretch, which is just fine. The gameplay is pretty much what I expected… Typical Dead Space shooting, with a hell of a lot of monster closets and surprise attacks. You could basically call this "Watch Out Behind You, Because It’s Always Behind You: The Game” and it would be accurate.
In fact, the gameplay is so dull that I can easily see why a lot of solo players abandoned ship on it and never came back. If I was playing by myself, it would be far too one-note to trudge through, but it really takes on new life with a second player, and not just because you have a buddy to chew the fat with -- the devs have made some really smart decisions that make it shine in cooperative. (And to be clear, this is co-op between two separate 360s. The game offers no splitscreen or couch co-op.)
Sidenote: For whatever reason, the “story-oriented, intentionally co-op” genre has never really taken off on console. Things like Army of Two, Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, and others like them are quite a bit of fun in their intended co-op modes and significantly less so alone. I wonder what it would take for this style of game to flourish on consoles, but that's a question for another day.
|The free-flying space sections are pretty great.|
So anyway, what does Dead Space 3 do right?
One: The graphics are pretty awesome. Although I’ve been spending a lot of time on PS4 admiring all of the bells and whistles, I was really impressed by how sharp DS3 looks on 360. Of course, it's not really all that old, but even so, it shows just how much life was still left in the old machine. It looks fantastic.
Two: The gun modding. Basically, each gun has eight or ten component parts that can all be interchanged. There's no penalty for experimenting, and a player can do it as often as they wish, which was a really smart move to encourage use of the system. Players will come across different parts as they go through the game, and how they’re assembled can modify how they work.
For example, the player starts off with a basic assault rifle, but adding a different tip turns it into a fully automatic gun, while another one will turn it into a shotgun. It's a little confusing at first, but it doesn't take long to get the hang of it. Once a few more components are collected, it becomes incredibly fun to experiment with different configurations. A fully auto rifle with a flamethrower underslung? Sure. A sawblade shooter with an electric rivet repeater attached? Go for it. Plasma blades with grenades and a blast shield? You bet!
This modding is a strong component of the game, and it’s made better with special co-op focused attachments which share life-ups, ammo, or other effects between players.
Three: So about that co-op. Obviously, the game can be played through in solo mode, and it sports the usual story-oriented campaign with cutscenes and NPC characters. However, the brilliant thing here is that in addition to series star Isaac Clarke, the devs have included a second character called Carver.
|Badasses. I love Visceral's armor design.|
I'm not sure how often he pops up in the solo campaign, but in the co-op, Carver is always tagging along. In each of the cutscenes, Clarke takes center stage in order to carry the campaign along BUT Carver is always prominently featured behind him, or to the side, or in some other way so it looks like he's present even though he's not actually participating in the story.
Furthermore, the game shows cutscenes from different perspectives. While I expected one section to look identical for both my wife and myself, I was surprised to find out that each of our screens was showing something different. At one point my wife (playing Clarke) was inside the cab of the vehicle that was sliding down a cliff. My character (Carver) was outside the vehicle trying to get her out. She couldn't see me on her screen, but I could see her on mine. That’s just one example, but there are many.
In other instances, there are weird psychological effects that crop up. At one point, a level we were in was covered in party streamers, presents and birthday cake. I thought it was the weirdest thing ever, but my wife couldn't see any of it, nor could she hear the voices that were playing on my TV. This attempt at approximating Carver having a moment of insanity was really cool, and created a few moments of confusion between the two of us in real life as we were trying to figure out what the hell was going on and why we weren’t seeing the same things.
There aren’t nearly enough of these moments and I think that's a shame considering how strong they are, but even the little bits that we get are pretty brilliant. I can't say that I've seen anything else quite like them in other games.
So where does Dead Space 3 go wrong?
|You again? And again? And again?|
Well, I think the biggest thing is what I already mentioned -- the action is flatly one-note. Most of the game is walking through hallways of various lengths and taking out monsters which pop out at you from all directions. In ten hours, I think we’ve come across… one boss? Maybe two? It's not especially compelling, and the game is certainly long enough for boredom with this content to set in.
|Seriously, ignore this MF'ing thing.|
Otherwise, the story just isn't good. Although I’ve played through all of the Dead Space games, I have a hard time keeping the plot straight in my head… I know there's something about an alien “marker” that turns people into monsters, but then it was really man-made, but then it was actually alien. And, for whatever reason, people keep joining the cult that popped up around the worship of this marker because… I don't know why. I mean, who wants to turn themselves into a corpselike grabby-monster? Dead Space 3 furthers all this somehow, although I couldn’t explain what the point of it is, honestly. Clarke goes after another marker and it’s all hazy after that.
|Husband and wife, blasting happily in tandem.|
So, while the downsides are significant and I don’t recommend this game to lone wolves, the interesting, fresh take on co-op and the gun modding in Dead Space 3 are actually both quite good and very creative. I could easily see some of these same mechanics making a big splash in different games that might use them to better effect. In the meantime, if you have $6 for two copies and a buddy willing to commit 15 hours, I’d say Clarke’s final journey is a worthwhile investment.