Sunday, June 17, 2012

E3 Impressions, Pt. 2: Assorted Announcements & Dead Space 3 Lamentations

Continuing from my last entry running down some of the biggest and most interesting announcements from this year's E3, there's plenty more to talk about so let me just jump right into it.

SimCity is still a thing, if city building games are your bag. I haven't played a SimCity game since middle school but I'm kind of happy to know they still exist. Oregon Trail wasn't as lucky. In typical EA fashion, you need to be constantly connected to the internet even for the single player, so buyer beware. New Skyrim DLC was always going to happen but I was much more surprised to hear about an expansion for Dark Souls. Which will unmercifully kill me over and over again until I cry a little and give up. Again. The game already beat me into submission once but I'll gladly give it another go to check out the new areas and enemies. That game is no joke. I still have a copy of Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow that I never played much of but, oddly, I never traded it in either. So I guess that means I'm down to give the sequel a try. I like the fact that they're trying to rebuild the franchise into a single, coherent universe rather than the plethora of seemingly unrelated games that it has been for well over a decade now.

One of the big announcements, which certainly brought a smile to my face, was Gears Of War: Judgment which will be co-developed with Epic by People Can Fly, who gave us the very fun and very underrated Bulletstorm. I watched the E3 footage and read the cover story in the July issue of Game Informer and I have a lot of reason for hope.

For one, they've visibly toned down the beefy, superhuman character models so that the they look like actual people. For another, the game is focusing on my two favorite characters in the series, Baird and Cole. Granted, they were my favorite characters because they seemed to be the only ones in the game who had any sort of personality, even if that personality was just "sarcastic asshole" and "over-enthusiastic goofball cartoon character" respectively. (Watch the Terry Tate videos on YouTube if you want to see Cole's voice actor tackling people and screaming "woooo!" in real life. It's really hard not to like the guy based on that alone.)

If Naughty Dog and the Uncharted series are my baseline for good storytelling, Epic and Gears Of War are my whipping boy for doing it poorly. A lot of people would consider the Gears Of War series critic-proof in that it's a big, stupid action game. Who the fuck cares if it's dumb? Fair point. Most people seem to be fine with it, but looking at big, dumb action movies, there's a difference between something like The Rock and Transformers. The former is a fast, funny, action-packed rollercoaster with likable characters. The latter is a giant fucking mess of loud noises and shit blowing up.

I mentioned this in my [Prototype 2] review but there's an acceptable level of stupidity you can have in an action game. The more serious you take the game you're making, the less stupidity you can get away with. Lollipop Chainsaw or Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad can be as gleefully dumb as it wants to be because we all understand what we're buying. Conversely, if you're a Triple A marquee title like Gears Of War, you should probably make at least a token attempt at decent dialogue, likable characters and storytelling.

When I say that GOW3 telegraphed the Big Character Death halfway through, I mean that literally. I got a postcard in the mail months in advance warning me what was going to happen. They deserve credit for knowing enough to give you a long period of silence afterwards to digest the event but it would have worked better if they had given me a reason to care more. Let's not even get into the last second flirting with a twist on the Locust that was ultimately abandoned. Oh, and if you were able to listen to any of Tai's dialogue in the "RAAM's Shadow" DLC without either wincing audibly or laughing your ass off at it... I dunno, man. Congratulations? He's supposed to be a "tough, spiritual warrior" but ended up sounding like an steroid-enhanced autistic guy repeating shit he read in his parents' philosophy books.

As much as I shit on them, I still really like the Gears Of War games for the big set pieces, the unimpeachable gameplay, the bang for your buck that they give with different game modes and the amount of replayability they offer. If you add People Can Fly to that mix, I think we may get the best Gears game yet. Especially if they bring ex-F.E.A.R. Agent and current X-Force writer Rick Remender back to script it. Bulletstorm was definitely on the right side of stupid. It was just crass and funny and unsentimental enough to work. I doubt they'd outsource that to someone outside of Epic but I can hope.

This plays into my biggest disappointment with this year's E3: Dead Space 3. Man, where to start? I watched all the footage from E3 and read the coverage that was also in July's Game Informer and I got progressively more bummed as I went on.

I know I will be a minority here. I should probably state that in advance. I expect the game will be very well reviewed. If it gets less than an 80% on Metacritic, I will be shocked. It's clearly a good looking game made by an experienced team. It's just not a Dead Space game anymore. Let me explain.

Dead Space was always on the more action-y end of the survival horror spectrum. That's something that comes with the times. It's widely acknowledged that the survival horror genre is now a niche market. The more people you have playing games, the more people you have with no attention span and even less brains who simply won't tolerate a game where something isn't blowing up every five minutes. I've reconciled the fact that my love for survival horror will have to be confined to small, indie PC titles. (Please Silent Hill, just stop.) For the brand to survive, embracing the mainstream action aspects of gaming was inevitable. That said, you have a choice in how you embrace it and that seems to be where things are going off the rails.

There were always definite elements of old school survival horror in the Dead Space DNA: the corridor crawls, the claustrophobic atmosphere, inventory management and relative scarcity of ammo and health (on higher difficulty levels). Watch the E3 footage. Watch the 20 minute gameplay video they released. Do you see any of that left?

It's now a co-op focused game. Which means the fear factor will take a huge nosedive. It's impossible to get immersed in something when you have a friend talking in your ear. What's more, and I think this is an important fact that hasn't been talked about much yet, level design. Designing a level for a single-player game and a co-op game are entirely different. You can't do a corridor crawl with two players because you'll constantly be getting in each others way. That means big, open spaces where both characters can run around independently. That also means another drop in scares because there's no way to have an enemy take you by surprise if you have a full 360 degree view of your surroundings and room to move and anticipate them. Watching the footage, they seem to be utilizing the "dead bodies hidden by snow" trick but there's only so many times they can pull that before everyone catches on.

There will also be many more human antagonists which brings up the question how the two can co-exist in the same place. Necromorphs do not give a single shit about the Unitologists even if the Uni's believe that the necromorphs are religiously significant. Logically, either the Uni's would kill themselves so that they necromorphs could transform them, like so many did in the first two Dead Space games, or just get the fuck out. That's the problem with being a member of a militant death cult: if you don't kill yourself, you kinda seem like a pussy. Also, it will be yet another drop in scares because, as a player, there's nothing less scary than another asshole with a gun shooting at you. I'm sure this will be explained in game, I'm just not sure I trust them to give it any kind of logic.

They're also gimping inventory management by making a single universal form of ammo for all weapons. So there will be no more sweating about which weapons to bring along, you just grab whatever you can carry and shoot until your heart's content. No more will you realize that you only have a plasma cutter and a pulse rifle when what you really needed was that line gun you left in storage.

The obvious choice to me would have been to completely segregate the single-player and co-op experiences, a la Portal 2. Let them share locations but give them both entirely unique areas as well. Tell two different stories with two sets of characters that intertwine so that you get the whole story. Make the single player more of a classic survival horror/action game and make the co-op more action packed. They seem to be trying to think around that problem by making the co-op drop in/drop out but that really doesn't help. It's still a co-op designed game, you're just playing it solo.

Which leaves the most annoying aspect (to me, at least) of this new co-op focused action game approach they're taking: all the blatantly obvious storytelling and character choices. The character of Issac Clarke was a total cipher in the first game, which worked in context. The second game notably gave him a voice and the beginnings of a personality but he was still very much a cipher. It was a success mostly because they didn't screw it up. He was still a lowly engineer massively unprepared for all of the shit he was forced to do. They also introduced Ellie Langford, a pilot and new friend as confused and unprepared as Issac who was a good foil for our quiet, contemplative man of action. In Dead Space 3 we get Issac Clarke, Generic Action Hero.

If Ellie were your co-op partner, I think that would go a little ways towards making a game that skewed a little closer to the survival horror/action mix they had already established. Neither of them are trained soldiers which allows for a sense of danger in combat situations and allows for controls that are a little heavier and less responsive to illustrate that. That's always been another aspect of survival horror: slower controls make you more susceptible to attacks and force to to try and think ahead. Plus, from a visual sense, having a woman in one of those exo-suits Issac wears could be a really cool visual. As it stands, your co-op partner is a soldier, so they'll have to adjust the controls to make things more responsive to the action. They've definitely already added things like dodge rolls (In a heavy exo-suit? Seriously?) and cover-based shooting so you can probably expect other standard action game controls as well. (If you're still keeping track, that's another notch in the "not scary" column.) And, really, Ellie couldn't be your co-op partner because Ellie is a woman and women are icky. Besides, as we already established in my last entry about the Tomb Raider remake, all men are really dumb and can't project themselves onto a female character. We certainly would not want to ruin some guys' post-game high five by making one of them play a girl. We also don't want to acknowledge female gamers at all because... well, we just don't.

Let's talk about our new soldier friend, by the way, because he really pisses me off. He's indicative of everything I hate about this new direction. His name is Carver. Because we're dumb and all military types need really obvious on-the-nose names to show you what a bad ass they are. (Why not just call him "Killerberg" or "Murderstein?" At least then he'd be Jewish which would be some kind of atypical trait.) He's also gruff and scarred and doesn't much care for Issac because, as I said, we're all dumb and every male co-op game relationship needs to be a carbon copy of every buddy cop movie you've ever seen. "Oh, the Captain just made them partners... but, oooh, they have a personality conflict and don't get along... but, hey, they bond over mutual enemies... then, awwww, they come to an understanding and develop a mutual respect." There's roughly following basic literary tropes and then there's using them as a crutch and a time-saver. Carver is the latter. There's also nothing scarier than traveling around with a stone cold, tough talking killer with a gun. One more for the "not scary" column.

Everything about Dead Space 3 feels like Visceral Games is taking the easiest possible approach. They could take any aspect of the complaints I've mentioned thus far and twist them somehow to make the fresh. Instead, they seem to be dragging along every sorry cliche they can find in search of mainstream success on par with that other third person co-op action series (and license to print money) Gears Of War. Hell, the swallowed-by-a-giant-monster-and-you-have-to-fight-your-way-out scene from the E3 demo was something that featured prominently in Gears 2.

Dead Space 3 is not an evolution, it's a regression into an entirely different genre. Either they're going to have to market Dead Space 3 as an action game with some horror movie window dressing or risk the backlash when long time fans like me realize that the game just isn't what it was. If they try to market it as a horror game, they're shooting themselves repeatedly in the foot. They're trying to have it both ways and that almost always ends up in a muddy, unfocused project that fails at both. It won't matter to me either way because I've just cashed out on the series. Aliens: Colonial Marines is coming out within a couple weeks of Dead Space 3 and that looks much more interesting. It'll be an co-op action/horror shooter just like Dead Space 3 but at least they won't have completely compromised themselves making it.

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