In retrospect, it's amazing Electronic Arts actually funded three big-budget horror games.
When Electronic Arts announced it was closing down Visceral Games, it was understandable most lamented the death of the studio's Star Wars game. But for me, Visceral has always been associated with another series: Dead Space. While there's been no indication EA had any plans to revive the horror franchise, that we were blessed with three Dead Space games already felt like a reason to be thankful.
First, Dead Space remains my favorite. As with Mass Effect, I acknowledge Dead Space 2 is the better game, but it moved the series in an action-heavy direction that left me lamenting the quieter moments in the original. It's a bit like Alien and Aliens. They're both excellent, but when I'm asked to pick one or the other, Dead Space wins out.
(It's no surprise, then, my favorite moment from Dead Space 2 is re-boarding the Ishimura. The mixture of excitement and terror is a feeling I'll never forget.)
Years back, critic GB Burford wrote an excellent analysis of what makes Dead Space tick at Kotaku. And while he prefers Dead Space 2, he gets what made it special:
"The game's feel is important too: Dead Space makes you feel like a tank without giving you the horrible tank controls traditionally associated with horror games. Instead of feeling like you're stumbling around in a bad dream, you're very much in control, but you're no ninja—you've got a feeling of weight and mass. The level design complements this, restricting movement without feeling artificial and draconian.
Limb-severing is of vital importance as well, but not simply as a cool feature. Dead Space features enemies that charge to attack you. Unlike those types of enemies in traditional shooters, body shots aren't enough to kill them. Much like Alan Wake's flashlight-weak enemies or Halo's Hunters, Dead Space features combat that is about managing threats rather than pointing at enemies with a gun and clicking until they die. You cut off a monster's legs or use stasis to slow it down. The force gun pushes them back. It's all about enemy management rather than wholesale enemy destruction. So you chop off limbs, sure, but chopping off limbs in Dead Space serves a purpose specific to the series."
Dead Space 3 was such a weird game, though. The winter setting was inspired, as Visceral tried to avoid the biggest problem with the horror sequels: the same-y feeling. While the combat remained best in class—it never got old to toss a lil' batch of stasis at a Lovecraftian monster, then slowly dismantle its arms and legs—it was increasingly hard for Dead Space to surprise. It was probably time for Dead Space to end, but you know, the out-of-place microtransactions didn't help.
Part of the problem was treating Dead Space like a AAA video game. I mean, obviously, it was a AAA video game. It was novel to see horror with the same resources and fidelity of mainstream action games. But what came with those budgets were sales expectations that Dead Space was never capable of supporting. It's one reasons why Dead Space 3 was so funky; according to postmortem interviews, EA wanted the game to broaden its scope and appeal so it could sell to a larger audience.
This is what Dead Space 3 was supposed to be about, apparently:
"Had this not been the case, we would have likely ended up with a game that delved deeper into Isaac Clarke's psychosis, featuring a co-op campaign that allowed players to experience this firsthand. Oh, and as you've always guessed, the microtransactions didn't come from the design team. There's a shocker."
I'd have loved to seen that version of Dead Space 3.
Isaac Clarke's loose connection to reality, defined by a strong relationship to his believed-to-be-dead girlfriend, helped make made Dead Space special. Horror can get away with scaring you by conjuring an unsettling monster, but the memorable ones choose to go deeper. (The Babadook is my favorite example in recent cinema. A great monster made better by each character's relationship to it. They aren't just fodder.)
And while I can sit and what-if about Dead Space 3 all day, one thing I'll always respect is how it had the gall to be completely ludicrous. Have you forgotten one of the last reveals, in which you discover the Necromorphs are actually fucking moons?
There's also, well, this:
Bless you, Dead Space. You will be sorely missed.
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