Dead Space Extraction: Hmm.
Posted at 23:01 on 10th July 2009 - permalink

“Criticism written without personal feeling is not worth reading. It is the capacity for making good or bad art a personal matter that makes a man a critic. The artist who accounts for my disparagement by alleging personal animosity on my part is quite right: when people do less than their best, and do that less at once badly and self-complacently, I hate them, loathe them, detest them, long to tear them limb from limb and strew them in gobbets about the stage.”

George Bernard Shaw

I think we can assume that if he were alive today George Bernard Shaw would not be making a living previewing computer games. Previews are all about cautious optimism. Publications don’t want to dash their readers’ hopes of forthcoming games before they’ve had a chance to read the full review. Nor is it unheard of for a game to improve dramatically in the time between journalists seeing an unfinished preview version and the final article (sometimes as a result of feedback from previewers and beta testers). The main purpose of a preview is raising awareness and answering the most likely questions – strict editorial judgement (hopefully) comes later.

While this is all perfectly reasonable (even though it apparently came as an astounding revelation to some people who’ve presumably never read a games magazine in their lives), it doesn’t really look at the big picture. Developers are seldom asked why they’ve decided to make a particular game, and whether in artistic terms that’s the right direction to go in. Probably because these are quite pseudy questions.

Regardless, in the next two posts, I’m going to look at two forthcoming games (neither of which I’ve played yet) and try to explain why the mere concept of one of them fills me with irrational fury, while the other fills me with giddy hope for the future of the medium.

The first of these games is Dead Space Extraction, a Wii exclusive spin-off from last year’s PC/360/PS3 survival horror game Dead Space. The game’s ‘unique selling points’ are summarised in this promotional video.

I thought the original first Dead Space game was a competent technical exercise, which was given a ludicrously easy ride by most of the games media. There were several contributing factors to this. Firstly, the game was released at a time where there was no game on the Xbox 360 or PS3 equivalent to Resident Evil 4, tempting many outlets (particularly single-format ones) to hail the game as a viable alternative to said classic, rather than the pale imitation it actually was. Secondly, it was a case of Dancing Bear syndrome – expectations of the developers (who had previously mainly worked on film license adaptations) were so low that the fact that they delivered anything vaguely playable was treated as a minor miracle. Thirdly (and most importantly), EA had already decided that Dead Space was going to be a “pop culture brand”, which would be given the full Star Wars merchandising treatment, with the PR spend that that entailed. (So far there have been entirely perfunctory comics and an animated movie, and there will no doubt be action figures, novels, card games and lunch boxes, despite the fact that the “franchise” has not one single memorable or marketable character.)

While I stress that Dead Space wasn’t a complete disaster of Rise of the Robots proportions, it’s impossible that it will ever be remembered as a classic. The game is utterly generic, calculated, derivative, manufactured. It’s the Monkees* to Resi’s Beatles. It has no reason to exist beyond a higher-up at EA seeing Bioshock’s sales figures and instructing a minion to “make one of those”. It’s a game that I can’t imagine anyone waking up in the morning and being enthusiastic to work on (apart from the sound team, whose contribution is genuinely outstanding – and almost completely wasted on an endless stream of cheap scares and featureless environments). The main character is a non-entity, and the scant supporting cast lack believable motives or a single personality between them.

Simply put, it’s a pot-boiler. A game that could have been made better, or even given the slightest indication that it had been worked on by human beings, but one where the developers decided the minimum effort was “good enough”. (For a more detailed dissection of the game including hilarious gameplay examples, I recommend this review. Yes, it’s Tim Rogers, but his fruity elitist persona is really the only reasonable means of responding to a game which is mainly about endlessly stomping on corpses in dramatically lit metal rooms.)

So I didn’t like Dead Space very much. But why should I have such a downer on Dead Space Extraction? Surely I should be praising EA for putting their support behind an big-budget “mature” Wii exclusive? The main problem I have with it is that they’ve decided from the outset that because they’re working with a less powerful machine they’re justified in offering a lesser game. This is just inexcusable. It’s the complete opposite to the commendable stance Rockstar took with Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, where they tried their damnedest to squeeze the full home console game into a workable handheld format, and by and large succeeded.

Dead Space Extraction is (presumably) going to launch at full price, just as Dead Space did. It is presumably having a significant budget spent on it. It is being released on a platform that has seen at least two technically solid, artistically accomplished and commercially successful action adventure games (Resident Evil 4 and Metroid Prime 3 Corruption), which the developers must be aware of, seeing as how Dead Space cribbed heavily from both. In spite of all this, it’s going to be an on-rails shooter. It could turn out to be a great on-rails shooter (although House of the Dead Overkill has already set the bar very high for the genre on Wii), but it will still always carry the stigma of being a spin-off, created because the developers were too timid, lazy and risk-averse to make a fully-fledged action-adventure game for the Wii.

If, in spite of these handicaps (as well as the absurdly dialled-down visuals, terrible voice acting and the ‘glow worm’ mechanic which is surely destined to be more annoying than Doom 3’s torch) the game turns out to be spectacularly brilliant, I fully accept that I will be left with egg on my face. However, if it turns out to be a critical and/or commercial flop, you can guarantee that the developers will smugly claim that this proves that “mature” games don’t sell on the Wii, even though they’ve done almost everything in their power to sabotage the game’s chances from the outset. Then they’ll go on releasing Dead Space games (and DVDs, socks, bedspreads, etc. etc.) until even one person outside of the development team describes themselves as a “Dead Space fan”, or (more likely) a bad fiscal quarter prompts someone at EA to make a list of underperforming projects to cancel.

The Wii deserves to have action games that at least try to compete with the cream of what’s available on the platform already. With The Conduit reviewing poorly and Dead Space Extraction looking likely to not even bother, my hopes currently rest warily on Ubisoft’s forthcoming Red Steel 2. I am still convinced in the potential of the Wii’s control scheme, but the outlook for new games that actually realise that potential for the moment looks very bleak.

*Except The Monkees were amazing, of course.

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