Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
In this ongoing series, we in the CC2K Gaming Section forgo the present and future to look back to the past. Here we’ll offer second opinions and new perspectives on older games, discuss issues from our collective gaming history, and indulge in more than a bit of nostalgia. In this installment, Big Ross looks back on two survival/horror hits, Dead Space and Left 4 Dead.
Zombies. Sure, the living dead existed in myth and story for centuries, but it was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968 (and all that followed) that cemented the place of zombies in the world of popular culture. Yet when it seemed the genre had long since grown stale, Danny Boyle unleashed 28 Days Later in 2002, and the zombie became relevant again.
I mention these films in particular because they remind me of the two games that are the topic of this Load Last Save installment, Dead Space and Left 4 Dead. Released within a month of each other in 2008, both were critically acclaimed and huge commercial successes for their developers, Visceral Games and Valve, respectively.
I must confess that I’ve played these games only very recently. I downloaded and played the demos for each, but in both cases I avoided these games, despite all the praise, for three reasons:
– They are survival/horror games, emphasis on the horror. I like my video games how I like my movies (and how I like my women, for that matter): not scary.
– Left 4 Dead was designed for cooperative online play. For reasons I won’t go into here, I tend to avoid online gaming and prefer solid, solo gaming experiences.
– The demo for Dead Space left me doubting. I found myself in a dark corridor with no clear explanation of what I supposed to be doing or why, with no clear instructions on gameplay controls, and I’m not sure – OH SHIT! WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT THING?! FUCK! IT’S EATING MY FACE!! HOW DO I KILL IT??! WHY WON’T THIS GUN WORK? – screen goes dark, I’m dead. Game over, thanks for playing.
So I went on my merry gaming way, spending my time pursuing other safer, more satisfying (or so I convinced myself) gaming experiences. And then, very recently I found myself in a Gamestop, trying to take advantage of a “buy 2 used games get 1 free” special. I already had Alan Wake in hand, and there was Dead Space sitting on the shelf. Mocking me. Judging me. Tempting me. “What the hell?” I thought. “Why not give it a shot?” And then there was Left 4 Dead, and a couple friends and I were looking for a game we could all play online together, ah hell, time to nut up or shut up.
Crom, what took me so long to play these games?
If Dead Space is to Romero’s classic, then Left 4 Dead is to Boyle's rage-fueled reinvigoration. And I’ll address the latter first.
Left 4 Dead is a near perfect marriage of design and mechanic. Valve drops you and up to three friends in the middle of a world overrun with fast, swarming hordes of zombies. I can not stress how many zombies. Your goal is simple, get out alive. Almost nowhere is safe, you have a limited number of weapons, medkits are scarce, but (as long as you can find it) unlimited ammunition. It’s the perfect setup for a first-person shooter, and Valve’s execution is sublime.
Left 4 Dead is not a game that is scary, nor even really creepy. Instead, words like "thrilling" and "intense" come to mind. The action is fast and the pace furious, the well-designed FPS mechanic is empowering, and you never really feel like you can’t overcome the undead obstacles placed in your way. And you’re never alone, provided you do play online co-op. There were friendly voices coming over my headset, sure sometimes they were shouting things like “Oh shit I’m down! Someone get this fucking thing off me!!” But we were in it together. And those friendly, real-world voices kept cutting in, shattering the mystique, reminding me that this was just a game.
Dead Space is a different matter entirely.
My reaction to the demo for Dead Space wasn’t far from the mark. I’m convinced that kind of pants-wetting scare is EXACTLY what Visceral Games was shooting for with this game. But with a proper introduction and tutorial, the frustration I felt from the demo was replaced with a thoroughly satisfying gaming experience. Here, I believe for the first time ever (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong about this), is a survival/horror game with a perfectly rational reason for the traditional survival/horror gameplay mechanic.
Let me explain. In a typical FPS, such as Halo: Combat Evolved (or any of its sequels), you play as a powerful hero, usually a soldier of some sort. The controls are fast, fluid, and responsive. You have an arsenal at your fingertips and almost unlimited ammo with which you annihilate entire armies, single-handedly.
On the other hand, survival/horror games have had a history of imposing slow, sluggish controls on the player in an attempt to heighten the sense of danger. I can remember playing Resident Evil 2 and thinking that the young, athletic-looking police officer I was controlling should NOT have the speed and reflexes of an 80-year old. It didn’t make any damn sense. The limits felt forced, artificial. It took me out of the moment, reminded me I was playing a game, and lessened my enjoyment. I don’t think I ever finished that game; I just gave up on it.
In Dead Space, you are not a soldier (super or otherwise). You play as Isaac Clarke, engineer. Do you understand what that means? He’s a nerd. Tech support. Isaac Clarke probably spends most of his time on the receiving end of bored expressions and grunted insults from the grizzled space marines to whom he’s trying to explain why it will take him several hours to repair the ship’s engines.
So when you arrive at the USG Ishimura, a “planet cracker” starship, to respond to a distress signal, you’re there to perform repairs, not enter combat. You’re outfitted, not in armor, but in Resource Integration Gear (RIG), which is meant to allow Isaac to enter and operate in a vacuum and/or zero g (weightless) environment. When the proverbial shit hits the fan and Isaac must fight off the monstrous necromorphs, he’s forced to do so with tools he has on hand, tools not firearms.
Furthermore, there was something that became apparent only far into the game when I entered the first zero g environment. From my third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective, I had noticed, but paid no attention to the slightly hunched over posture of Isaac as he slowly walked and laboriously ran down the dark corridors. But upon entering that first zero g environment, Isaac straightened noticeably. He still moved slowly, relying on magnetic boots to keep him tethered to the ship’s metallic surface, but with seemingly less effort. And then it hit me.
That RIG must be fucking heavy.
Everything made sense. Isaac wasn’t able to run, sprint, strafe, and jump with abandon like Master Chief because he’s just a normal guy in a really heavy suit. The limits on Isaac’s movements weren’t some arbitrary restraint imposed by the developer, they naturally followed the reality of the physics in-game. Moreover, by making Isaac a simple engineer, it follows that he doesn’t have the abilities or arsenal of a soldier. It’s absolutely brilliant.
I could go on and talk about the lack of a heads-up display (HUD), the fact that accessing your map and inventory doesn’t pause the game (meaning: you’re always vulnerable), or praise the story progression through audio/video logs and interaction with NPCs, or describe in shuddering detail how the design – lighting, audio effects, music, claustrophobic level design – all combine to build a feeling of dread that never goes away. Instead, I’ll touch briefly on one common complaint about Dead Space.
The criticism is that Dead Space relies too heavily on “go here, fix this; go there, repair that” objectives that often require you to retrace your steps and move through the same corridors more than once through the ship. It’s a valid grievance; I found myself echoing the words of one NPC who gripes (I’m paraphrasing) “Hell, what else can go wrong?!”
But I will offer this. I can almost forgive the game developers for having Isaac sent on so many such missions. He is a systems specialist and engineer, after all. The other NPCs in the game include a security officer named Hammond, and Kendra, another tech who seems to specialize more in computer systems (software), than hardware. Isaac is the natural (if not only) choice to make the numerous, necessary repairs. Repairs that one would expect when a planet cracking ship is overrun by space zombies in the middle of cracking a planet.
What I find easier to forgive, and easier to understand, is the retreading of paths, i.e. the lack of diverse “levels” in the game. The way I see it, it’s a confined space. Yes, it’s a damn big ship, but it’s still a starship, and space is at a premium. Can you really expect to constantly be moving through new and different environments? Hell, even without a television series production budget, I imagine all the corridors on the Enterprise would look the same.
Dead Space and Left 4 Dead. If you haven’t yet played these blasts from the past, perhaps for some of the same reasons as I, there’s no time like the present to conquer your fears. Left 4 Dead has already seen a sequel released, and Dead Space 2 drops January 2011.
Nut up or shut up.