Trading Fear for Bullets

Being okay with Dead Space 3's shift from horror to action.

By: Ryan Winslett

Filed Under: Action Adventure Editorial Horror


Isaac Clarke moves further into the snow storm, leaning forward into the wind with an arm raised against the icy blasts as he trudges through the foot of fresh powder covering the surface of Tau Volantis. I’m about halfway through Dead Space 3 and, after fighting for my life against countless nightmare creatures in the vast blackness of space, it looks like this vast white of an alien planet might finally do me in.

I’ve been separated from my research group and, up until this point, my latest adventure with the galaxy’s most unlucky engineer has been par for the course. Then again, par for the course in a Dead Space game means that this third battle against the necromorphs is hitting quite a few high watermarks. Dead Space 3 is beautiful to look at, the action is fun, the enemies are as nasty as ever and several new systems (universal ammo, weapon crafting, scavenging) have added just enough variety to make things feel fresh. The one thing that’s missing, though, is any real sense of dread.

At the top of a frozen hill Dead Space 3 finally manages to catch me off guard, even if the vehicle for that reaction is only a little more creative than the jump scares that have regularly kept my heart leaping into my throat while orbiting above the planet. Out of nowhere, a necromorph bursts out of the snow in front of me, yowling like a yeti. In this universe where the dead reanimate as twisted, horrific versions of their former selves, this particular baddie’s arms have reformed into long, sharp blades of bone, which my new visitor is now swinging at me in an effort to make my head part company with my body.

I finish the intruder off with a few well-placed shots from a souped-up plasma cutter, severing the creature’s limbs in order to stop its advance. I take a moment to stomp on the carcass and retrieve a clip of fresh ammo from the gooey remains before pushing forward.

It is at this point that I realize that the Dead Space series is simply no longer capable of actually scaring me. I know I have other types of thrills and chills to look forward to, but now I am finally able to relinquish the notion that the fear I felt while playing the first two games in the series will ever return to me. Having a monster pop out of the snow is “new,” in a manner of speaking, but it’s simply not enough to fill my gut with genuine fear. Misdirection is now expected. I know the face of my enemy too well. Even their guttural, liquidy shrieks fail to send chills down my spine anymore.

But it is also at this point that I realize that maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I mean, I’m still having a blast here. Dead Space can’t successfully creep me out anymore, but that shouldn’t count as too negative a mark against a series that is still managing to keep me entertained, right?

Looking back at the history of horror games, there are two basic trends that stand out, both perfectly illustrated by the Silent Hill and Resident Evil franchises.

Silent Hill has made efforts to retain those elements that make horror work so well in this medium. The majority of the enemies you face in each game are new and therefore freshly disturbing each time you fire up a new game in the series. The world is dark and mysterious. You play as an everyman with weapons that either offer too little ammo or require the monsters to get in nice and close to be effective. The majority of Silent Hill games make you feel weak and trapped in an unknown world.

And then there are the Resident Evil games. Like Silent Hill, Resident Evil’s initial offerings focused on making the player feel helpless or, at the very least, just powerful enough to make it from one terrifying challenge to the next. As the series progresses, however, fear gives way to action. Players now control hulking heroes who can roundhouse kick a zombie’s head across the room. Ammo is plentiful and the guns seem to get bigger and bigger. And after you’ve re-murdered a few hundred zombies in the earlier games, the shambling masses just don’t elicit the same kind of fear that they did over a decade ago.

In this regard, Dead Space has followed a similar arc to that of the Resident Evil series. Its enemies aren’t torn from the psyche of the protagonist like in Silent Hill, so three games into the series and most of the enemies have become far too familiar to me. The original Dead Space was something of a sleeper hit. I knew very little about the game before it hit store shelves, so the first time one of those necromorphs dropped out of a vent and started murdering half of my crew mates, it was a truly horrifying experience. And then there’s that whole “aim for the limbs” mechanic. It was unique and wonderful the first time around but, at this point, the excitement of altering the way I typically play shooting games has mostly fizzled out.

Isaac himself, as well as his limited arsenal, is another big part of what made the original Dead Space so frightening. He’s an engineer, not a space marine, and his first batch of weapons were improvised mining tools rather than machine guns and grenade launchers. Over the course of three games, though, it makes sense that our formerly frightened engineer is now a highly capable killing machine. And thanks to that new weapon crafting system, I can now make myself just about as powerful as I want. I’ve gone from relying on a simple collection of tools to wielding a single weapon that shoots flaming bullets and grenades all at the same damn time. This bad boy even picks up ammo for me, so I don’t have to bother with taking my finger off of the trigger during an especially heated encounter.

But like I said earlier, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While Dead Space 3 no longer gets under my skin like the first game and, to a lesser extent, the second game in the series, what it does provide is a finely crafted action experience. I feel like I’m traipsing through some of my favorite sci-fi flicks and, at this point in the game, I’m not really surprised that a universe I’ve spent nearly 100 hours in is having some trouble making me cling to the edge of my seat with terror. I, like Isaac, have faced this enemy before. And like Isaac, I am now very familiar with the game world’s rules and, therefore, am far more capable of mowing down an untold number of wailing monsters without ever breaking a sweat.

So what do you do when there’s little left to fear in a horror game? You turn up the action. You make the set pieces bigger than ever and the monsters more numerous than ever. You give the player access to a wider array of weaponry that’s genuinely fun to use. In short, you embrace what strengths you have left and come out with guns, quite literally in this case, blazing.

So far, Dead Space 3 has done exactly that. I’m a little bummed that I no longer feel my heart racing in terror while playing these games, but at least it’s still racing with excitement.

Filed Under: Action Adventure Editorial Horror

About the Author:
Ryan Winslett is an Arizona-based journalist and freelance writer. He is a contributing writer for Gaming Blend and his work has also appeared on Joystiq, Gamasutra and Joystick Division. His only crime is loving too much.

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