Will Dead Space Ever Have Its ‘Catalyst’?

Photo credit: Visceral Games / Electronic Arts

A new trailer for Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst emerged today from Gamescom, the annual games exhibition held in Cologne. Catalyst is a reboot of 2008’s Mirror’s Edge, a first person platformer/runner mix action game, and so far looks to be faithful (not intended, I swear) to the original in all ways but the misguided ones; the freedom to wield enemies’ firearms has wisely been revoked by developer D.I.C.E, and I’m hopeful after today the writing may be improved as well. If you’ve played the original, you know well as I do the room left to improve in this area was total.

There’s been a sea change for the Mirror’s Edge moniker these seven years between (has it really been seven?), and it’s evident even in Catalyst‘s gameplay. Faith’s confidences of motion are granted her this time not just by adrenaline and novelty, but the catalyst both initial critical success, and two-thousand-plus days of fan and industry reverence alike, has inspired in the property. The stark and strangely therapeutic – almost pediatric – palette of primary colours along with the glassy/chromatic eyeshine and sterility of Glass City feel less like a statement now. Catalyst is the rare second attempt which has no need to double as a second chance: the game was praised from multiple sides, as mentioned, and was eventually profitable – if not to substantial heights; the new Mirror’s Edge exists in part, let’s be honest, as a goodwill gesture, which publishers are sometimes known to make, but also as an exercise of both its publisher and developer’s pride, the indulgence of the compulsion to perfect.

“If you’re going to be bold with that kind of concept,” Frank Gibeau, EA’s former president, said in a 2010 interview, “you need to take it as far as it can go in development.”

In this same interview, Gibeau states: “Dead Space was different. It made money for us, but didn’t hit expectations. We felt like we had an IP that struck a chord, and one that hit quality, but again it missed multiplayer modes. So when we re-worked Dead Space, we looked at how to make it a better idea, how do we make the story more engrossing, how do we build Isaac as a character, how do we make this game a success online.” All but one of those how’s were good ones, and this was apparent, apparently, to all but them.

Before the competitive multiplayer of the second game (the result of Gibeau’s how) and the cooperative of the third, Dead Space was solitary by design. Although a victim of history (beyond whatever financial “disappointment” it brought) in its having been swept up by Resident Evil 4‘s “action horror” success and influence, which in hindsight is clear was a one-game deal with the universe, the original Dead Space lived and died (and reanimated) by its isolated, hyperborean, terrorized makeup. The only minds this fact would or should have escaped were those stemmed from suits which an actual play-session of the game, elbows at ribs and controller in hand, would have creased beyond acceptability or refundability.

But we’d do ourselves no favours to remain thankless for the situation, as EA and a many other publisher have since learned their lesson with genre-agnostic multiplayer supplementation, even if it was hard learned, and offered freely all the while besides. Just as Mirror’s Edge has repented its dallies with pistol and assault rifle (somehow the weight equivalent of freight cars), Dead Space could likewise repent for…well, there’s a lot here, actually.

Although the two series’ were ostensibly brought into this world for the same reason (for EA’s purposes, anyway) and can hardly go mentioned without the other short to follow, or be analyzed individually without the other ephemerally leaking through, their situations are now quite different. Dead Space‘s the sort of “different” a family prefers not to specify, you’ll forgive, until Dad’s car is back in the garage where he left it (hair on the ignition!), and Dorothy’s high-school teachers have all received personal calls of apology from the night owl, flame-haired freshman she calls a brother.

Dead Space 3 is oh so disappointing. What can I say? It fails not only to live up to the character of its legacy, but to each and every method it engineers to forsake that legacy, despite the riches EA seemed to believe waited at the foot of each rainbow.

The encounters with non-necromorphs (humans) lacked the hunter/hunted, prey/predator dualism enjoyed by both the player and their adversaries in the prior two games; the cover system would have lost no elegance if the player-character was replaced with a fork-lift; the cooperative multiplayer overtly antagonized the game’s atmosphere and sense of fear, despite developer Visceral’s earnest attempts to alleviate this, such as temporary forced separations of one player from the other. I’m fairly confident these design overtures were recognized at some point by the team, if they were ever not, as minuses in disguise, food drops from above which were none of them non-perishables, and which were at least already part-way turned. Dead Space 1 & 2 tell me I have to believe this, or risk taking them for less than they were. Or Bioshock for less than it was, with thanks to Infinite.

I had a conversation with a friend this week about Tomonobu Itagaki and Devil’s Third in which I expressed my bafflement at the fact the same man responsible for it was previously for Ninja Gaiden, what I still consider, inexcusable flaws withstanding (that goddamn camera!), the best pure third-person action game series. You might recall Ninja Gaiden 3 chased – after two successful entries successful for their focus as much as execution of – many of the same aforementioned “rainbows”, how despite a second-chance in the form of 2012’s Razor’s Edge, the series has been functionally invisible even with a reanimation of its own.

In this conversation with this friend, this friend said “maybe they’re not as good as we remember”, to which I responded, with a recent albeit brief revisit to Sigma 2 as my assurance, they were. And so is the original Mirror’s Edge, faults and all (that goddamn writing!). But Dead Space and Dead Space 2 I must defer to memory: it’s simply been too long. I played Dead Space 3 for the first and thankfully only time last fall, and the memory is all too fresh. ‘This friend’ had been the one to help me test the game’s online cooperative offering, and he was equally sour on the experience, himself too a fan of its predecessors.

Dead Space is not, like Catalyst, a case of perfecting. The series, once a true occasion with each release, may now be in a position where a roots-up reboot is its only option. The problem being, of course, audiences are not amnesiac, or to the degree publishers bank on – literally; Batman Begins owes a percentage of its success explicitly to contrast with Tim Burton’s work on the property. Dead Space may have already frozen its momentum in stasis, such that the name itself is a vessel harbouring no more life. Is it coincidence there were six games (main and side) between 2008 and 2013, and there have been zero since? If the brand had merely fumbled and could be picked back up by another entry which corrected for the prior’s errors (think Devil May Cry 2 to Devil May Cry 3), would we have not seen this effort sooner rather than later? Would there not have been an attempt, through smaller games mobile or otherwise, to remind the world it was still germinating in some form, somewhere?

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn some kind of project has been in progress all this time, and wouldn’t bet against it. But I do wonder if the reaction to Dead Space 3, and subsequent naught-but-cricket-song among game players, has been somewhat of a blunderbuss shot to EA, and one which still has them trying to orientate themselves and gather their wits.

We can’t ignore the changes in the horror game landscape in recent years, either: the hunger now is for the Amnesia‘s, the P.T.‘s (though Konami doesn’t seem enticed), and less so for a sub/hybrid genre at which Grandaddy has still done the best. Meaning the next game has to choose an extreme in spite of dividends coming its way in the past for being sat comfortably in the centre. This is ironic given how ubiquitous genre blending has become across the industry, and is almost always a selling point when effected; however, the biggest success stories from these results come when a work rooted deeply in its genre uses ideas from outside to underline, and not compromise on, its own. And I believe sales can and often do reward this.

You see, games publishers, leprechauns are not mysterious as you imagine. They keep their coins with them wherever they go, and in little pouches, not ungainly huge or golden cauldrons. (Why would the pot be gold too?) Leprechauns like to visit many different kinds of shops, some for groceries, so they can eat, some for a beer and a laugh, so they can beer and laugh; they go to the barber’s, some days, some days the doctor’s; Leprechauns even go to the bank. They aren’t stupid, is the point: they wouldn’t leave all their money in one place, and out in the open. It’d be silly. Most of them keep some coins at home, too, just to be safe.

When a leprechaun goes out on the town, he does not go to the grocer’s for a shave. He does not go to the doctor for a laugh.

Because everything isn’t in one place.

That’s nothing’s job. And it pays like shit.