Sacrificing Horror for the Sake of Human Competition

For a franchise like Dead Space, multiplayer is the logical “next step”.

Dead Space was a beautifully realized game, a legitimately frightening over-the-shoulder shooter whose technique of punctuating long stretches of quiet with jump scares and panic inducing swarms made for a genuinely satisfying gaming experience. The lack of multiplayer, while notable, didn’t seem like an omission so much as it did a stylistic decision; the difficulty of putting a believable excuse for multiplayer in a game so focused on isolation was immediately evident. Dead Space forced us to play single-player, and many of us loved it anyway.

As such, it’s a little surprising to see multiplayer introduced in its sequel. Without really knowing much about the storyline of Dead Space 2 (given that it won’t be released until January at the earliest), all we have is the first game to go on as a basis for the multiplayer, and the inclination is to think that the focus of the game will have to significantly shift in order to accommodate a multiplayer mode. It doesn’t make sense, given the context, so the context needs to change.

From a purely business-oriented standpoint, however, the addition of multiplayer modes makes perfect sense. Dead Space was an extremely well received game, a mini-blockbuster in sales that feels like a cult hit. What can you add to ditch the “mini” and turn it into a plain old blockbuster? Multiplayer is a start. If Dead Space can get some good buzz as a multiplayer experience, it has a chance to pull some of the Bad Company/Halo/Call of Duty audience who is tired of multiplayer experiences that haven’t offered anything fundamentally new in years. It’s the easiest and most obvious way to potentially increase the audience for the game, and if some fundamental changes have to be made to the atmosphere and setting, well, so be it.

The beta itself is rather limited, so it’s a difficult call as to whether the multiplayer experience could be called an unqualified success. What it does do is offer a surprisingly balanced, team-oriented, four-on-four game.

In any given match, you will spend one round on a team of humans, and the other round on a team of the horribly disfigured Necromorphs. As humans, the point is to escape the “Titan Mines” — unfortunately the only scenario available, but one well-chosen to showcase the strengths of the experience — by hunting down a piece to a generator, carrying that piece to the generator, and then defending the generator as it powers up enough to detonate an explosive that puts a big hole in the wall. Each of these objectives are timed, and if the humans can’t manage to succeed in any of them, the game ends with a Necromorph win. If all of the objectives are met, the humans win. It’s a relatively simple process, especially after a few games of the same type in the same place, but it works, largely because of the balancing act that slowly seems to be working itself out as the beta progresses.

In the early days of the beta, most reports were that the necromorphs won most of the battles, and yet my own experience (as of 10 October 2010) is that the victories are almost perfectly split between the humans and the necromorphs. Every strength on one side is tempered by a strength on the other, and the intensity in either completing the goals or the prevention of same is extremely high. The humans, for example, can withstand much more damage than the necromorphs can and have rapid fire, long range weaponry to boot. The necromorphs, on the other hand, can respawn almost instantly and can move much quicker than the humans. Every so often, a necromorph will jump onto a human and both players must pound on the “X” button as quickly as they can to overwhelm the other; more often than not, the human wins but can take no comfort in such a win thanks to the knowledge that more of the necromorphs are probably waiting around the next corner.

The first few times that you play, it even packs some of the same thrills that the original Dead Space does; between a lack of familiarity with the map and the lack of familiarity with at least one of the necromorph species (the unsettling toddler that is the “Pack”, which is at its scariest when running around without a head), that familiar “what’s around the corner” feeling sets in even as you’re surrounded by teammates. What’s unfortunate is that repeated play strips this feeling from the experience. Once you’re familiar with the look of your enemies, the feel of the gameplay, and the layout of the map, it’s just another multiplayer setting. It’s Halo with a closed-in map and a few new skins. The horror is lost, sacrificed for the sake of human competition.

Perhaps more egregious is the scoring system so far — as far as I could tell, there is no reward for “winning” a match other than the satisfaction of the win itself. The rewards are for kills, which in turn can be increased by letting the game last longer. The only way to make the game last longer is for the humans to complete objectives, so it is actually in the necromorphs’ best interests to hold back a bit as time gets short. Let the humans complete an objective so that the timer can be reset and more kills can be racked up, making for faster rank upgrades and higher scores. Thankfully, most of the players in the beta seem to be playing to win, but once trophies and achievements become tied to rank upgrades (as they almost inevitably will), how long will that last? There should be some incentive for winning quickly rather than artificially extending the length of a given match.

Of course, we are reminded that this is, after all, a beta. To pass any sort of definitive judgment on the game at this point would be silly. Other, more minor bugs, like cumulative scores not sticking from game to game and the occasional glitchy interaction with the environment, remind us of this. If the balance is improving, surely Visceral is taking note of other early criticisms as well. It’s difficult to see how a pure horror experience could possibly translate to multiplayer, but maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is simply to give players a reason to stick with a game that is so strong in its single-player. At this, Visceral is off to a good start.