My friend Darkshark74 and I blasted through Awakened last night, and had a blast. However, we left with mixed feelings and a sour sense of cynicism. On the one hand, I think the add-on did a few things right, on the other hand, it seems like more of the same Dead Space 3, which is both a good and bad thing. In fact, it seems to take the best and worst of the game and cranks it up to eleven. If I could summarise this entire add-on adventure with a single phrase, it'd be "Déjà vu".
A Selenophobic Story
I've already criticised Dead Space 3 for its silly plot. Does Awakened fare any better? Well, the short answer is no. At this point, Visceral has gone off the deep end with their story. In many ways, it's the Dead Space version of Mass Effect 2's Arrival DLC, in that it bridges two games. Oh, and the writing is even worse than Arrival. I didn't even know that was possible, but Visceral never fails to surprise me.
When speculation regarding Awakening spread around the Internet, people proclaimed that Isaac and Carver couldn't possibly return in the DLC, because they are clearly dead; there is no way they could have survived the ordeal at the end of the game. As I pointed out, they are half right. Yes, normally, they wouldn't be able to survive being pulled out into the vacuum and thrown down to the rocky planet surface when an entire moon is crashing down. The only problem with this logic is that... well, it's logic. Logic and the laws of science don't really apply in the Dead Space universe.
We went in expecting an explanation. Surprisingly enough, we didn't get one. We were instead treated to a surreal opening in which Isaac and Carver question if they're alive or not. Luckily, Isaac being the genious that he is, decides to shoot the roof of the cave they landed in. Because, you know, dead people can't shoot guns. What bothered me the most about this scene however, is how the gun operates. Now matter what gun you have equipped at the time, Isaac will shoot it straight up, and it'll sound like generic gunfire, which is really weird when you have a force gun or a ripper.
Instead of even attempting to explain how Isaac and Carver survived, they just wake up and start looking for a ship. This is a little too convenient for me. After Carver gave the Codex to Danik (more horribly contrived writing), the moon woke up. They later used said MacGuffin to destroy the moon, causing it to come crashing down to Tau Volantis. In the process, both Isaac and Carver were separated, and thrown into the merciless vacuum of space. You mean to tell me that not only could Isaac survive in space without a helmet, but he could also survive re-entry onto a planet and survive the fall? What is it about Isaac that allows him to survive falls from any hight? In one instance, right after the Snow Beast kills Santos, Isaac (and Carver) fall of the cliff, and inexplicably survive.
The second thing that really irks me about this whole thing is that, despite being separated, the ended up landing in exactly the same spot. Somehow, they both managed to avoid all the debris, survive in space, re-enter the planet's atmosphere, and fall hundred of kilometres to the rocky surface, only to land right to next each other.
Here's another question for you. How does anything on the planet survive? Last we saw the planet, it was being sucked up through a giant vortex. Then, when the Brother Moon is defeated, it crashed unto the planet itself. How does something as massive as a moon not completely annihilate everything on Tau Volantis?
This is really Clarke-quality science-fiction writing here.
One last thing about the "plot" itself. At the end, when Isaac Clarke and John Carver shock into Earth space, the tone of the final scene felt a bit... off. They both have this really optimistic attitude, which is odd considering they just found out that a network of alien moons know exactly where the cradle of human civilisation is, and they're on their way to come eat it for brunch. This scene has this whole "mission accomplished, we made it" feel to it that just doesn't feel quite right. It's as if the writers wanted to set up that big twist at the end, and they wanted to show some kind of contrast. The last thing that really bothered me was how Sergeant John Carver announces himself and his rank, as if he were expecting someone from Earth Government to answer. Didn't Carver say they were the "last batallion"?
Now, the "plot" in Dead Space 3 was utter rubbish anyway, but this is just insultingly lazy writing. The best explanation I can offer is that it was "bring your child to work day", and the writers let their kids write an add-on for them. That would explain why this plot is so childishly dumb.
Interesting Ideas and Cool Concepts
Sadly, the only way one can enjoy anything Dead Space is by turning our brains off, and laughing at how ridiculous and over-the-top it is. And that's exactly what I did.
First, as stupid as the writing is, the surreal opening was at least engaging enough to pique our interests. After re-emerging from the icy caverns of the ice planet
Hoth Tau Volantis, we were greeted by our old friend Norton, who was obviously a hallucination; we knew he wasn't real. What we didn't expect was for it to actually be Necro-Norton. This doesn't really make any sense, because we both took turns stomping his corpse until he was nothing but a torso. We then threw the torso off of a cliff. Despite that, it was a neat little surprise, so it gets a thumbs up from me.
Hallucinations return in full force this time around, as the Moons continue to troll Isaac and Carver's psyche. This leads to some freaky reality-bending moments, where enemies appear, disappear, and attack you. Normally, I'd say this would be mind blowing, as this damages our perception of reality, but I'm going to go ahead and assume the enemies we killed were real, unless all that scrap metal (and thus, the ammo and guns I made from said scrap metal) I picked up was also an illusion.
The final boss battle from Dead Space 2 continues to be recycled; take that for what it is. This leads to some cool concepts, but most of it isn't anything you haven't seen before, and it became pretty standard after a while.
Clarke and Carver turning on each other was pretty cool, and the lights cutting out was a nice effect, if a bit clichéd. At this point, Isaac must fight off ghost versions of Carver, whilst Carver shoots apparitions of Isaac. This wasn't a terrible idea, but I was half-expecting us to be forced to fight each other.
Despite one or two decent jump scares, I felt like there was a few missed opportunities for one of the pinned Necromorphs (pictured above) to suddenly start moving. Other than that however, there were some genuinely creepy parts of this add-on. Was it the most disturbing content ever? I'd say no. This is a franchise that involves so much blood, gore, and dismemberment (it's the core gameplay mechanic!), that I've become desensitised to it in this context. Visceral knows nothing of restraint, and I guess that's what they're going for here, but you can't expect this kind of stuff to be horrifying, when you've already subjected the player to similar scenarios for hours now. You either need to show restraint as a developer, or up the ante. Awakened fails to do either.
Plot Holes and Unanswered Questions
Lets' take a tally of all the mistakes and unanswered questions, shall we?
- How does Isaac get his helmet back, when he clearly tore it off?
- How does Isaac survive in the vacuum of space without a helmet?
- Why isn't Isaac's face bloodied any more?
- What are the odds of Isaac and Carver landing in the same place?
- How did Isaac and Carver survive the fall down to the planet?
- How do they survive re-entry?
- Why would Carver even give Danik the codex in the first place, knowing it would lead to galactic genocide?
- How is everything not destroyed by the moon's impact?
- Why were there so many kids on Tau Volantis!?
- Why didn't EA hire any real writers?
Disclaimer: I ended up on the soapbox here. Be prepared for a rant.
Forget the horrible writing. Is it fun to play? It is, for the most part, but that's more because Dead Space 3 is fun to play already. I believe a piece of DLC should be judged by how different from the core experience-by how much new content it brings to the table. Does Awakened do this? No, and in fact, I'm not entirely convinced this should have been DLC at all.
Allow me to elaborate. For a piece of add-on content, we don't really get a lot of new content here. Aside from its stupid story, what hurts this DLC the most is the facts that there are absolutely no new environments. For $10, all we get is three short chapters of backtracking through the same locations we've been backtracking in for the core experience. It's bad enough we're backtracking through similar-looking environments in the game itself, but when we have to pay to go through the same content over again, this time with different dialogue and a new context, it's enough to make you stop and wonder if this trend of selling players things they already own has gone a little too far.
Despite having an entire planet to explore, we just go through parts of the same one again. Instead of exploring new parts of the Terra Nova, we just re-visit the same locations. This is actually part of a huge problem I've had with Dead Space 3: recycling. Sure, they give us optional missions, but they couldn't even be bothered to create a new level (someone tell me why there are pistons in the barracks again), so it's hard to praise them for that. If that wasn't bad enough, we're then sold re-skins of the weapons and armour already in the game for $5 each. At every turn, we're offered pay-to-win, which don't even add any new content to the game.
So instead of creating new assets, they re-skinned old enemies (most of them at least), rearranged some debris on the planet, and put some candles on the Terra Nova. Really though, I shouldn't be surprised at this level of laziness. Anyone who has played Dragon Age II knows that EA is no stranger to reusing old assets ad nauseum.
Alright, so Visceral decided to be cheap and sell us more of what we already owned. That's nothing new. What about the enemies? Like the environments, there isn't anything you haven't seen before. Every enemy you face-sans one-is just a re-skin. The notable exception to this are the members of the Necromorph Cult, enhanced with custom parts. These guys were creepy, and put an interesting twist on combat. In fact, it's probably the only original thing about this add-on. They're cool, but I don't think they're $10 cool.
Another thing I kind of liked was this add-on's antagonist, Randall Carr. From a purely aesthetic point-of-view, he was an interesting villain I wanted to know more about. As you play through this DLC, he stalks you, making his presence known. You see evidence of his deeds throughout the Terra Nova. Most of the second and third chapters are spent building up your climactic battle with him.
Unfortunately, due to the brevity of the DLC, there isn't any chance to really develop his character or motives beyond "raving lunatic". In the end, we ended up simply calling him "Shitty Pyramid Head".
For a fun night with a friend, it could have been a lot worse. The plot was a complete farce, but Dead Space 3 wasn't any better by comparison. As a piece of downloadable content, it's hard for me to praise this. For an add-on, very little is actually added to the game. There are some interesting ideas here, but the short length means nothing really gets fleshed out as much as it should. To make matters worse, no new weapons or suits are added, which feels like another missed opportunity.
Like the rest of the DLC in this franchise, we get nothing new or original here. Announced so close to release, I find myself viewing this as a cheap cash-in. With a few minor changes, this could have easily been woven into the main story itself, since they couldn't be bothered to create anything new. I think the end of Awakened is easily a better ending than the one in the base game.
Ending the game with that reveal would have made more sense than seemingly killing off Isaac then revealing he's sort of alive, kinda. Sure, this whole add-on is completely nonsensical, but so is the rest of the story. On the other hand, showing the moons themselves may not be as effective as hinting towards it. I mean, c'mon. They're just a bunch of moons! What can they d....
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- "Arrow on the Doorpost" Review: More Tension, Less Action -- My review of last Sunday's episode of the The Walking Dead.
- Citadel Review: Entertaining and Inconsequential -- My review of the final Mass Effect 3 add-on.