Saturday, March 27, 2010

"Zombies! In! Space!"--A Very Late Review of "Dead Space"

So I realize I'm a bit late to the party, but Dead Space was released before I had my PS3. But with the intriguing early news of a Wii version in 2009, my interest was piqued. Of course, I would eventually find out, that this "version" would actually be an on-rails shooter. When reviews showed that even this game was actually pretty good, and a small franchise was developing around it (including a comic book series and an animated movie) I had to check it out. So when Dead Space: Downfall appeared in my Netflix Instant Queue, I watched it and was surprised to find a decent sci-fi horror story.

It turns out that in the future, mankind has to travel to distant planets to sustain our insatiable desire for more stuff--no shocker there. Aboard giant star ships called "planet crackers," humans literally crack open planets for their valuable ore. But when the largest of these ships, the USG Ishimura, pulls apart a forbidden planet after finding a mysterious artifact, all hell breaks loose both on the planet's surface and aboard the Ishimura. Okay, okay, so you've heard it before. But these aren't just regular aliens, these are zombie aliens! That's right, these aliens kill the crew of the Ishimura to turn them into other crazed killers! With four arms!

It still took me a few months to get around to playing the game that started it all, but I beat it this past week, and it was almost everything I expected. The original story puts you in the space shoes of engineer Isaac Clarke, sent to investigate the distress calls from the Ishimura and to find his girlfriend also stationed aboard. And wouldn't you know it, his ship crashes in landing, leaving him stranded aboard the ship with every problem conceivable besides the alien zombies trying to cut him in half: transportation aboard the city-sized ship is down, communications are down, the engines are down, the ship is falling back towards the planet (while passing through an asteroid field, of course), and a religious fanatic (who believes he's doing god's work by helping the zombies finish off the remaining survivors) keeps getting in your way. If I sound jaded, it's because I am a little. This is yet another in a long line of games that seems to enjoy making the player feel like a "gopher."

"Hey Isaac, go for the controls in the engine room!"

"Hey Jack, would you kindly save my wife and kid?"

"Gordan, sneak through enemy lines by yourself and take out that garrison so that our troops can get by?"

Granted, Dead Space (like my Bioshock example) creates a reason for this within the narrative (except that despite that the Ishimura requires a crew of thousands, an engineer can safely operate the ship practically by himself). But I'm getting seriously tired of taking orders from my video games, especially when it seems like someone else could just as easily give me hand or even do something themselves. Of course, when this does happen in Dead Space, the helpers usually get dead. And this is all meant to make you feel alone amidst the chaos, and certainly it works to create tension.

But Dead Space has a lot going for it in that respect already. This has to be one of the most atmospheric games I've ever played. As soon as you arrive on board, not only are you immediately aware of the immense size of the ship but that something is there with you. Screams occasionally echo through the empty halls. Things clatter and fall on levels below you, knocked over but who knows what. Blood and gore are almost always found on the floors and ceilings--a hand print here, a trail of blood down a passage telling you someone was dragged down it. And of course, there are the messages bloodily written on walls in both English and alien lettering. There's no doubt about it, the USG Ishimura is a freaky place to find yourself stranded.

Sadly, this is about where the horror ends in Dead Space. Despite that the game has been lauded as the best survival-horror since Resident Evil 4, I don't see it. Granted, the game does much in the tradition of survival-horrors like the Resident Evil series, as well as pulling references from just about every main-stream sci-fi horror movie to date. It even tends to subtly poke fun at the RE series' archaic design choices but using science fiction to explain them away (even though, for some reason, baby zombies drop loads of military-grade munitions when they die). But what made old school survival-horrors scary was that it was difficult to survive. Resident Evil wasn't just about shuffling zombies popping out of closets. It was also about the very likely chance that before, during, or after that encounter, you might be out of ammo, health, or even both. But this never happens in Dead Space. I finished the game with tons of the stuff, and I died for completely unrelated reasons (stupid centrifuge...).

But let's say, for arguments sake, that you didn't just come off of playing Demon's Souls, a game that makes it difficult to get out of the "defensive gamer" mindset, and went all willy-nilly with your mining tools-converted-to-weapons and find yourself ammo-less (and broke, since you can buy ammo). Luckily, your high tech space suit allows you to pick up random stuff (saw blades, explosives, and even stray body parts) and chuck them at the oncoming hoards. And let's continue to play devil's advocate and say that either you're a crappy shot who can't manage to sever the zombies' over-sized limbs ('cause that's how they die) or there's so many of them that you can't quickly fire a limb, pick one up, and fire it again before they swarm you. Well, not to worry--you can just freeze them with your suit's other power! And while they won't stay frozen for long, you should have plently of time to dismember them.

Defeating a space zombie: 3 rounds of ammo.
Freezing them, shooting their legs out from under them, pistol whipping their faces off as they fall, and finally, curb stomping them once they hit the ground: priceless!

Which brings me to my final conceit. I still really like this game. Once I came to terms with this being more of an action-horror game like Resident Evil 5 (though admittedly scarier) and less of a survival-horror game like Resident Evil, I really got to enjoying it. The fact that all of the game's vital information appears either on or from Isaac's suit allows for great atmosphere by keeping unnecessary crap off the screen is a welcome change of pace. And what atmosphere it is! The zero-gravity and vacuum segments are not only original, but handled masterfully. And even though the story is completely ridiculous at times (At one point a ship load of armored, armed, and battle-stations ready space marines attempts to come to the Ishimura's rescue only to be overwhelmed by one, one, escape-pod jettisoned zombie. One!) it's cohesive and compelling.

Where I feel it falls short, however, is in the execution of its scares. Dead Space could have come in as the single-most frightening video game of all-time, even wetting the trousers of the most jaded gamers. Instead, it's an action game with frightening moments. And even these thin out as they start to get repetitive. At first, the zombies like using the ship's vents and grates to sneak around and jump out at you. After the first few times, it stops being scary. And just as this happens, it's like the zombies get lazy.Suddenly they're just lumbering at you down long hallways. Or they continuously spawn out of the same grate for a few minutes. And yes, some of these moments are frightening, but you're never overwhelmed--a few well-placed shots and you're on the straight-and-narrow again. Okay, one more conceit. I can imagine the game being insane on the unlockable uber-difficult mode, especially since you can't choose the difficulty of your New Game+ (taking all your high-tech gadgets with you), so I can only speak for the core mode. But even Resident Evil was scary and hard on the normal difficultly (especially if you unwisely chose to play as Chris "I-Got-No-Pockets!" Redfield). Still, perhaps I'll be singing a different tune once I play it again--just not "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." That song's forever ruined for me.

Questions? Quibbles? Controversies?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Does the "Resident Evil 5" DLC Really Make the New Edition "Gold"?

There's something about academic research that just makes you really dislike the subject of your study. And since "Lost in Nightmares" and "Desperate Escape" are apt descriptors for how I felt during the preparation stages of my recent pop culture conference presentation on Resident Evil 5, the last thing I wanted to do when I finished said presentation was play the game ever again. But it is a testament to the two new downloadable chapters that they reaffirmed my love for the game.

The first of the two downloadable contents, "Lost in Nightmares," fleshes out a back story only vaguely told through flashbacks in the main game. The chapter is an excellent return to form for the series, simultaneously satirizing and paying homage to the first game in the series--that saw the birth of the survival horror genre.

All the elements are here: cheap scares, puzzles requiring archaic cranks and keys, less than enough ammunition to defeat the monsters, and of course, mounting tension in the guise of journal entries. Granted, it's very short (taking me a little over an hour to play through on "Hard"), but it gave me a renewed inspiration in RE5 as a whole (to see what the developers could have done, rather than boldly taking the series in a new direction) and left me wanting more classic Resident Evil. I promptly went online to download RE2 and jumped right in (which, though I'd never gotten around to it before, had aged very well).

The second DLC, which only came out this past week, takes a wholly different approach. This time filling in the gaps in the story of two secondary characters, "Desperate Escape" embraces the new direction of RE5 by dialing up the intensity to adrenaline pumping proportions. And while the chapter plays out like an extra-long session of the game's arcade-like "Mercenaries" mode, the stakes are greater, as each character is given only the bare minimum of equipment to start with (and only the possibility of randomized upgrades) to face the hordes of zombies.

While the chapter is also short, it's brutal even from the outset, leaving little room for error. Where the core game is generally easier when replacing your AI partner with a human one, this switch seemed to make little difference in "Desperate Escape." Eventually, I was able to beat it, but by myself after a couple of human players bailed on me online. Games like Demon's Souls and RE2 have retaught me to relish this kind of challenge, and "Desperate Escape" only solidifies that.

As much as I love both of these new chapters, however, I'm nevertheless jealous of gamers who will pick up the game as the yet-to-be-released Gold Edition--to include all of the game's DLC. How will it affect their perception of the game to play the "complete" experience? I'd imagine they'll like it better, getting it all at once. This in itself almost makes me appreciate it less. Why didn't these "extra features" get included from the start? RE5 is even shorter than RE4, and even that game came with a bonus chapter telling the story of a secondary character.

But I can't really be upset with the developers over this. After all, this isn't a new practice. Ironically, that novel which I spent the last two months comparing to RE5 (King Solomon's Mines) was first released as a series, only later to get it's own "Gold Edition," complete with revisions and additions of its own.

In the end, I suppose it's only fair for Capcom to take their good game, tweak it, and make it great. And really, that's what "Lost in Nightmares" and "Desperate Escape" do for Resident Evil 5--make it great, make it Gold.

Questions? Quibbles? Controversies?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Dealing with Classroom Close-Mindedness

Every semester, in my Rhetoric of Comics class, I teach a selection from Simcha Weinstein's book Up, Up, and Oy Vey! In his book, which is part history lesson, part Bible study, and part pop culture survey, Weinstein discusses the history of comics main superheroes and their Jewish American creators. He argues that because their culture and beliefs no doubt influenced them in their creative endeavors, we can trace characteristics of the genre back to those religious beliefs. He's primarily interested in simultaneously giving superhero fans, critics, and creators a new way of looking at their genre and reclaiming a cultural artifact of his faith.

Now, Weinstein's no academic, and while he has history on his side (some of the most famous superhero creators were, indeed, Jewish--Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby among them), some of his connections are very loose. For example, he tries to argue that The Fantastic Four are an example of the Jewish belief in the importance of family values. Of course, that could be said of any belief system. But that's why I assign this reading every semester--it teaches students something new about superheroes, yes, but it also challenges them to see through Weinstein's rhetoric, so they can better prepare their own.

Now, I've never had problems with this reading before, but a few of my students in one of my classes this semester really balked at Weinstein's ideas, and it shows in their blogs (sometimes, offensively so). First off, they seem to have a real problem with just the basic fact that these creators were Jewish. And that seems to create a huge problem; they're reading his text as though he were saying all superheroes are Jewish. This simply isn't the case. (In fact, in his conclusion, he points out that the moral messages that can be gleaned from the genre are applicable to anyone, religious or otherwsie.) And this close-minded attitude is seriously prohibiting them from actually seeing what Weinstein's points are. It can be seen even in their post titles, but it comes out somewhat offensively in a couple of places--accusing Weinstein of making non-Jews not want to read comics, failing to appreciate the plight of Jews during the Holocaust, and even backhandedly referring to the Jewish religion as "crap."

So, aside from the fact that this points out gross failures in their ability to closely read an argument before weighing in, it also means their failing to actually look at his rhetoric--which defeats the purpose of the reading, among other things. And perhaps I'm overreacting, but I'm worried what this tone might set for the rest of the semester. We haven't gotten to Maus yet, and we're also going to look at Persepolis--two religiously charged texts.

I'm not sure why I'm writing about this situation here--maybe to vent my frustration (we couldn't even have a two-way conversation about it in class today because virtually no one other than those students who blogged had even read the text), maybe to seek advice on how I should handle the situation (I commented back to those students, suggesting that, among other things, they read more open-mindedly, and took aside one student in particular after class to drive home the point for him), or maybe because it just really bothers me to encounter such ignorance.

That's not to say that those students are bad students (because they're not), and it's not even their faults really (most of them equate the Holocaust with America's involvement in World War II, assuming all was well before that--and they couldn't give you that date to save their lives, either). Maybe I'm just so new to teaching that classroom racism shocks me.

I'm open to comments, either here or on my students blogs. In fact, I'd love outside comments on my students blogs to give them better scope, multiple perspectives. I trust my regular readers wouldn't chastise them, so I'm not worried about opening that invitation. Otherwise, as always, I'm open to...

Questions? Quibbles? Controversies?

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