When it comes right down to it, Dead Space 3 is a game about standing in a corner and blasting aliens into bloody bits. I've been playing through the opening hours of the game, and despite recognizing the various problems mentioned in some reviews (including Tina's less-than-glowing review), I have to say that after six or so hours, I'm enjoying myself quite a bit.
Leaving aside the game's overarching successes and failings, I want to take a moment to go in-depth with the thing Dead Space does nigh-on peerlessly: this game knows how to stomp.
The thrill of stomping an alien into the floor is the primary reason I like Dead Space games. It has yet to get old. (I gather that given Dead Space 3's length, it might? But it hasn't yet.) Despite developer Visceral's insistence on adding detailed backstorthy, character-motivation and lore, only one Dead Space "story" captures my imagination, and it's this one: I'm backing up slowly, blasting away at horrifying creatures, hoping to violently dismantle them all before they get their massive, spiny hooks into me. That's it. That's literally the entire game, as far as I'm concerned. Everything else is just window-dressing.
I looked over my 2011 review of Dead Space 2 and found myself saying more or less the same thing:
Visceral has created a world in which things have real heft to them—metal body-suits contract and lock into place with satisfying clicks and pops, alien limbs are severed with disgustingly satisfying cracks, and mucus, blood and viscera splat and explode with palpable physicality. When Isaac stomps monsters beneath his feet, he begins to scream from behind his helmet, a panicked, desperate cry that's all but drowned out by the pounding of metal boots into flesh. Visceral Games, indeed.
The stomping in Dead Space 3 is just as good as in its predecessor. Sure, Isaac's motivation is murky, and he's a lump of a main character. Sure, the sidequests already feel kind of repetitive just a few hours in, and the jump-scares and large-scale encounters are entirely predictable. But sometimes I have to ask: when it feels this good to smash monsters to smithereens, who cares?
That combo move, which I have creatively named the "Kneecap-Then-Stomp," is my go-to tool for enemy destruction in the early goings. (I understand that I'll eventually be able to make weapons that far outstrip my current assault rifle/shotgun combo, but hey, so far this seems to work.) First, you shoot the enemy in the leg so that it falls onto the ground. Then, approach and stomp. Rinse and repeat until everything is dead.
Here, check out this extended cut of an encounter I survived during the game's second optional side mission:
I'm playing on normal difficulty, so it's easier for me to blast off limbs and close in for the stomp. Watch the way Isaac is animated, bringing his gun-arm up and throwing his leg down. It mirrors the urgency with which I'm mashing the shoulder-button, willing him to just crush this fucking thing so that I can whip my head up and deal with whatever fresh hell is likely onrushing.
In those moments, I feel vitally connected to the game and to Isaac, and I get a sense of just how disorienting it would be to begin frantically stomping while wearing a heavy suit of space-armor. Notice how the camera shakes when Isaac brings his boot down. Between the strobe-lights, the writhing monsters and the camera-jitters, it's all so desperate and chaotic and violent. And perhaps most impressive, it's seamless. The idea with these kinds of big games is that the craft will blend into the background and the player won't notice just how many people it took to make each part of a game work properly. And so it is with Isaac's stomp. But when I pause to think about how many different things had to work in harmony to make the stomp as awesome as it is, it's hard not to be impressed.
Clearly the folks who made Dead Space are aware of how much fun it is to stomp things. See that glowing case over there? Want to know what's inside? Better STOMP IT INTO DUST. The game also makes you stomp on dead monster-bodies to get more power-ups, which is at once an absurd concession to video-game logic (what, did the necromorph eat that extra ammo?) and an endearingly goofy concession to how much we like to stomp.
And okay, the sound. Audio director Nick Laviers and his team are killers. Every time I'll roll my eyes at another hackneyed plot development or grumble at a bit of backtracking, I'll survive an encounter and laugh to myself about how excellent it all sounded. (For more on the game's sound design, check out this cool video from Kill Screen and The Creator's Project.)
Check out the audio on Isaac's stomp:
YES. The boot just smashes into the ground, hitting just the right blend of the carom of the boot and the squish of necromorph-guts. (The scream at the end is another alien, by the way, not Isaac. He never gets that freaked out.)
I've been trying to figure out just what it is that makes me drawn to Dead Space games, sometimes despite myself, and the stomp best encapsulates it. I like how these games feel. The jury's out for me on Dead Space 3 as a whole—I haven't even landed on this ice planet that people seem to have such mixed feelings about, and I haven't sampled the co-op.
Last night on Twitter, I was talking about the game and Polygon's Arthur Gies asked me, with his tongue somewhat in his cheek, yeah, but how does the game make me feel? This was the best I could come up with on short notice:
@aegies so far, it makes me feel like one of those people who stomps grapes for a living, only the grapes are screaming, and I'm screaming— Kirk Hamilton (@kirkhamilton) February 11, 2013
That pretty much sums it up. The grapes are screaming, and I'm screaming, and as long as I keep stomping, it's a lot of fun. Stomp, stomp.