Dead Space Remake, from all the trailers and gameplay footage I’ve seen so far, seems remarkably faithful to the 2008 original. Meanwhile, Callisto Protocol, once touted as the unofficial successor to Dead Space, met with mixed reception when it launched. As you can read in our Callisto Protocol review, we were on the positive side of the critical division, but acknowledged concerns about its history and performance issues. Is the contender in danger of being overshadowed, once we hit Dead Space Remake’s release date?
Maybe not. There’s one thing Callisto does better than the original Dead Space, one thing that, sadly, I doubt we’ll see replicated in this long-awaited remake. Callisto Protocol’s combat, at least in the early levels, is vastly superior to Dead Space’s – and from what we’ve seen of the remake so far, superior to that as well.
The Ripper. The plasma cutter. Even the relatively demure Assault Rifle. Dead Space uses shooting and killing to show off its various novelty weapons. And it’s convincing. Like the active reload feature in Gears of War, adding a single button press or layer of functionality to each weapon (do you want to fire the Plasma Cutter vertically or horizontally?) leads to more combat varied, more deliberate and more dramatic.
There’s nothing quite like point and shoot in Dead Space. Identify the type of enemy; select the right weapon; set the weapon to the correct mode; aim for the appropriate body part; and only then shoot yourself. The process is more layered, and this is its greatest strength; it’s the imaginative gadget that has always elevated Dead Space above most third-person shooters. As engineer Isaac Clarke, you are faced with a series of glaring and flesh-eating (bio)mechanical problems. To “repair” them, you need to skillfully use the right tools.
The issues with Dead Space’s combat have nothing to do with weapon design or mechanics, or even individual instances of gunplay. In a kind of vertical slice example – Isaac Clarke against a group of enemies – the combat in Dead Space is fantastic. The problem comes from the rhythm.
Especially in the later levels, enemies jump and attack you relentlessly. You can complete a large scale combat encounter or a big set piece, and immediately afterwards, as you roam the halls of the Ishimura trying to recover and breathe in some of the rich atmosphere of horror, again once, you will be attacked.
And then when you defeat this group of enemies, you will be attacked again. It gets almost wacky, those repetitive occasions where you kill a group of necromorphs, start listening to a voice note you just found, only for another group of necromorphs to suddenly arrive and start slicing through you.
I understand that the goal is to build up pressure on the player, and thus increase the horror and the feeling of a desperate attempt at survival. But it has the opposite effect. The more you kill something, the less each individual feels it has the potential to harm you. As Isaac repeatedly and successfully kills Necromorphs, sometimes by the dozens or more, he also begins to feel invulnerable. As such, there is no possible threat to its survival, and therefore, no horror.
The Callisto protocol also does this. In later levels, and especially after amassing the game’s entire arsenal of weapons, Jacob Lee becomes fully capable of killing multiple Biophages at once without suffering a bruise. But in its early days, when you just got out of the jail cell, armed only with a metal pipe and the first tiny gun, Callisto is a master class in horror games combat.
Part of it is the dodge system. Although the entrances and mechanics of this one are basic, just having the player actively try to evade an enemy’s attacks makes that enemy much more threatening – if you’re not careful and try to kill that thing like you’re the one with the most power, you’ll die.
The dodge system also introduces an element of physicality and sweat. As you dodge and launch your counterattacks, you can see and hear Jacob working hard to stay alive. Combined with the rawness of his weapons (I wish Jacob hadn’t traded in the metal pipe for that stupid stun rod), it makes every battle in The Callisto Protocol a ferocious, near-death experience.
But that’s only half. What’s more important is how the Callisto Protocol – again, at least in the early levels – sparingly deploys its enemies and monsters. For the first two hours, if you’re fighting, it’s with one, maybe two Biophages at a time. Not only does it let you enjoy this kind of breathless, rambling melee combat, but it gives each enemy a sense of importance. When you’ve had to struggle, when you’ve had to think and react and really brawl just to take down a monster, that monster becomes a much more touching presence.
As a result, you feel more engaged in the game mechanically. There is no slowing down. There’s no point in sitting there, mowing down enemies, bored by your own invulnerability. You feel you have to thought and law and be careful if you’re going to survive – a much more compelling proposition.
This type of combat, if sustained throughout, can also help a game narratively. If we are meant to be Jacob, or at least deeply sympathize with Jacob, and Jacob is meant to be afraid, that emotional pact becomes much stronger if we are also afraid. Jacob freaking out because he’s trapped in a room with a biophage doesn’t have a dramatic impact if we, playing with him, don’t feel any threat from that biophage. On the contrary, if each of us has hurt, beaten and truly won us a victory, Jacob’s apprehension becomes ours.
And speaking again of Jacob, compared to Isaac in the original Dead Space, he’s a character who displays fear, ardor, and stress much more visibly – who more effectively “sells” what we’re meant to feel. With the original Isaac, for the most part, all we have to do in terms of reactions or emotions is the green-yellow-red health bar on the back of his platform. It’s a neat UI gimmick, but even the occasional moments when Isaac grimaces, runs away, or shows some sort of visible panic, do little to communicate what he’s going through internally.
Isaac Clarke in the original Dead Space is a walking piece of metal with a gun. Jacob Lee, meanwhile, squirms, sweats and swears. These are minor details, but Jacob’s whisper “oh fuck” when he sees a security robot, or the way he closes his eyes in a kind of silent prayer when he first encounters the blind, stalking enemy. , gives him a traceable humanity – but contained and not overstated. And when a character has some detectable humanity, we instinctively can’t help it: we feel more connected and in tune with them. And that, in turn, adds to the immediacy of the fight, the interplay between what our character is doing and what we imagine them to be feeling.
Jacob – stressed, scared, sweaty – is an identifiable person. I too am a person. So when he gets slashed and bitten, and he carries this big metal pole over his shoulder to try to save his own life, I feel it more keenly. The Dead Space remake, which gives Isaac Clarke a voice, a new face, and seemingly “more agency”, seems to appreciate that as well. But everything works much better when combat is rare and the body count is low.
If Dead Space Remake has as many shots and kills as the original, Isaac’s added humanity won’t be as touching – a character can swear, scream and moan, but if in gameplay it’s about an unstoppable death machine, we won’t. feel their vulnerability. The Callisto Protocol, at its best, mixes a sensibly human character with what gameplay-wise feels like grappling and fallibility. Would love to see that in the Dead Space remake. In fact, I’d love to see it in more games in general.
As it progresses, however, Callisto Protocol gradually drops this dynamic, giving you more weapons to fight more enemies in more regular encounters. Like Dead Space, when it comes to horror – or even a basic sense of constraint – the developers of Callisto seem to believe, quite simply, that more is more and less is less. It saddens me that the games think so little of us, that we need a constant administration of blood, death and murder, or we will lose interest.
It’s accepted in horror movies – and in pure horror games like Alien Isolation or Amnesia – that the less you see something, the scarier it becomes. Like walking around in the dark, it’s scary because you can’t really see it, understand it, or know it. The same to have to be true for horror games with more combat. The less you fight something, and the easier it is to win that fight, the more doubtful, uncertain, and filled with coiled and dangerous potential it seems, while the more you fight and kill it, the less it affects you. This is what the Callisto protocol, at least initially, seems to understand. That’s what I hope the Dead Space remake learned.
If you’re preparing your Plasma Cutter for Dead Space, make sure you meet the Dead Space system requirements to avoid Ishimura-like malfunctions. You might also want to check out some of the other best horror games, or maybe the best upcoming games for 2023.
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