Interstellar – a cosmic failure

PREFACE

Interstellar was promised to be scientific. Interstellar was promised to be a fantastic journey, an adventure never seen before. Interstellar was promised to be the intersection of Hollywood money and the fascinating world of physics and technology. Unfortunately, it is neither. It is a below average pseudo-science-fiction, a total logical nonsense with a higher than usual budget, and a shamefully missed opportunity. Let’s see why.

Dude, fix your problem!

So we have a situation with crops. I would not claim to fully understand what they’re saying, but what can cause crop failure on massive scale? Only some kind of germ, a virus or something, isn’t it? It does not seem that hard to handle.

First, find it. You have electron microscopes. You have chemistry. Advanced analysis techniques, like mass spectrometers and others. You have all sort of things to employ when you are looking for a microbe. I mean, we have found HIV after a few years of search, and it was in 1981, and was hardly a devastating worldwide problem. You want to tell me that mankind watches the crops all fail one after the other, helpless? Or, as one character puts it, they train more and more … farmers? Because you know, if we have less farm area every year, we need more farmers. Jeez! Not machines or scientists! No, farmers. They will surely be a great help!

Okay, let’s suppose they don’t find the cause. Why not try isolated indoor farming? Heat up the soil to kill all life, or use hydroponics. And then plant crops from seed banks. Are you telling me that by the time they discovered the problem, every single seed on the planet was infested, and there is absolutely no way to clean them?

Very well then. How about manufacturing nutrients? I get that it might be quite expensive, but surely better than dying in hunger. I mean, proteins, fats, vitamins … it should not be all that hard to synthesize them.

But they don’t do any of these. They come up with two plans, aptly named plan A and plan B. Plan A consists of finding a new planet, and migrating there. Excuse me, how does that help with the crops? I mean we probably still need to eat over there, so we need to bring seeds to plant. Do you think that whatever kills our food on Earth, will miraculously vanish if we move to another planet? Or do you hope to find edible vegetables there? Neither of these options seem to have any viability.

And there is plan B, populating the other planet with the astronauts, leaving everyone else to die on Earth. Now this solution might work a little better with an all female crew, don’t you think? What if not Dr Hathaway, but one of the other members survives at the end alone? That much for plan B. Maybe something you should have considered. But it actually changes nothing, because you still didn’t solve the main problem! What will they eat, damn it? Are we finished with all these nonsense that do not in any way address the actual problem at hand, namely the lack of food?

At the end of the movie, you can see mankind living happily on orbital stations. Risking being terribly boring, can I ask what kind of food you people were eating up there? Somehow the understanding of gravity also solved the crop problem? Or you just happened to find a solution meanwhile? But then, why not solve the situation down on Earth? Why did you go up to live in tubes? How about a plot that makes sense??

The Spaceship

Actually, nobody said the spaceship would be scientific. It was lightly implied, but that’s all. But come on! It is a little too much to stomach here.

First of all. Why do we have separated compartments? Would not it be easier to have a sturdy structure, that, you know, can accelerate? Acceleration is pretty much the same thing as gravity (since the General Theory of Relativity, they are exactly the same). If you give the spacecraft one g acceleration, it is the same thing as putting it down on the ground, resting on its engines. The same kind of forces will appear, and attempt to tear the structure apart. Now does that spaceship look like a solid structure to you? That would withstand excessive forces acting upon it?

Second, the spinning. There are multiple problems associated with spinning a vehicle in space. If you want to steer a spinning mass, it will resist. I trust you remember that experiment involving a hanging bicycle wheel. It requires a whole lot of force to change the axis of the rotation. Therefore navigating a spinning object is a hassle. Another problem is the conservation of angular momentum. If you want to spin up an object, or spin it down, you will either need to use reactive forces, that is, rockets, which eject mass that you will never get back. Or you will need to store the angular momentum in a flywheel. But high mass high speed flywheels give you all sorts of engineering problems. In short, getting anything spinning in space is a serious undertaking, and you want to avoid it if at all possible. As a result, you probably want to spin only the parts humans live in, and let the cargo experience zero gravity, it does not mind. In our situation, since the crew went sleeping right away, spinning any part of the ship is a total waste of resources.

Wormhole woes

So the creators seem to have had discussions with an actual physicist who told them that wormholes don’t look like discs, but spheres. The analogy would be that if you imagine two planes connected by a tube, the tube’s connection to the plane is a circle, which is the 2D analogue of a sphere in 3D. A 3D wormhole is attached to our space through a 3D sphere, and extends into the 4th dimension. You can actually find animations about such a thing on the Internet. It is quite cool. Away from the hole, you see your own world. If you look right into the hole, you see the other world. And between the two, there is a region in which the two worlds are weirdly intertwined. This is due to the fact that such a geometry can not be, obviously, flat. You need to bend the space in order to form a connecting tube between two otherwise flat worlds. And as light always tries to travel as straight as it can, it goes along all sorts of spirals and circles on such a warped surface.

The creators seem to got only the fact that they need a sphere. Because how they implemented it in the movie, looks nothing like a realistic wormhole. More like a big sphere with another galaxy printed on the surface. And when they decide to hop in, some usual tunnel like special effects show up, right from the ’80s. Lame! Give us an actual wormhole, damn it!

Orbital mechanics

The writers also don’t seem to understand even the very basics of orbital mechanics. The spaceship does not have some super-futuristic propulsion technology, it is clear from the fact that they needed two full years to get to Saturn, which is only somewhat better than what we can do today. So they are bound by the limitations we understand very well. Or at least they should.

Our main enemy is the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation. Simply stated, it means that if you want to add more units of distance to travel, the required fuel multiplies. That is, having twice, four times, eight times as much fuel gives us only one, two or three additional chunks of distance covered. The easiest way to understand it is through a very simple thought experiment. Suppose we have a little rocket that can propel us, in some comfortable time, to a destination at a given distance. Let this be a million kilometers in one day of time. Also suppose that our cabin weights one ton, and the fuel needed to make this journey is also one ton. How much fuel we need if we want to travel another million kilometers in one more day? One way to do that is to take two more rockets, and put our first rocket with our cabin in the cargo bay. That is two tons of cargo for the two rockets. So we travel one million kilometers in one day, while using up all the two tons of fuel in the two rockets. Then we ditch the outer shell, and unpack the little spaceship in the cargo, and hop in it. Another day, another million kilometers. In total, we needed three tons of fuel. Similarly, we can travel one million kilometers more if we put our two stage rocket, totaling four tons, into a superspaceship with four engines, requiring seven tons of fuel in total. If we continue this, we get large numbers very fast. The next few numbers are 15, 31, 63 and 127. Now, this is a very rudimentary explanation, and largely lacks scientific rigor. But the actual math of the situation is not that far off from it. Alas, the result is that we need exponentially more fuel to travel larger distances.

Another concept to understand is gravity wells and delta-v. If you are in orbit around a mass, it is not easy to switch to another orbit, especially if you want to move closer or farther away from the mass. You can pretty much imagine it like a whole in the ground with sloped sides. It takes effort to climb out. The weird thing with gravity is that climbing down also needs effort. That is basically due to the law of energy conservation. As you orbit a mass, your potential energy (caused by the distance from the mass) and your kinetic energy (coming from movement) sums up to a constant, unless you do something about it. This something can be a swing around another mass, or burning a lot of rocket fuel. The change you make in your trajectory is measured by a quantity called delta-v. In the simplest case, linear acceleration, delta-v means what it sounds like: a difference between the starting and ending speeds. But in more complex situations it is more difficult than that. At any rate, it measures how much you worked on changing your movement, for example how much you climbed out of (or down) the pit. These gravity wells tend to be rather deep. For example in order to escape from the surface of the Earth and achieve a low orbit around it, you need approximately 10km/s delta-v. That is the same amount of effort as speeding up your spacecraft from a standing position to 10km/s in open space. That is some considerable speed, if you think about it. The Earth is 30km/s deep in the Sun’s gravity well.

Now back to the so called science in the movie. There is basically no way with our technology to just run around in a solar (black-hole-ar?) system, and visit multiple planets within a reasonable timeframe, as we were shown. With the Tsiolkovsky equation in effect, the spaceship must have been carrying ginormous heaps of fuel. Essentially, the entire spaceship must be all fuel. Just for comparison, we launched a Delta II rocket standing 40m tall, weighing 200 tons to get a little, one ton spacecraft in Earth orbit that was able to deliver the 185 kilogram Spirit rover to the surface of Mars. And it is the planet just next door. They didn’t have neither the time nor the resources to manufacture, and put in Earth orbit, the many many billions of tons of fuel required for the journey depicted in the movie. Neither they seemed to have have huge fuel tanks.

And then, they descend to the gravity well of the black hole. How deep that gravity well might be? Just remember that the Earth’s gravity well is basically one of the biggest problem we face in space exploration. How much deeper the well they had to descend into was? They actually gave us a hint: so deep the time dilation was a huge issue. According to the Theory of General Relativity, if you go down a gravity well, time slows down. It does not depend on the strength of the gravitational field, but your depth in the well. This effect is observable on Earth. That is why the GPS satellites have their clocks set differently. They are not as deep in the well as we are down here, so our clocks are a little slower. How much slower? 45 microseconds per day. That is microsecond, a millionth of a second. So the gravity well that gives us a huge headache causes a slowdown factor of 1.00000000052. It is not even noticeable if you don’t have precision equipment. The well they descended into gave them a time dilation of seven years per hour. That is a factor of 61320. That is a gravity well so deep, words can’t describe how deep. Our solar system is a shallow puddle compared to the steep chasm of that place. No energy or force ever created by mankind is able to put them down there, let alone get them out later. It just not going to happen.

Life Around the black hole

Planets orbiting a supermassive black hole is a good idea, because it looks good. No, seriously, this is the only reason. The problem is not what it seems to be at a glance. In fact, you can find stable orbits around a black hole, just you need to go far enough, and it is not very far at all. Also, black holes do radiate in visible light too, and thus can warm up planets and possibly feed their biosphere.

But unfortunately, black holes radiate a whole lot of gamma and x-rays. It might be all right for some kind of life. Life forms that evolved in such a hostile environment, and have some clever mechanisms to cope with the constant barrage of destructive radiation. But humans tend to react quite poorly to these bands of the electromagnetic spectra. So if you look for a new home, maybe try an actual star next time. The movie’s science guy says in an interview that the idea was that it is not an accretion disk, but some unstable remnant of it, slowly cooling. I don’t know who do you plan to fool with that, pal.

There is also a problem with the time dilation as presented in the movie. So we have this planet with time extremely slowed down. They find out that the person sent there possibly died minutes ago in her time, although it was decades ago for the outside world. And that is what misled them to think the planet would be habitable, as they received the signal almost to that date. Question. Should not you have realized that the radio transmission is actually a minute of content stretched out over months? How could you even receive such a slowed down signal? No doubt your radio is designed to receive a range of carrier signals. Can your radio pick up signals 60000 times below its designed frequency? And if it can, didn’t you think that “Sooo faaaar iiiiiit iiiiiis fiiiiineeee” slowed down 60000 times is not a very reassuring message?

Also, a little side remark. The physics expert working for the movie is cited to say something along the lines of he was surprised how the simulations turned out. The equations were fed to a computer, but nobody expected such results. This gives you the impression that said simulations were done recently, maybe even for the movie. So we see a cutting edge scientific discovery, possibly even financed by the studio. In fact, very similar animations existed back in 1990. Granted, the results were surprising back then. But presenting it as anything new or related to the movie is just a gargantuan lie.

Every time travel plot ever

There are two possibilities. Either every time travel plot Hollywood comes up with has exactly the same problems. Or literally every time travel plot ever written has the same problems. Either way, it is advisable to follow time travel plot 101: if you want your plot not to suck, do not put time travel in it.

There are two major plot issues with all time travel stories. The first one is what they use it for. Time travel is an extremely potent capability to have. So extremely potent in fact, stories necessarily develop into a singularities if you want them to follow logic. In this movie, the guy went out of his way to communicate the coordinates of a NASA base. Why not go ahead a little bit, sneak peak into the solution for the gravity problem, and tell that instead? Or if we are at it, why not the solution to the crop problem? Or let’s assume the guy was not able to travel to other places, only different times. At the end he is standing there in person, apparently somehow got out of the black hole. So here is an idea! Why not grab some relevant scientific data, and go back to the black hole once more, and tell the young girl about those? Or if you don’t want to go in black holes anymore, just go to your house, dump the data on the floor, the other you can read it from the other side, and communicate to your young girl. In fact you can not fail, because if you do, you can repeat the process any number of times, you can continue to drop other people into the black hole, or present yourself any ideas in your house that you can dump on the little girl in the past.

Time travel also logically removes any sense of urgency. You have all the time in the universe to act, it does not matter when you go back in time, you can arrive at the same hour anyway. So why our heroes are so stressed? Why the hurry? Calm the f down, people, and get your act together. Of course, we understand very well why they need to act fast. It is because otherwise we had time to think the plot through, and that would ruin the experience. My bad. Please keep the pace up.

CONCLUSION

The good news is that we have a big budget movie with science in it. The bad news is science gets raped by the movie. This is the triumph of symbolism over realism. And I’m sad.

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Interstellar – a cosmic failure

Dead Space 3 – autopsy

Opening thoughts

I have no favorite game. I have four. Two of them are Dead Space 1 and Dead Space 2. For me, the Dead Space series redefined what a horror game is. A good game is always characterized by getting multiple aspects excellently. In case of Dead Space, we have the combat, the visual design, and the creepy atmosphere. All of them on a level rarely matched in other games. Competent voice acting and writing, the interesting shop and upgrade system are just the icing on the cake.

I bought Dead Space few weeks before Dead Space 2 came out, it was highly discounted. I put well over hundred hours of gameplay in it. I bought Dead Space 2 at full price, and put another hundred plus hours in it. So when the 3rd came out, I thought, it is just an opportunity for me to throw more money to a developer team as good as this. Why they don’t have a donate option? I want to send 500 dollars over right now. I bought the game without giving too much consideration. If I wasted 60 euros on them, I could not care less, i’m just paying for the 5th playthrough of the first one. I mean, whatever bad is it, it won’t make the first two go away.

But it did. Dead Space 3 is actually so bad it undoes the first two. It represents a negative value, and it can not be unseen, it can not be unplayed. It is here to stay, and leave bitter taste in our mouths.

Why reviewing this game now, when it is out for more than 10 month? I was sure it will be done by others. Such an abomination of a game can not get away. We need to call out the emperor for walking around naked. But somehow it did get away. Nobody called it out. I watched in growing disappointment as reviews came out calling the game “a good game, just not a good Dead Space game”, or being “a scifi shooter and not a horror game”. Are you people all mind controlled from EA headquarters? Is that the famous denial phase? Or a curious case of the stockholm syndrome?

This writing is an attempt to give justice to Dead Space 3. If nobody else, I have to. But maybe i’m also your therapist. Maybe you thought it is your fault. I’m here to relieve you. It is not your fault. It is their fault. It is the fault of the cynical managers of visceral/EA, for deciding to engage in this treacherous cash grab, ripping off the fans of one of the greatest franchises of gaming history, destroying something outstanding for a handful of dollars.

So let’s get started.

1. Enemies

Bullet sponges

Horror games are defined not by jump scares, nor the atmosphere. Those are just minor ornaments. The true nature of a good horror game lies in its mechanics. In Dead Space 1 and 2, you are ambushed by different enemies, usually slow moving and spread out. But they are swarming in on you, and you need to dispatch them in a limited time. You constantly make decisions, as your actions are also slow. Do you shoot the little ranged enemy in the background? Or you double-shoot the leg of a slowly approaching melee to pin it down? Or you shoot the arm of it to make it harmless? Maybe you move away? You stasis or torso-shoot a charging monster? You have to keep track of multiple enemies, anticipate their attack patterns and plan your actions accordingly. Meanwhile, new enemies might appear or you might screw up something, which is likely. This means you need to reassess the situation all the time. The relative slowness of the battle, the constant demand for concentration and decisions makes combat stressful and desperate.

All of this is gone in the 3rd game. Enemies are now pose a steady level of threat until they take a number of hits and die. For example the very first necromorphs Isaac encounters are relatively fast moving melees. If you shoot their leg, they crowl with the same speed if not faster. If you cut their arms, they morph into a 3-armed ranged creature. So you end up spamming the fire button. It is frustrating, but not because it is hard. Only because you can’t do anything meaningful, you just wish them to die already.

The synergy between enemies is also gone. You rarely face multiple kinds at the same time, and even if you do, they are just randomly thrown in without consideration. If creators felt like adding some more challenge, they just threw waves after waves of the same enemy types at you. Which is only one thing: boring.

Dismemberment: cut

Some new enemies are swinging their arms fast, or charging at you giving no chance to dismember them. Like the creators thought, hey, you are now good at cutting limbs down, what if we give you a new challenge, an enemy that resists that, huh? In effect, they threw this game element out of the window, instead of going further with the great concept they established in the first two.

The problem is made even worse by the unstoppable animations. Enemies often charge at you, or do other long attack animations, which can not be interrupted by firepower. I remember many times the line gun’s arc just went through the legs of a jumping necromorph. What kind of game design is that? I really need to look up the makers of this one and the previous ones. I’m pretty sure that some key names will be different.

Tk: thrown out of the window

Telekinesis is in the game, and they even advertise it in the most obnoxious way. However it does not seem to work very well. The major problem is that you just can’t pick up claws and blades. In Dead Space 2, the tk prioritizes items that can be used as weapons. Here, this seems to be either taken out or just does not work properly. I kept picking up limbs and torsos in combat, while plenty of tools and claws were lying around. Compounded by the fact that enemies can’t be dismembered and/or charge at you super fast, I found myself using the tk module less often and with less success. Which is a problem, because in Dead Space 2, winning a huge battle with minimal ammo was the most satisfying experience.

Headshot!

There are enemies later which simply refuse to obey the established rules. We might give a pass to human enemies. Obviously, they behave differently than necromorphs. This is the primary reason why you don’t put human enemies in a Dead Space game. But there are also small fragile looking child sized necromorphs with thin legs and arms. But you can’t cut their limbs off, and they take like five shots to go down. The only efficient way to kill them is to shoot the head. Even if headshots being useless is a core element of the lore.

PITA boss

Bossfights are often boring and tedious in many video games, and sadly, original Dead Space games are no exception. All the bossfights are about memorizing their (rather simple) attack patterns, avoiding them, while shooting weak spots a few times in the little time gaps between attacks. But in the first games, boss fights are few and far between.

But none of those bosses are as pointless and unnecessary as the PITA boss in the 3rd one. I’m referring to that four legged spider like thing with fangs or antennae or what. You fight it three times with no indication on what should you do. It has those obvious yellow weak spots, but as you shoot them, they grow back. You try different things, like shooting all of them within a short time window or similar ideas. Nothing works, and after some time, the monster just walks off. I still don’t know, to date, whether I wasted resources by taking chances trying different things on it. I don’t know what triggers its runaway, maybe I could just circle it for a time, saving ammo?

Once it is established that you just need to toy with it for some time, and it leaves, the third time it does not leave. You can waste all the ammo in the universe, till your fingers hurt, to no avail. Until you finally google what to do, to find out that you can’t kill it, you have to use a harpoon. The game’s idea is to turn the bossfight that is boring to begin with, into a QTE button smash.

Dead Space 1 final boss recycled

Somewhere in the middle of the game you need to defeat the final boss from Dead Space 1. I mean, seriously, how cheap you can get? Design a new boss! Admittedly, they added a second phase, and changed it around a little bit, but still, guys, that boss wasn’t that interesting in the first place.

2. Weapons

Oh, the weapons. The descent started in the second game. Actually, to be honest, in the first game. So the weapon system went from broken but salvageable to more broken but salvageable just to finally reach its end state in the 3rd game: broken and not salvageable.

The problems, as I mentioned, start in the first game. It was established that we need to cut limbs. So an industrial rotating sawblade looks like a fantastic idea to have. Turns out, it flat out does not work, you can’t aim with that, it is not strong enough, it takes ages to cut anything with it. It is a waste of time. On the other hand, pulse gun proves itself quite good in many situations, like killing swarms of little enemies, or dismembering (!) brutes (!). Can someone tell me why can an engineer buy a weapon on a mining station?

In the second game, force gun became the ultimate weapon and just ruins the game largely. I was lucky not trying that one. They also added a lot of colorful but entirely useless military level guns. All this is just unnecessary, the game still plays best with the plasma cutter. Actually, you can finish the game with nothing but the plasma cutter.

Then we have the 3rd game. And boy, they have really turned it up to eleven. Let’s see why.

Plasma cutter: won’t cut it

Two or three hours into the game you realize that something is wrong. The plasma cutter is so weak it is ridiculous. At first you might feel compelled to blame it on the lack of upgrades, but then the upgrades do not seem to help much either. It is only a matter of time before you understand that this time developers were thinking, the plasma cutter has gotten old, what about spicing it up a little, and give the player cool new weapons? in short, why don’t we just trash the concept that made our first two games so good?

Varieties of bad

But they have failed with the new weapons as well. You can categorize weapons in Dead Space 3 into three classes. The first is the weapons that just do not work at all. They don’t do enough damage, the enemy will swarm in on you, you will need to stasis the hell out of them, and run for your life, often leaving enemies behind. I literally had to skip an optional mission (playing on impossible difficulty) because I kept dying on the first corridor. I had the plasma cutter only. The second category is the instant killers. You point them on an enemy, and push the kill button. These weapons allow you to play through the game, but what for? It is not fun anymore. In this category, you find the shotgun. The shotgun! Do you guys understand your own lore? The third category consists of one weapon only, the sticky bolas gun with stasis coating, with a force gun as secondary. It is still overpowered as hell, and you can massacre enemies indiscriminately. But it requires some skill and wit, it has a screwup factor, and gives you a hint of the thrills of the original games.

Foresee or die

Good luck choosing a weapon that works in future situations. That problem actually goes back to the original games. But it is not that apparent there, because most people keep the plasma cutter, and the games are designed around it. Other weapons are just little additions. But since in the 3rd one they opted to kill the plasma cutter, players’ imagination and preferences will go all over the place. Which is a problem when you face something new, and then realize that your weapon is totally ineffective against that new threat. “Luckily” the shotgun/submachine gun variations work in all conditions, so if you chose the most boring kind of weapons, you are good to go. But if you chose anything interesting, you are in trouble.

How do you, for example, defeat the Dead Space 1 copycat boss with a line gun/force gun combo? The arc of the linegun travels at a slow pace, you have no chance of hitting weak points that are exposed for a short time, and in constant move. Even worse, what if you only have a bolas gun? It does not even have the range. You just can’t defeat it. There is no way to beat that boss.

Realizing this flaw, the creators decided to fix it with the weirdest concept in video game history: you can, at any time, leave the game, go to the weapon crafting arena, try new weapon designs, and then return to the game with your newly crafted weapons. By the way, the weapon crafting arena also sucks, more about that later. It is obviously a last minute addition to patch up the gaping holes in the game design.

3. Crafting

The frustration

In the first two games, arriving to a store or a bench is always a moment of joy and relief. You can get rid of the sellable goodies you have found, you can sell the excess ammo or stasis refillers, and replenish missing resources. You always have to do something. And when you are finished with the usual routine, and if you have more money, you can decide to buy a power node, and be proud of yourself. For the bench, you either have a node or not. If you have, you have a few options to choose from, and then walk away with more badass equipment and a wide smile.

Not in Dead Space 3. Arriving at a bench, I remember only frustration. I remember thinking about whether I should even open it up. Then I opened it up in hope of finding anything valuable this time, then frenetically ran around in the menus to find something to do, something to build or upgrade. But then I left without accomplishing a damn thing.

Resources are not balanced at all. Some components like the scrap metal stack up in ginormous heaps (halfway through the game, impossible difficulty, I had over 11000 scrap metal), others like tungsten are lacking and never enough. Later in the game, after you crafted the weapons you want, resources suddenly stop being a problem. You don’t need them anymore, and everything just stacks up. Maybe the great idea was to buy stuff with real money early in the game? I hope I don’t have to explain why this is wrong on multiple levels.

Makes no sense

Largely adding to the frustration is the fact that weapon crafting makes zero sense. In other games, if you put a scope on a weapon, you understand that the weapon now will give you better aiming from a distance. In Dead Space 3, parts does not have a function, and even if they do, it is inconsistent.

Putting a plasma core on a compact frame results in a plasma cutter, which is a long range precision weapon. Putting a plasma core on a heavy frame results in a force gun, which is a melee AOE with very little damage but a pushing effect. How exactly the frame causes such a huge difference?

Stasis coating seems to apply a small stasis effect per … something. If you put it on slow firing guns, the effect is unnoticable. If you put it on fast fire rate machine guns, it does something, but not much. But the sticky bolas enhanced with stasis coating will put enemies in constant stasis for the entire duration of the bolas.

Acid bath adds a little more damage per … something. On most guns, apparently, it adds a nice little green splash, and not much else. Except when put on a force gun, in which case the acid effect goes all over the screen, doing great damage.

This inconsistency leads to a trial and error approach. You need to start assembling your weapon to even find out what the name of it will be, plus some meaningless stats with a useless description. But to really find out what you did just make, you need to go to the field with it, or use the weapon crafting arena, and see it in action. And only then you find out that the weapon in fact does not do any damage, or that it has a one second firing delay, rendering it useless for your purposes.

Crafting UI

I appoint the crafting UI in Dead Space 3 the worst interface ever designed. Question: how do you get rid of the parts you don’t need? There is no such thing as an inventory. You will need to start crafting, and you have a disassemble button in the weapon frame selector list. Then you need to start adding new parts to one of your weapons to get a list of available parts, and you can dismantle them from there. You can’t even get a complete list of upgrade circuits. You need to go into all four submenus for rate of fire, strength, etc, and see if there is something to get rid of. Parts only appear in contexts when you can use them. Some parts will literally never show up anywhere if you don’t have a place to put it. Then you need to go to the other menu with the medkits and things to take those apart.

You have absolutely no clue if you have enough resources to build a weapon. You can’t make plans, and then see how much they cost. You can only save a blueprint if you already have the gun finished.

The UI seems to be designed for a console controller. On the weapon assembly scene, you can only select the diagonal elements with pressing up/down and left/right at the same time. But if you release them not perfectly simultaneously, the focus jumps where the later released button points. Mouse support is minimal to none.

Weapon crafting arena

To patch up the problems caused by terrible design decisions, they added the weapon crafting arena. Its purpose is to try weapon designs in a semi-ingame manner. You can go to the arena at any time, losing only the progress since the last savepoint, craft weapons, try them on a handful of monsters, then go back to the game, where you were. How does that make sense, I don’t know. But not only the idea is horrible, its execution is also very weak.

Instead of creating an area specifically designed for testing weapons, they just took an actual room from the game, sealed it off, and added a “spawn monsters” button. Being terribly lazy is only one of the problems. The arena barely fits for purpose. It spawns like three or four types of enemies, in a small number, in a given setting. You can’t try a weapon in different types of environments, like tight corridors, open arenas. You can’t try different situations, like being ambushed, surrounded or overwhelmed. You can’t test its reload speed in combat, or how it works while retreating or escaping.

Another problem stems from the fact that it is sort of ingame. You can only use the parts and resources you already have. You can not try whether it worths aspiring for 100 more tungsten to craft a different tip or an upgrade circuit. You can’t try it until you actually have the resources. Even worse, since when you dismantle an item you get only half of the resources back, if you want to try different concepts, you are soon running out of resources. And it affects your ingame inventory as well. For that reason, after all unsuccessful weapon creation attempt, you probably want to reset the game to the last checkpoint to get a full refund, and start everything all over.

4. Map design

Dead Space games are corridors, with occasional opportunity to branch off, but it does not make much of a difference. You need to go to both directions, you can just pick the order. Smaller detours can be made to find hidden resources. It is not a problem at all, it is a legit map design. But in Dead Space 1 and 2, locations are varied and interesting. The developers played with vacuum and gravity. They played with monster spawns. They played with environmental hazards. They created warped spaces in which up and down lose their meaning. They created huge rooms and small claustrophobic corridors. They created arenas. They created slowly moving elevators where monsters could ambush you. Every part was carefully crafted from a gameplay perspective. And many ideas were used only once.

I played both original games more than five times. Every time when I arrive to a location, I say “ah, this place! I love it!”. I forced myself to play the 3rd game a second time, this time with the bolas gun all the way. I wanted to find joy in it. I knew it is bad, but I wanted to at least find out what works in it, if you know where to look, and if you take the frustration part out. And over and over I felt like “oh, no, not this part! I hate it!”. Every part is either boring, tedious, slow, frustrating or a combination of these.

Nothing is interesting in the 3rd one. There are no interesting arenas, remarkable battles or challenges. The middle part is made up of the same corridor-room-junction-airlock elements, repeated to oblivion. The map is rushed and stretched out to look bigger. The final part with the alien architecture all around was a similarly lego-ed circle room, bridge, ledge mash. Most of the time you just walk on a boring corridor, and sometimes enemies attack you. I’m literally having hard time remembering parts of the game. What should I remember? The huge tentacles that you need to bend in the right position? Trying to hide from the searching lights of a patrolling spaceship? Escaping from a room filling up with poison gas? There is nothing in this game to remember to.

5. Minigames

In the original Dead Space, minigames come in one flavor only, and quite rarely, often at places where they serve a purpose to prevent you from moving on before all the enemies are dealt with. The minigame does not take much time to complete, and is entertaining enough. It gives the feeling of actually finding weak spots with our hands.

Dead Space 3 is crowded with minigames that serve no other purpose than to add to the playtime. You have to arrange garbage, for god’s sake! None of the games resemble any real life activities, they are not interesting, they take too much time, and there are far too many of them. Can anyone tell me the logic of the number-adding minigame, in which your goal is allegedly to find the correct voltage or what? The numbers written there mean nothing though. You can set the switches in multiple positions that add up to the same number, but only one of them is the winning combination. I found no other logic than trial and error. Can I have a “skip” button please?

The minigames suffer from console design too. Mouse support is mostly absent, and you often have to make diagonal movements with the keyboard.

I can’t tell for sure, but i’m almost certain that they even scrapped a minigame, either because it was just too much, the early testers didn’t like, or they simply did not have time to develop it. I’m talking about the alien door opening mechanism. I suspect that there was a whole subplot about alien language, dictionaries, writing, clues and voice operated doors requiring a password to be spoken. But it did not work out, so what you see in the game is the remnant of it. Now the doors repeatedly broadcast their own opening signals, which is stupid. The signals are also painted somewhere above or in front of the door. This eliminates all gameplay elements from it, since all you need to do is to memorize three signs for a few seconds, or write them down, and then enter to the conveniently placed playback machines. It is also stupid because it is hard to understand why the machines are not already set up for the correct signal. It is frustrating, tedious and boring.

6. Running out the clock

Which leads to our next topic: stalling. The game is full of fillers that has no other purpose than making the game longer. The original two games are 20-25 hours long each, plus the numerous retries after deaths. The new one is 12-13 max, with doing all the side missions, looking for loot, and doing all the stuff you supposed to do. Of course it is also stretched out with the extreme number of retries if you are adamant on using the plasma cutter. But that does not happen with the shotgun. Without the many efforts to stretch the game out, it would easily be below 10 hours, maybe much less.

Some techniques that are used: unnecessary minigames, painfully slow doors, ladders and other door-like mechanisms, random generators scattered around that need to be started, optional missions that consists of copy-and-pasted content from other parts of the game, slow travelling on trains and the shuttle (lacking the would be appropriate blue danube theme), flying back and forth in the alien transit system, wall climbing parts with little to no events happening, obscene amount of cutscenes and things best described as mini cutscenes, involving you standing like an idiot and watching the monsters do their thing, flying around in space in the slow suit collecting arbitrary stuff and finally the resource collector bot nonsense. I appoint the resource collector bot the Jar Jar Binks of Dead Space.

None of these add anything to the game at all. Let me assert that the weapon crafting mechanic was probably also included just to make the game longer.

7. Visual design

One of the selling points of the original two games are vistas. Places designed to make you stop and marvel the magnificent architecture or a natural wonder. It is not about graphic fidelity, or the amount of particles or other crap put in a game. That is a profession that can be learned. No, the true genius is in creating interesting looking and creative spaces. They had it right with the first games. They actually abused it in the first games. Both games are huge visual treats, with eye candy vistas so numerous I can’t list. Did you stand in vacuum on that corridor, trying to have a good vantage point to look through the hole in the hull? Did you just stand breathless on the ship’s bridge, the most majestic planetarium ever built? Remember the engine room that was so huge, you felt its weight on your chest? Did you fly around in open space, marveling at the spectacular rings of the saturn so long that you suffocated? Because I did all of these.

Say goodbye to all of such things, because there is nothing like that in the 3rd game. Granted, the execution is still top notch. The guys in the graphics department deserve their paycheck. But the design is uninspired and dull looking. Seriously, who came up with the idea of a snowy planet? You see rock mountains and snow. That immediately renders all the outside areas boring. They tried to prop it up with weird shaped rock formations in the background, but it just falls flat on its face, and gets boring after eight seconds. It should not be that way though. It takes five minutes of googling to find awesome images of the antarctica. Huge white-blue striped structures, gates, spikes, frozen waves, the most bizarre shapes all made of ice. You can do interesting things with ice. Snow on rock is not among them.

The interior cannot save the game either. Most of the locations are just copied around many times, and it is hard to tell really, because every part feels the same. Many times I was wondering if I came to circle and it is a spot where I was earlier, or it just looks the same. I can not recall a single awe inspiring location.

And lets talk about the first-ish part of the game, the space junkyard. I have same feeling as about Agent Smiths in the matrix sequels. One Agent Smith was cool, a hundred Agent Smiths were forced and boring. In Dead Space 2, in that scene, I felt the emptiness of space, and felt danger and acrophobia. After the closed claustrophobic indoor environments, suddenly feeling the infinite dimensions of empty space, you just wanted to grab onto something. It was fun, but also tense. In Dead Space 3, it is just slow and tedious. You just want faster rockets on your suit.

It is only me, or the last part was downright ridiculous with rocks falling in place at the exact right time to form a corridor I can walk across? At that point I had hard time taking the game seriously. The visuals swing between boring and laughable.

8. “Story”

Let me start with stating that the story never was a strong part of the Dead Space universe. The lore is serviceable and pretty smart, maybe unintentionally. But really simple. So simple I can tell you right here: an alien life form spreads by altering the minds of sentient beings, implanting memes in them, making them wanting to go closer (converge), build “markers” that spread this mind-controlling wave, and otherwise just saw confusion and destroy things to crush any resistance or control. Two government agents being in contact with a marker went batshit crazy, left their job, and founded the church of unitology, which is just a tool for the meme to spread itself. Their goal is to find or build markers, and converge into one being. This is unexpectedly clever. There actually are things like that in nature. Parasites infect animals, and make them do things to further the parasite’s goals, eventually killing the host. Just look up toxoplasma and its effects on mice, if you want your mind blown. So the lore is, for the slackers, in one sentence: mankind has been contacted by a space-toxoplasma, and it turns masses into its crazed servants.

The actual story of Dead Space 1 is so simple, it can barely be called a story. They land on the ship after a distress call, crash theirs, then run around like headless chickens to eliminate one imminent demise after the other, while fighting necromorphs. Then there are some twists, which does not deserve mentioning. And finally the immediate threat is eliminated, so we can have an ambiguous ending. The second part fits into the lore and is also very simple. Earth gov secretly keeps a marker on Titan station, and they also keep Isaac in captivity, for unexplained insidious reasons. Unitology causes a necromorph outbreak and frees Isaac in an attempt to make him build markers. He falls under the influence of the marker that appears as a hallucination of his ex girlfriend. At the end, he manages to mind-fight the marker and defeat it. Then he flies away with the thin chick with huge boobs and cute accent. If a horror story has any more complex plot than that, it’s doing it wrong.

In both games, the story is told partly via actual gameplay, and party through logs found all around the place. They are interesting to read, as they add a little background to characters and events.

Enter the 3rd part. Honestly, I have no idea what the story is. First, they extended the lore. Now the marker is some sort of communication and energy transfer device. They reside in moons around planets having intelligent life, and establish some interstellar network for some reason. And there is a marker homeworld somewhere, responsible for something. How is that important, why it has a central unit, what does it do, I don’t know.

The story would be something like, while Unitology unleashes hell by letting loose all (!) the markers kept in secret inside huge buildings (!) all around the most populated areas (!), turning people into monsters instantly (!), Isaac travels to a distant planet to do things, and possibly reclaim his ex girlfriend (with the big boobs) who looks different now. The planet is important for reasons. The leader (?) of the expedition just wants to go home (!), despite knowing that there is no home to go back to. Also an unbelievable douche, and does evil things. Then the crew do things, find out things, assemble an alien from slices (!), activate arcane alien machinery (i.e. Tentacles), etc. Meanwhile they are chased by the least authentic character in video game history. Finally, Isaac defeats something by grabbing rising markers (!) and throwing them into its eyeballs. And then I’m not sure, maybe Isaac switches all the markers in the universe off with a remote control, the chick goes back to the devastated earth, Isaac floats around meditating on how the Dead Space franchise went off track so hard.

Most of the cutscenes are downright embarrassing. I facepalmed many times. All characters behave and talk illogically and unnaturally. The story elements are from the 80’s. And i’m not going to talk about the Rosetta subplot. I stopped reading the logs half an hour into the game. The logs contain interesting and new information. The problem is, what is interesting isn’t new, and what is new isn’t interesting. So I just stopped picking them up.

9. Multiplayer

The first problem with the multiplayer is that it exists. There is no place for coop in a horror game. It destroys mood, it cancels immersion, it turns the game into a social activity. But who cares if it is good? Well, it is not. Let me add a disclaimer: I haven’t played the coop mode. I saw videos on the internet. But just read forward, and judge for yourself whether i’m right or not.

Not scaled

The developers had the audacity to not scale the game’s difficulty in any way. The same enemies attack and they have the same strength and endurance. The same resources are found, and they can be picked up by both players (space jesus?). Even the resource collector bots beep at the same places, and can be harvested by both players, despite the fact that one player can not harvest a spot with two bots. This, combined with the overall easiness if an overpowered weapon is chosen, makes the game a comfortable walk devoid of any tension.

No effort

Talk about tacked on. Despite being two players there, the coop mode is the same as the single player. It is so blatantly apparent, I laughed out loud multiple times watching it. I was curious how they have solved some situations in coop, and I was shocked to see the “solution”, or rather, the sheer lack of attempt to provide one.

There is basically no interaction between the characters, they are just at the same place. When an enemy latches on a player, he needs to QTE it off alone, the coop partner can’t help, the monster appears to be invincible for that time. Players can’t push or pull each other out of danger, or up ledges. There are no areas reachable only with cooperative use of switches or platforms. There is no friendly fire either.

They managed to reuse all the cutscenes. Literally, no cutscenes were remade or even re-recorded for the multiplayer. Either the second character is just awkwardly put in the background of the single player cutscene, sometimes saying a line that is entirely ignored by the main character. Or as an even weirder solution, Carver appears randomly in single player cutscenes. Apparently, he was around all the time, just out of sight? Why don’t we advance together then? And even if it somehow makes sense, it destroys the feeling of accomplishment. I fought through endless waves of monsters, solved numerous puzzles to get there, and Carver just walks out of a door like nobody’s business.

There is a point in the singleplayer game, in the Rosetta lab (which I refuse to elaborate on), where Carver, quite obnoxiously, blocks the way to a staircase. It is lazy design in itself, but what about the multiplayer, when Carver is also controlled by a player? Well, in the multiplayer, the staircase is blocked by an invisible wall. Congratulations, well played!

One of the selling points of the game were asymmetric hallucinations, seen by Carver only. That is a good idea indeed. Except it is not in the game. Granted, there are some occasions, mostly in coop only optional missions, but then it is quickly forgotten, and completely lacks any consequence. It is nothing, but a marketing gimmick.

And a bonus: Rosetta pieces clip through the other player when carried with the telekinesis modul. How lame is that?

Spoonfed

Fearing that nobody will ever play coop, the developers decided to put coop-only optional missions in the game. It would be acceptable if I would not have to pay for it (even if I had no intention to play it), if they would be designed with coop in mind, or be impossible to play alone (which is not the case), and if they would not be an integral part of the game to the level that they count in your game progress percentage (so you can’t get 100% without). They literally have only one reason to be exclusively coop: to promote the coop play mode.

Closing thoughts

I’m not a game developer. I don’t have many ideas about how to do such a thing. But I have some vague ideas about the creative process. It needs compassion. It needs enthusiasm. And it can not be forced. If you assemble a team to come up with cool things, they either can or they can’t. If they can’t, you need to shelf the project, and try again at a later time. Or bring someone in. You can not rush creation. Try things. It is delicate and unpredictable. You never know when it takes off. You don’t know what spark fires up its engine.

I feel this game was not created. It was pushed through an extruder. They knew the title of it, they knew the release date, they knew the budget and the target length (which they failed to reach). And some businessman in dark suit came up with the idea of microtransactions and coop. Because he knew the trends in the gaming industry. Because he was such a prodigy of a manager. What else will be in the game, they didn’t know. They just assigned a team to the task with a given time frame, and whatever they managed to cough up, was put in the game. I don’t know that it happened. I just suspect it. The game looks that way.

It is established that happy ending has no place in the horror genre. So it all comes together after all. It all makes sense. As its grand finale, the Dead Space franchise died a horrible, painful death.

Dead Space 3 – autopsy