Field Reports provide our first-hand experience with the latest games and expansion packs.
The dead don't stay dead in the Dead Space series. One of Dead Space 3's biggest problems was that its story stopped taking itself seriously in the last act and did double backflips over the pink megalodon in the room. Defying all logic, characters returned from the dead or survived impossible circumstances afforded by plot-holes big enough to pilot a deep-space mining frigate through. Before the final boss fight, supporting character and co-op buddy Sergeant John Carver unceremoniously exits stage-right to somewhere and isn't heard from again. Did he die? Who knows. The stinger at the end of the credits is a distress call from protagonist Isaac Clarke after he somehow survives floating in space with no helmet or air supply. That Awakened, the first downloadable add-on mission, is an epilogue to the main game's story only reinforces this disregard for plausibility. Narratively, it takes this deceit and runs.
Whether or not this is a good thing, I'm unsure. On one hand, Awakened is the polar opposite of Dead Space 3: the objectives are focused and simple. But the narrative's still not freed from the shackles of an over-complicated story that changed key aspects of the series fiction seemingly for the hell of it. Because these key elements of the fiction are incongruous with the universe's established logic it's increasingly hard to take anything presented with more than a grain of salt.
In Dead Space 3's final moments, Clarke demolishes the moon orbiting Tau Volantis and brings it crashing through the planet's atmosphere. We were told the moon must be destroyed to stop the necromorph menace once and for all. Except it didn't. At the outset, Clarke and Carver find themselves back where much of Dead Space 3 took place: the surface of Tau Volantis. Neither of them are sure what's going on or how they survived, nearly breaking the fourth wall and admitting just how ludicrous the premise of this add-on is. Carver asks in disbelief if they were saved by aliens. It's a running beat throughout the mission's four or so hours. How there are still necromorphs isn't explained any further than "I guess blowing the moon out of the sky didn't work after all!" The fact that Clarke destroyed the moon and necromorphs still exist renders the last act's narrative and main plot point null and void. Hanging a lantern on poor storytelling doesn't excuse it, it only makes it more apparent. At one point, Clarke seemed to read my mind and sensed my confusion when he said after the mission to repair the Ishimura went awry in the first game, he stopped trying to make sense of everything. When the writers don't care about continuity, it's impossible to expect me to.
Speaking of the Ishimura, Clarke's haunted yet again. Once more, he's subjected to horrific visions and malevolent whispers that may or may not exist outside his head. He hears chanting and disembodied voices while forging through Tau Volantis' crimson-skied wastes that are now littered with chunks of the moon. Now he has a taste of the dementia Carver suffered through in Dead Space 3; instead of a dead wife and kid, Clarke's fighting ghosts of his last mission. Necromorphs flash in and out of sight, he's transported to the same ethereal plane inhabited by markers, shadow enemies and an otherworldly carmine glow that Carver was.
This presents another problem: Because a majority of Awakened's story and combat takes place within these hallucinations, I'm conditioned to expect that none of this even matters at the end of the day. Doubly so because Dead Space 3 slapped me in the face every time I cared about the story and took what it said at face value. The mission starts with Clarke sleeping in bed at the dirty apartment we found him in the Dead Space 3's beginning. Is Visceral going to troll players in another DLC pack and tell them everything was nothing but a nightmare? With how lazy the rest of the game's story was, it wouldn't surprise me.
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Awakened follows Dead Space 3's pattern of pulling the rug out from under the player to the letter. Latter objectives and story beats pounded the point home that if I completed an objective it wouldn't matter five minutes later because by hook or crook, the story would render it pointless one way or another. The simplicity of the story--get off the planet, head back to Earth--comes at the expense of everything else.
The expanded story lifts liberally from the Halo mythos--giant celestial objects capable of destroying all sentient life populate the galaxy, triggering them begins the afterlife for those who worship them—is entirely confusing, especially since these moons are sentient and capable of communicating with one another, necromorphs and even humans. At several points they make contact with Clarke and I had no idea how or why. A schism erupts between the surviving Unitologists on Tau Volantis and a sect starts worshiping a cult leader who's somehow even crazier than the cultists we've met up to this point. But because there isn't enough time given to establishing him save for a few brief moments I wasn't sure why I was supposed to kill him, how he fit into the grand scheme of the universe or why Dead Space's fiction was a better place after I disposed of him.
Awakened, and Dead Space entirely as of late, thinks it's far more clever than it actually is. It's over-complicating and bloating things to the point of confusion and lost me along the way. It's a joy hearing more of Clarke and Carver's interactions--for me, the best part of Dead Space 3--as they react to the absurdities around them, but the game's narrative has become exhausting to follow. As someone who's been on-board with the franchise from the very beginning, I'm not sure if I care to anymore. The pack's cliffhanger ending didn't entice me to come back, it made me roll my eyes imagining all the ways Visceral could further abuse players devoted to the fiction.
This Dead Space 3 'Awakened' DLC Field Report was based on Xbox 360 code provided by the publisher. The add-on is now available for $9.99 (800 Microsoft Points) on Xbox Live Marketplace, PlayStation Network (PS3), and Origin (PC).