If there's one thing we all learned from Charles Darwin, it's that the most adaptable of species survives all challenges. And so it is with video game series, for better or worse.
Take, for example, the latest tentpole releases, Visceral's Dead Space 3 (Feb. 5) and Gearbox's Aliens: Colonial Marines (Feb. 12). One is an example of a major shift in its style and gameplay, while the other languishes in an evolutionary dead end.
First up is the latest adventure for interstellar-miner-turned-insane-action-hero Isaac Clarke, who somewhere along the way went from being a harried survivor creeping through a haunted spaceship to a fearless war machine. That's quite an arc for a man who hallucinated about his dead girlfriend the whole first installment.
It's also quite an arc for a series that first focused — and did so quite well — on things that go bump in the night, before they jump out and sink their claws in you. But that's the way series progress these days; I like to call it the Resident Evil malaise, wherein a style and narrative begin in one direction, then morph into its polar opposite by the third or fourth installment.
Such is the nature of making a series a commercial success. For all its atmosphere, Dead Space was at times dull and overreliant on fetch quests. Part 2 focused on more action, but had fun with the set pieces, such as the opening level played largely in a straitjacket, or the needle-in-the-eye minigame, or even the half-in-the-subconscious final boss fight.
Part 3, meanwhile, is going all-out in the action department. While it is obviously influenced by one of my favorite movies, John Carpenter's 1982 remake of The Thing, there's not much that's scary in the game, beyond wondering if you've missed much by not playing co-op with Carver, or woefully misspent your resources in the great new weapon-crafting mechanic. Such is the price of a franchise worth playing: You have to adapt to the mass market in order to keep your protagonist alive to sell again.
But for Dead Space's positive evolution, Colonial Marines is our symbolic Neanderthal. Although it is the first in what Gearbox no doubt hoped would be a fruitful new franchise, there have been countless prior adaptations of the movie monsters. The plot, about the rescue mission sent to assist the Sulaco following the events of the 1986 James Cameron actionfest Aliens, is designed to canonical by Sega and Twentieth Century Fox. Your group of Marines, looks, sounds and acts just like the ill-fated platoon marched to their deaths at Hadley's Hope.
That part works pretty well, at first, but after the initial sheen of nostalgia wears off, you come to a dull, heart-rending realization. The game is nothing special. It is merely a rehashed FPS, with new (or old, in this case) model skins and sound effects.
I initially felt a little cheated by Dead Space 3, feeling that Visceral had turned its back on the faithful fans by making the game something it wasn't meant to be. But after Colonial Marines, I realized that there's a reason sequels to old franchises like Doom and Castle Wolfenstein have foundered: They are the same old game, presented the same old way.
And because of that inability to adapt, to fundamentally alter what's not working while keeping what does, they are doomed to extinction.
— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinion at firstname.lastname@example.org.