When Visceral Games shut down in October 2017, it was an indication of many sordid trends. Of live service being seen as more valuable than single-player experiences, or a publisher possessing incredible talent and squandering it for whatever reason. But for fans of the Dead Space franchise, which was left in cold sleep after 2013’s underwhelming Dead Space 3, it was a sign that the franchise was well and truly dead.
It’s funny then how much things can change in just a few years. Motive Studio is remaking the first Dead Space, consulting fans and constantly seeking feedback to make it the best game possible. Electronic Arts is celebrating the series more openly than before, acting like it’s a hallmark franchise after ignoring it for so long. In the meantime, the team at Striking Distance Studios has a sci-fi survival horror of its own in the works.
The Callisto Protocol is set in the far future of 2320. As Jacob Lee in Black Iron, located on Callisto, chaos quickly erupts with aliens seemingly attacking the prison colony. He has to survive, battling all manner of grotesque horrors (known as Biophages) along the way to hopefully escape. However, it becomes apparent that something deeper is going on in the background, what with the facilities conducting experiments, seemingly mutated humans, and the shady dealings of the Warden.
That’s not even counting the United Jupiter Company, which operates Black Iron, or the colony which seemingly existed before the prison was built. There is a lot to unravel, and several nightmarish creatures to deal with along the way. But before we reach that point, what makes The Callisto Protocol so exciting? How is it potentially one of the biggest games of the year?
First of all, it features Dead Space co-creator Glen Schofield at the helm. Schofield helped create the original Dead Space with Michael Condrey. Though credited as executive producer, he’s actually responsible for the entire concept of the game, from its Event Horizon inspiration to its human-focused themes based on Arthur C. Clarke’s works. Even if he didn’t work on the sequels – since he and Condrey left to found Sledgehammer Games in 2009 – the groundwork was still laid for the franchise as we know it.
Dead Space 2 is a great game, make no mistake, taking the series into a more action-heavy direction without sacrificing the horror that made it so great. With Schofield’s involvement as director of The Callisto Protocol, fans can see something akin to the more methodical, tensely-paced gameplay of the first game. But it gets even better. Striking Distance has several other veterans like co-developer Steve Papoutsis.
Papoutsis served as executive producer on the franchise after the departures of Schoefield and Condrey, having previously worked as senior producer on Dead Space 1. Other noteworthy staff include designer Scott Whitney and animation director Christopher Stone, both of who worked on the series. So in essence, the development team is composed of individuals who have experience with all of the games, and on what works.
It’s worth noting the similarities to Dead Space, whether it’s the interface or sheer atmosphere. Even the bloody warning of “Shoot the Tentacles” seen in the latest story trailer is straight-up inspired by Dead Space’s iconic “Cut off their limbs” message. That’s not a bad thing though – by rooting fans in something familiar, it can help push its own story and gameplay changes. For instance, while The Callisto Protocol is very much a third-person shooter, it also has a deeper melee combat system.
Design director Ben Walker told Game Informer back in June that nearly half of the game has melee combat. “We’re definitely leaning into the survival side of things,” he said. “The overall tone of our combat is kind of a struggle, right? You’re doing whatever you can do to kind of get by and get through.” This is also in keeping with Dead Space where Isaac Clarke, an engineer above all else, refashioned tools aboard the Ishimura to effectively combat the Necromorphs.
By comparison, Jacob Lee is a hardened prisoner. Not necessarily an expert in firearms and CQC combat, but he can handle himself in a scrap. Players will also have less ammo to discover throughout, so you’ll need to get your handy (and stomping boots) dirty. It’s possible to use a mix of both tactics, executing combos to push foes back and then shooting them.
However, the environment can also be your friend in encounters. In the various gameplay trailers seen till now, the player has multiple ways to kill enemies without even firing a shot. Pushing them into turbines is but one, and the GRP (which is essentially like Kinesis) is very handy in this. You can also sneak up on some enemies and take them down without alerting the others. Examining the environment opens up all kinds of different ways to play, and it’s pertinent given that your enemies can mutate in unpredictable ways. Having different routes to further mix up one’s playthrough doesn’t hurt further adds to the variety and replay value.
Environments bring unique risks though as there are multiple ways to die. Even if The Callisto Protocol won’t be the longest experience (it’s estimated to take 12 to 14 hours on an average playthrough), you’ll be replaying it just to discover all of the different kinds of deaths. It’s a little disturbing just how enthusiastic the team seems to be about all of the ways to die, or how much work has been put into different deaths depending on whether Jacob is facing forward or not. But hey, it’s one more thing to keep you busy, if you want the Trophy/Achievement.
The Callisto Protocol is out on December 2nd for PS5, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PS4, and PC. The studio is crunching to get it done on time, which is unfortunate since this could lead to more issues and bugs at launch. This is probably so that it can be released before the Dead Space remake, which is out on January 27th, 2023 (though the lucrative holiday season could be another reason).
However, even if it arrives a few weeks later than intended, launching so close to Motive’s remake could be a good thing. Those who enjoy it may be inclined to give The Callisto Protocol a shot, just to see how the gameplay formula has evolved.Having a brand new setting to explore with its terrifying mysteries and excessive gore isn’t a bad proposition either.
Horror games have generally done very well over the years, whether it’s narrative adventures like The Quarry, the action-packed Resident Evil Village, or more surreal efforts like Inscryption. That’s not going to change when The Callisto Protocol rolls around, but it will be one of the few big-budget sci-fi space horror titles in recent memory. Whether it ends up as a successor to Dead Space or a brand new experience that surpasses it, Striking Distance likely has a hit on its hands that could lead to a new franchise down the line. As always, time will tell.
The Callisto Protocol may not rewrite the book on horror, even if enemies will do their very best to scare you instead of outright killing you. However, if it offers a compelling new story and fun gameplay, then it’s done more than enough.
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