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Why won’t The Callisto Protocol just let me fight zombies?

The world is full of mediocre video games, but occasionally there’s a game that makes me actually mad. It’s usually something I have high hopes for — a particularly creative idea or a genre I wish more developers were experimenting with. It’s often something whose priorities seem painfully and dramatically misplaced. The Callisto Protocol — a survival horror game released last week — is both.

The Callisto Protocol’s design was spearheaded by Glen Schofield, the co-creator of Dead Space, one of my favorite series of all time. It shares a lot of DNA with Dead Space: both are fairly linear third-person survival horror shooters about fighting zombies in space. And as reviews have emphasized over and over, The Callisto Protocol is — by certain criteria — gorgeous. Every maintenance tunnel pipe glistens with moisture. Every monster is viscerally goopy. The lighting is so vivid it makes my eyes hurt. The cast includes recognizable versions of Karen Fukuhara from The Boys and (reaching further into my memory) Josh Duhamel from Transformers. It makes my PlayStation 4 Pro hum like I’m revving a car’s motor. And it’s all such a waste because, after a weekend’s worth of playtime, the game is so utterly empty.

Okay, I’ll admit that’s harsh. The Callisto Protocol is constantly on the cusp of fun. I’ll get periodic rooms full of monsters that I can clear with some satisfyingly weighty chains of melee combat and shooting. I’ll employ telekinetic powers to knock a zombie into a meat grinder and puree it. I’ll use the game’s idiosyncratic dodge system correctly to weave around a monster and feel awesome.

But The Callisto Protocol carelessly snatches satisfaction away from me at every turn. It’s irritatingly stingy with upgrade materials, inventory slots, and power for its telekinesis glove, pushing me toward basic meat-and-potatoes combat. Its shooting and melee mechanics use awkward controls, don’t flow together, and work terribly in fights with clusters of enemies. Its stealth sections are so perfunctorily designed that they’re accidentally comical — I love alerting enemies by moving too quickly but tumbling into a crowd of them during a loudly squelching “stealth kill” with no repercussions. Compared with Dead Space’s delightfully diverse weapons and monsters, its guns feel nearly identical and meaningful enemy variety is almost nonexistent. Even the little dopamine rewards that peppered Dead Space, like watching my character’s outfits and health bar get steadily beefier, are drearily absent. And worst of all, clearing rooms of zombies is apparently too crude a pleasure for the discerning modern gamer. The real action is in squeezing through cracks.

In Schofield’s book, squeezing through 18-inch gaps in cement (or ducts or debris piles or sewer pipes) is the most compelling activity in the world. There are great games about slowly moving through empty spaces, but that’s not what’s happening here. Every two or three rooms, and sometimes multiple parts of the same room, just feel separated by some barrier that stops gameplay dead. Combat? Puzzles? How crass. What players really want is a simulation of navigating your hoarder uncle’s attic. I’ve seen a lot of complaints about The Callisto Protocol’s difficulty spikes, but the problem so far isn’t just that combat lurches between easy and hard; it’s that it’s too spaced-out to get a feel for. The environment is full of meat grinder turbines and other ways to kill enemies creatively with telekinesis, but without significant upgrades, I’ve got barely enough power to use them. I hear boss fights are fiendishly difficult, but I’m in chapter six of the game’s eight sections and have yet to face one.

One gravy kiosk is worth a dozen carefully rendered cement walls

Gap-squeezing is a common mechanic in current-generation video games, and it’s usually assumed to be a hidden loading screen for graphically demanding environments. I’ve seen some developers deny this is the case, and without an inside line at developer Striking Distance Studios, I can’t know if it’s true here. But most of the alternate explanations I’ve seen make little sense for The Callisto Protocol. I can’t think of anything else that justifies killing the game’s momentum so constantly with no payoff, and it is utterly relentless.

Either way, it feels like Striking Distance has put nearly all its effort toward making The Callisto Protocol look like a big-budget AAA game and making players focus on its glossy graphics. (And given how quickly some fans jump on any kind of perceived graphical downgrade in a game, there’s a real external incentive to do this.) Every level is brimming with complicated lighting and detailed — yet incredibly banal — architecture. Every zombie is an intricate — yet not particularly inventive — body horror sculpture. I can’t know what went on during development, but sound and visuals are the only aspects of the game that seem genuinely fine-tuned, and they’re definitely the ones that most reviewers have noticed and praised.

And the sad part is that the aesthetic returns on this investment aren’t that high. Look, I adore fighting zombies in grungy hallways and caverns, the activity that makes up most of The Callisto Protocol so far. But these are not groundbreaking monster designs or visually scintillating environments that benefit from extraordinary detail and verisimilitude. If I want to behold the world’s most realistically lit and textured cement wall, I will go to my basement and do laundry. The best parts of The Callisto Protocol’s design are the simple ones, like a colorful drinks kiosk that inexplicably blares ads for gravy. It’s quirky and charming — like Dead Space’s billboards for a never-explained product called “Peng” — and vastly more evocative than any number of lovingly crafted bloody limbs.

I feel bound to support The Callisto Protocol because I desperately want more games like it

Cutting-edge visuals in games were once stereotypically tied to a “hardcore” focus on formal gameplay, following the tradition of titles like Quake, which pushed the boundaries of graphics and shooter mechanics simultaneously. But if that was ever consistently true (which is debatable), that era seems definitively over. The Callisto Protocol pays constant tribute to older shooters and survival horror games. But it seems to fetishize making my console work overtime at the expense of letting me play something — and playing on a console is a best-case scenario because it barely runs on PC at all.

Unfortunately, I feel bound to support The Callisto Protocol because I desperately want more projects like it. I learned to love video games through the relatively short and linear sci-fi shooters of the ‘00s, spoiled for choice between BioShock, Dead Space, Half-Life 2, and countless lesser-known series. AAA gaming right now is a slog — full of exhausting map icon stuffed collect-em-ups that prioritize trinket gathering over elegantly punchy fun. The indie world has produced great 2D narrative action games like Hollow Knight but far fewer well-designed 3D equivalents, particularly ones with the kind of story-based progression I want. While I’m looking forward to the Dead Space remake coming early next year, I was even more excited for something that wasn’t a sequel or a remake or a spinoff.

Maybe The Callisto Protocol will get more fun as I near its endgame. But I shudder imagining how many gaps I’ll be squeezing through to get there.

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