This week we found out that EA had closed Visceral Games and were reworking the studio's story-driven single-player Star Wars adventure into something more... expansive. It's a subject we've examined on Gamereactor before, albeit through the lens of games like Destiny and Overwatch. This move away from linear AAA experiences is a direction that publishers are increasingly taking as they look to extract maximum value from their significant investments, and it's an industry-wide shift that's starting to take casualties. The latest being Visceral.
You can chart the development of the studio over the years, back when it was called EA Redwood through to the creation and expansion of the Visceral label that saw more teams pop up around the world (Montreal, Los Angeles, Melbourne, and Shanghai) and collaborate on a succession of projects. The headquarters of this studio/label was Redwood Shores, though, and it's this arm of EA that most people commonly associate with the Visceral name.
People tend to focus on Visceral's more recent accomplishments, and it's easy to forget that over the years the studio(s) delivered a succession of solid titles, from James Bond shooters through to co-op focused action-adventures and even collaborative projects with the likes of DICE (they worked together on Battlefield: Hardline, with Visceral handling the single-player side of things). That's not what the studio will be remembered for, though, because in amongst all of the middle-of-the-road big budget games there was one series that defined Visceral more than any other: Dead Space.
Inspired by the best bits in Resident Evil 4 and packing an immersive and engaging science-fiction story, Dead Space stands as a modern masterpiece of action-horror, and we'll not hear anyone say otherwise. Isaac Clarke was a troubled and enigmatic hero looking for his lost love, but it was the USG Ishimura itself and the necromorphs he battled aboard it that truly defined this tense, pulsating experience.
However, what made the game thrillingly terrifying for many wasn't the inspired enemy design nor the desolate atmosphere as the ship floated amongst giant asteroids while orbiting Aegis VII. Like Isaac we were thrown in the deep end and forced to sink or swim, our common link being how unsuited we were to such a task. As an engineer, Clarke wasn't equipped with machine guns and rocket launchers, but rather he had to adapt using the tools of his trade, using them as impromptu weapons. These engineering tools, most memorably the three-beams of the plasma cutter, made for wonderfully effective makeshift guns, and the width of each shot made them ideal for slicing off the limbs of advancing necromorphs. These monsters might have been gangly-limbed space zombies, but it didn't take long to realise that we weren't aiming for the head this time around.
Taking its cues from the likes of Half-Life, Visceral used the environment to tell some of the story, and there were blood-splattered instructions left for the player by helpful (and dead) characters, and plenty of carefully designed and spooky scenes to explore as you advanced through the ship, discovering the deeds of the twisted religious fanatics known as the Unitologists. In fact, we'd argue that the atmosphere aboard the Ishimura was up there with that of Rapture, and while nobody here would argue that design of the world in Irrational's shooter was bettered by the work of Visceral, both games did an incredible job of grounding you in their respective worlds.
Dead Space was also cemented in our mind's eye thanks to the iconic suit that Clarke wore and regularly upgraded with power nodes. The warm blue glow running down the spine of the suit made for an immersive way for the player to gauge the state of Isaac's health, and it was one of a number of similar touches implemented by Visceral that made Dead Space more than just another space shooter. Contrasting Isaac's suit was the harsh red design associated with the marker, a mysterious artefact that upon discovery kickstarted events by sending people crazy and eventually turning corpses into disfigured beasties.
Whether using his tools to dismember necromorphs, stamping on crates and crawling creatures alike, or jumping around zero-g environments and solving light puzzles with his stasis powers, Isaac Clarke's adventure was a truly memorable one and it's one of our favourite gaming memories of the last console generation. The immediate sequel hammered home the formula of the first, but lost something in the execution, and that sequence was completed in Dead Space 3, which proved once and for all that the brilliance of the original was a fleeting thing never to be recaptured.
The transition from Redwood to Visceral happened between the first two games, and since they took on their new name the studio(s) crafted Dante's Inferno (which, true to the name of the label, tried hard - too hard perhaps - to be edgy and adult), Dead Space 2 and 3, Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel, and finally the aforementioned collaboration with DICE on Battlefield Hardline. Given the lukewarm reception of the studio's final games, it was clear that Visceral was in last chance saloon, and that many of the personnel responsible for those earlier successes were now at pastures new (including, notably, at Call of Duty devs Sledgehammer Games). Thus, when it was announced that Amy Hennig of Uncharted fame was taking charge of Visceral's Star Wars-based single-player action adventure, it looked like EA was giving the studio a proper chance to redeem itself. Looking back, it turned out to be one last roll of the dice.
Alas, we're never going to know how Visceral's last game would have turned out, because the publisher decided to move in a different direction, "shifting the game to be a broader experience that allows for more variety and player agency, leaning into the capabilities of our Frostbite engine and reimagining central elements of the game to give players a Star Wars adventure of greater depth and breadth to explore."
For a studio that has always focused on more grown-up single-player experiences, this shift of policy has proved a death sentence. Visceral shined brightest around the release of Dead Space, when it was given the freedom to express itself on a new, tightly focused project, and the cracks only really started to appear when that success upped the ante along with the marketing budget. After wilting a little in the resultant spotlight, the studio stepped back into its former role; collaborating and towing the company line on licensed/existing IP.
Which brings us to today, when we're left with the single-player campaign of Battlefield: Hardline as the final release of this clearly talented studio. But we're also left with memories, for better and for worse. Memories of The Godfather and 007 and Lord of the Rings, and of an adventure that takes place in the depths of space and that left a lasting impression. Dead Space hinted at brilliance that was never truly realised. RIP Visceral, and thanks for the ride.