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Dead Space

With the recent glut of high profile video games which promise to make 2008 a pretty good year for gaming after a strong output in 2007, I have to confess I haven't had a huge amount of time for all of them. Fallout 3, Mirror's Edge and Fable 2 (to name a few) have all gone unplayed by me thus far.

Regardless, Dead Space, EA's first M rated game in forever (I think the Godfather game was also rated M, but that game doesn't count) is a game I did play.

What actually drew me to Dead Space initially was not the setting or the promise of a spooky game, but rather the interesting way the game's HUD was done. Rather than having your health and ammo on screen at all times everything is shown to you on the player. Instead of a health point count there's a little blue bar on your his back, and your clip count is displayed on your weapon when you go into aiming mode. It's the sort of thing I wish more games would attempt, as I feel the standard heads up display is something that has not evolved at all.

Sure it's moved on from the status bar days of Doom and Quake to a less expressive (but also less distracting) listing of numbers to more general health bars and even to implementations like Gears of War or Halo 2 (and 3) where you don't even have to pick up any health and just wait for it to refill. The fundamentals of the HUD have remained the same since forever though, and it's nice to see someone at least attempt to shake it up. Of course Dead Space's HUD only works in a third person game (or else you end up with something bizarre like in Trespasser), but weapon counts on your gun have existed before in games like Doom 3.
Another interesting UI aspects is how there are no real menus in the game. Everything is done via a holographic projector on Isaac's suit (Isaac is the player's name, by the way) so if you view, for example, you inventory from directly behind Isaac it appears normal but if you spin the camera a little the angle of it will change based on your viewpoint. This is also good for a variation on the 'people talking in your ear' mechanic that no shooter (first or third person) can ever seem to avoid, where a video will pop up on your projector making for an auditory and visual assault.

The UI is only one small aspect of the game of course, but it's integrated well enough that it manages to simultaneously be impressive and immersive. The game's design is fairly focused, which is nice as well. Isaac is an engineer, so all of the weapons in the game are actually tools, or at least attempt to look like work tools. The entire game takes place on a very large 'planet cracker' ship which has been overtaken by some sort of strange parasite/alien/bad mojo that doesn't really matter, but nearly the entirety of it looks almost exactly the same. It's got a sort of Doom 3 vibe going in that way, except it's nowhere near as dark and all of your weapons have a built in flashlight that switches on when you enter aiming mode.

The game's biggest flaw is its fairly poor attempt at a story. In fact the story suffers in almost every respect possible. The voice actors seem capable enough, but many of their lines are delivered as if they are reading the script for the first time and the director either didn't notice or didn't care. The main female character in particular suffers from this. However even if the actors were giving Oscar-worthy performances none of the lines they are given to say are particularly well-written. The story itself is fairly contrived and any surprises it thinks it holds are pretty obvious from very early in the game. It's more or less the same standard scifi story that video games have been ripping off since they were able to. Life form invades an enclosed space and kills all prior inhabitants and apparently only one guy is able to kill all the bad dudes.

Even if it wants it to be though, the story of Dead Space is not the central point. The violence and suspense are the real stars (and honestly it's all the game has left since the story and setting are not particularly engaging). Enemies come in a few different forms, but the basis of the bigger ones revolves around shooting off their limbs. Shooting them in the head or torso does very little damage, whereas shooting off their arms and legs does severe damage and if you cut off enough of them it will die. If you think it sounds satisfying and entertaining you are correct. Enemy variation isn't huge (there are three or four types of large, mobile enemies, and two or three smaller annoying ones, plus faster versions of all of them with more health) but it's pretty much always fun to shoot off legs and watch them try and crawl towards you only to have their arms shot off before dieing in shame. Aside from one amazingly annoying sub-boss type of enemy none of them are particularly difficult on their own, so their greatest strength comes when they attack you in groups. The AI isn't overly smart, though that fits with the story, and ends up hearkening back to the days of Doom where a group of enemies relentlessly bombs you without any regard for their own health.

Probably in an attempt to add a little variety there is also a slow motion gameplay mechanic. Of course. However, before you groan, you should know that it's at least implemented somewhat differently than in other games. Instead of you causing (essentially) the entire world slowing down, you fire something at an enemy which causes them to slow down independent of everything else. You are then free to take them down at your leisure complete with slow motion dismembered limbs flying through the air. It's not really that much of an amazing innovation, though this mechanic is used for a variety of puzzles, but it's still pretty fun to use it, and often times it can be a life saver.

One thing the game does do correctly is not overstay its welcome. The designers seem to have gotten the length of the game down pretty much perfectly. Just when you are starting to wonder when the game is going to end you come to the final mission in which you escort a bizarre looking artifact around a factory that seems to have been constructed for the express purpose of carting around that very artifact in the most annoying way possible. I give some props to the designers here again because the game could have very, very easily fallen into some kind of frustrating inanimate object escort mission but instead it's just a bunch of enemy waves. The final boss you meet shortly after escorting the artifact is not overly difficult to defeat, but is still highly enjoyable to fight.

That's not to say the gameplay is entirely great. There's one particular minigame-type sequence where you have to more or less play Asteroids. It's not very fun mainly because the controls are very twitchy and asteroids do a large amount of damage so you can only let a couple through without losing. There's another game later on with the same turret-shooting mechanics but it's much easier than the asteroid game since the targets are far more static.

Also in spite of avoiding the escort mission trap the game instead substitutes that for multiple 'race against the clock' sequences where you enter a portion of the ship where the hull has been breached and you only have a limited supply of air. Usually the path is pretty clear, but if you don't carry around an extra air tank you might miss out on some hidden goodies from time to time or even die a painful death at the mercy of the unbelievably slow airlocks.

Another mechanic used throughout the game is zero gravity. Isaac's gravity boots activate whenever he is in zero-g which effectively allows him to walk on walls or the ceiling (and you can do a long jump to any surface in the room, which is lots of fun). So it's a sort of Prey-like mechanic only without any crazy portals to intentionally disorient you or weird anus doors. It's also the groundwork for what is easily the best boss fight in the game where you fight what amounts to an entire wall of a monster located at the bottom of a cylindrical room with no gravity.

Now here's the part where I have to summarize the entire review awkwardly. So Dead Space, while not perfect, is pretty fun. It's certainly at least a little scary, not particularly well-written, and very 'video game'. What I mean by that is pretty much every mission you get is "oh shit, something went wrong, go fix it by yourself while I stay in this room and bark orders and once in a while do something useful". Basically a series of thinly veiled 'you need the blue key to open this door' missions, which isn't necessarily bad because that's what a lot of games are. However Dead Space does a particularly bad job of hiding that fact since it constantly needs to give you something to do thanks to the story rather than just giving you an overall mission and letting you enjoy the journey on your way (like Far Cry or Half-Life 2 or something). Still, the combat is enjoyable and satisfying and the game is pretty much the perfect length, so if you somehow need a game to play in this troubled economy, Dead Space just might be for you.
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I've been tempted by dead space for ages, but the price of xbox 360 games here is criminal.

Nov. 25, 2008 (4:52pm EST)