Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Review: Dead Space (PC)

Dead Space is a sci-fi survival horror game developed by Electronic Arts and released in 2008. In the game the player takes control of engineer Isaac Clarke, who battles himself through hordes of mutated creatures on the spaceship USG Ishimura. The setting takes quite some inspiration from movies like Event Horizon, while the gameplay is very similar to that of Resident Evil 4.

As far as story is concerned there really isn't much positive to say about Dead Space. A few moments after arriving on the deserted USG Ishimura with his team essentially all hell breaks lose and Isaac is separated from the rest of his surviving team. They continue to stay around to give new objectives via video chat, but one never directly interacts with them or anybody else for that matter over the coures of the game. A further frustration is that many of the story sequences are implemented as essentially a cutscenes behind a window, which stops you from interacting with the events unfolding and makes you a passive observer. Dead Space isn't the first game to use this cheap trick, but it uses it in almost every single character interaction which makes it feel incredible fake and forced. Every now and then the game will also have you run into an audio-log, but those rarely contain anything to interesting. On top of that the few regular text-logs that the game provides feel like they should have been audio-log, as they slow the game down unnecessarily.

The story follows essentially all the stupid genre cliches, everybody except the player character will die and there is some obvious betrayal down the line. Most of the objectives also feel rather tedious, as Isaac is essentially send from one section of the ship to the next to fix something, only to have another thing break a few moments later to turn into his next objective. This makes the whole plot feel unfocused and improved, as there really isn't much of a real build up or senes of accomplishment. The bit of backtracking that this causes is however not really an issue, as it is quite rare and most of the game is very linear.

The gameplay is easily strongest part of Dead Space. While it does take many obvious inspirations from Resident Evil 4 it goes a different route with the monster killing, as it doesn't just matter how many times you shoot an enemy, but it becomes more important of where you shoot them. Limbs can be shoot of and in turn will slow an enemy down and they take much more health then a regular body hit. Most enemies will also die after a specific number of limbs have been detached. A limited stasis power can be used to freeze enemies on the spot to give more time for aiming at the limbs. This mechanic of dismemberment is quite fun for most part, as it requires a more thoughtful approach to put down enemies then just the regular spraying of bullets. The weapon design is also special, as it doesn't follow the regular pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, etc. design, but instead each weapon, maskeraded by the game as an engineering tool, has a unique feel to it, thus you have cutting weapons that are either optimal for many short range cuts or weapons that excel at precision cuts in the distance, while a flamethrower will help to get rid of swarms of small enemies. Weapon upgrades are done via power nodes that can be collected throughout the game or bought from the shop, upgrade itself happens on a benches that are again scattered throughout the game.

Aside from the weopons and the statis power the game also provides you with a kinesis power, that works somewhat similar to the gravity gun in Half Life 2. It is hovever only used for very simple tasks such moving a piece of machinery from one location to the other or launching an explosive container against an enemy, elaborate physics puzzles aren't provided and in general the game doesn't really have any real puzzles, just a few switches to press to make machinery go.

The inventory management, along with a shop and storage system, also takes quite some inspirations from Resident Evil 4, but feels a little misplaced in this game. You never have to pick up puzzle relevant objects, thus your whole inventory is only used for ammunition, health packs and a few other items, but unlike Resident Evil, the inventory here feels huge, it can hold all the health packs you want along with more ammunition then you will ever need, thus there never is much of a trade off to make on what you want to take with you, you simply take all of it. Weapons are placed outside of the inventory and you can always carry four with you. You might still run out of inventory space every now and then in the beginning of the game, but that's just because you get overfull with ammunition and health packs and haven't run past a store to drop it off. Later in the game suit upgrades will increase your inventory space even more, so that you will essentially never run out of space again. A little annoyance however in the rare instance when you do run out of space is that the game won't let you use things in place, so instead just using a health pack, you have to first put it in your inventory, which means when that is full that you first have to drop an item, pick up the health pack, use it, the repickup the item you dropped. Not much of a practical problem, but a really cumbersome and ugly way to do such a basic task.

While Dead Space obviously tries to go for horror, I found the horror aspects to be pretty much non-existant, yes, it is a dark game, sometimes only illuminated by some flashing lights, has all the monster growling filling the audio channel and the occasional try at a jump scare, but it all feels extremely formulaic and predictable. The heavy use of monster closets and the overuse of monster types doesn't help either. You simply get used to it all very quickly and the worst the game will do to you is give you a headache, as the contrast between dark environment and flashing lights can get a little annoying. The moments where the game gets atmospheric are the rare moments where it breaks away from the cliche monster growling and lets the player go into a vacuum, in those moments the background sound fades away and you can't hear much more then your breathing and your food steps, everything else is completely muted away, which not only gives everything a nice space atmosphere, it also makes monster harder to spot, as you can no longer hear them.

On the technical side of things Dead Space is very solid, the graphics look very detailed and run fluidly on max settings without a problem on a ATI HD5670. However the games art direction looks a little boring, as you run mostly through the same looking dark corridors over and over again. The game never really gives you a very good sense of scale for the spaceship you are on, even the rare moments where you actually go out into space feel very corridor like and you almost never really have an open window or something along the lines to look out onto the rest of the ship.

On the control side the game supports the Xbox360 controller out of the box. One issue I first had with that control scheme however was the way it handles turning on the right analog stick. The game employs a huge deadzone followed by a fast character rotation, which makes it hard to do small turns. This issue was made much worse due to the heavy delay that was caused by Vsync, switching Vsync off however fixed that. The problem with small turns still existed, but one gets used to it quite quickly, especially as it only exists in walking mode, not when aiming, thus it becomes actually useful, as it allows quick 180° turns while still allowing precise aiming. A quick 180° like Resident Evil has isn't present in this game.

The way the game handles the HUD is interesting, aside from the main menu, it doesn't use any actually HUD on the screen, instead it sticks everything in the game world, be it ammunition, health or even inventory and the game map. While that works well for health, ammunition and especially the way points, it is a bit more troublesome for the inventory, map and other normal GUI elements, as those will be displayed as a hologram floating in front of your character, which works fine in normal situation, but when in a tight corner or when an object is in the way it can cause the camera to tilt in such a way that you can't actually see the inventory screen properly or fonts you want to read can become to small as the camera might be to far out.

The physics engine also has a few issues, the main one is simply that all the dead bodies in the world are physically interactive, that by itself wouldn't be that bad, the problem is that they have no weight to them, thus everything you run into will go flying through the room in a highly unrealistic manner. In some instances this will even cause some actual gameplay confusion, as you can't really tell if the monster twitching on the ground is still alive or if it is just the physic engine that hasn't yet stopped jiggling the body around. In one instance I also had the physics engine fail on a puzzle that required me to push a battery into a slot, the battery would just fall out of the slot again and not register as properly inserted.

The save system is also of questionable quality, while the game is filled with reset points throughout the game, regular save points are much more rare, you only come across them every 10 or so minutes. The save dialog also misses a way to directly save to the next free slot, thus you have to always scroll through the list of all your past saves to make it to a free slot, this pulls you out of the game on as it makes saving much more cumbersome then it should be. The save system also has the problem that it keeps stores, upgrade benches and savepoint separate, thus you will often encounter one without the other, which can require some backtracking as you might want to buy a few power nodes to upgrade your weapon before using a bench.

Overall Dead Space is a technically solid game with some good gameplay concepts, that however aren't enough to carry a full game with such a forgettable cliched story. Especially the end game was rather disappointing as the game doesn't get more interesting with time, it simply throws more and faster versions of the same enemies at you. This also makes the formerly thoughtful enemy dismemberment overly chaotic and luck based. The overall difficulty however is rather mild on medium setting, as even when you die you always have a checkpoint very close and most monsters can be defeated without a problem when they don't catch you by supprise. I never found ammunition to be a problem, one might run out of ammunition for the favorite gun every now and then, but one generally has plenty of stuff left for the other weapons. The story goes nowhere and it just becomes tedious to go fix one issue after another without seeing much new. NewGame+ in Dead Space is also heavily flawed as it only allows you to reply the game with all the collected weapons on the same difficulty, changing it is not allowed, this makes NewGame+ sadly ridiculously easy and steels the fun of playing the game on a harder difficulty with a fully equipped character. The game is around 12 hours long or around 9 hours when you don't count the death and retries.

1 comment:

Joel said...

I haven't played the game. I have it on steam and I bought recently the retail pc version of the game because my friend thinks that it is a great experience that it is a must play if you like that kind of horror genre. I didn't know that it has so much flaws. I thought that it was a solid game that It took some game mechanics from successful franchises.