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Dead Space

So, I finished Dead Space. I’ve been talking it up for a while and now that it’s done I can happily say that it was good. Yahtzee brings up some good points in his as usual bile filled rant, but I enjoyed it almost from beginning to end.

Quick synopsis is that it’s Event Horizon. Slightly longer synopsis is that it’s Event Horizon meeting Aliens. Still slightly longer synopsis is that you are an engineer (Isaac Clarke…) on a repair ship going to help fix the comms array on a planet cracking mining space ship that has gone dark When you get there you find things are not as it seems. ie. You know the story. It twists and turns in the ways that you expect, but there is enough there to drag you on through the game and give the excuses the designers want for dragging you back through the same areas of the ship a couple of times, each time with a twist on what you’re meant to do. It has mad doctors, relgious cults, conspiracies within conspiracies and everything else you’d expect. It also has a level called “Betrayed”, which you notice pretty quickly if you look through the XBox achievements for the game, which shows the level at which the developers care if you work out the story in advance. The story had a few comics people behind it, with Warren Ellis helping out way back at the dawn of time and Anthony Johnston building the final version as well as the accompanying comic (with Ben Templesmith on art), and Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray putting together the screen play for the accompanying anime.

Firstly, it is pretty. I hit upon a few graphics glitches, but as far as badly lit space ship games go this is up with the finest. Some of the set pieces are really impressive and the reveals as doors open to giant spaces do occasionally stun. There are lots of little touches that make it: Your inventory and all the in game video communications are projected by your suit and therefore being in game objects – as you rotate the camera around your character they stay still; The backgrounds have the obligatory scrawled bloody messages and defaced motivational posters from the ship’s captain (in true gaming tradition the faces of the developers appear all over the shop, with the producer that I met holding a bucket of veggies on a poster).

The sound is really very good, with the XBox’s surround capabilities being used quite heavily with drips, whispering voices, shifting piles of limbs and monsters jumping out from all around the sound field. The music flows from tension building plinks and plonks to full on fight music as necromorphs (as the baddies are suddenly called later in the game) jump out of the darkness and try and turn you into small chunky pieces of jaded engineer. Walking through the piles of limbs that you often find lieing around the deck causes them to scatter with squishy thumps, often masking the sound of the many taloned thing stalking up behind you. Suffice to say it’s quite atmospheric. Set pieces (whether it be a randomly swinging body, a movement seen in the distance or monsters jumping out of piles of corpses) are punctuated with stabbing sounds from the orchestra and occasionally they’ll throw in a tension breaking explosion of orchestral sound, or a burst the silence with a static crack before one of your surviving teammates appears on the projected holo-screen to feed you the next slice of plot, all when you least expect it. It all makes you a bit twitchy. Moving into the vacuum kills all sound apart from things going on inside your suit, giving muffled breathing, grunts of effort and muted screams as monsters hack away at you as your air slowly gives out – despite having a projected “Air remaining” meter on the back of your suit it’s often easier to judge how much you have left by the raggedness of Isaac’s breathing as you run away from yet another stabby thing. There are occasional bugs, with monsters appearing without their musical cues or fight music hanging around too long, but these strangely just add to the atmosphere and add more unpredictability to the game.

The controls work well, although even after finishing the game I still had issues using the stasis (obligatory time-slowing mechanic) and kinesis (obligatory gravity gun) modules, as well as using medikits accidentally, a side effect of having too many things to operate and not enough buttons. Standardly walking around you can’t use your weapons, they only come into play after holding the left trigger to enter aiming mode. In walking mode fire and secondary fire punch and stamp, and the stasis button uses medikits – an issue when you accidentally let go of the aim button and launch into a slow swinging punch or stamp animation as a monster starts slicing off your face and very annoying when you use up your stasis energy by repeatedly trying to use medikits while shooting the faces off the same monsters. You play the game in an over the shoulder 3rd person view, and you move quite sluggishly, adding to the tension when you get rushed by the later bad guys and to the frustration as you laboriously try to turn towards the thing nibbling at your ankles.

Death is, as it probably should be, annoying in the game. It occasionally sneaks up randomly, it is sometimes obviously on it’s way, but however it comes it is followed by loading. Lots of loading. Worryingly long loading. The save points are generous and autosaving checkpoints are all over the place, but you still have to wait a fair chunk of time between each respawn. In some sections this gets very annoying, but surprisingly you don’t die all that often – a generous supply of medikits and stores along with carefully placed respite between the fights with creatures are well designed to stop the loading screen appearing too much.

Monster-wise there isn’t much variation – three or four standard enemies with faster and harder versions of themselves as you move through the game, a tanklike thing, an immobile enemy generator, a recurring regenerating super beast and “zombie makers” that start turning the dead against you. One of the latter categories has triggered my not particularly deeply hidden creepy crawly fear and if I knew what to call them I would have shouted their name rather than “HEADCRABS!” as I ran around the corridors to try and get away from them. Each level ends with a boss battle of sorts, with our friend the regenerating guy taking on the role a couple of times (leading to puzzle based mechanisms to stop him, as normal damage is just regenerated), a Metroid Prime style patterned attacker half way through and at the end, and set pieces involving hordes rushing you in enclosed spaces for most of the rest of the levels.

Gameplay is very much the standard “go to X and get part Z for area Y” with the player entering and exiting pretty much every level via the ship’s central tram, the remaining car of which you get working in level one. The developers have claimed that even though it’s linear there’s loads more of the ship to explore, but I didn’t see much of that despite taking every single corridor I could and trying to properly clear out each level of monsters before moving on to the next. There’s a handy built in GPS-like system that projects a blue line onto the floor for a few seconds to tell you where you’re meant to go next, as well as the obligatory confusing 3d map, and there was little in the levels that I could see that you weren’t forced through at some point or another.

The main innovation in the fighting is the way that the weapons work. They are almost all about some form of shaped damage, with the Line Gun and Plasma Cutter shooting in horizontal lines, the Ripper shooting a chainsaw like disc, the Pulse rifle cutting along its thin line of sustained fire and so on. Early in the game you are given a large push towards the secret of playing successfully – cut off the limbs of the monsters. Take off a leg and they go down to one knee. Take off another and they drag themselves along by their arms, take off their arms and by then they are generally dead. Shoot off missile shooting appendages to stop things attacking you, chop off heads to confuse, take off arms to stop them hitting you – the game happily caters to your dissection needs, awarding achievements to acknowledge your amputation skills. It leads to a more refined game than the standard hold the trigger down and fill the enemy with ammo style, a factor often emphasised by the lack of ammo that can be found around, leading to breakneck runs through the ship’s corridors looking for an energy pack or the frantic grabbing and firing with kinesis of whatever objects you can find lieing around, be they exploding canisters, chairs or the torsos of the crew.

That’s all mainly good so far, but what annoyed me? One of my favourite pet peeves – the misjudged “vehicle” section. I put the quotes around “vehicle” as it’s not really to do with actual vehicles but breaks from the core gameplay which detract from the game in general – the tank sections in Call of Duty and the boss fights in Force Unleashed are now joined by the asteroid defence guns in Dead Space.

They may only be used twice in the whole game (the second time being a lot easier than the first) but breaking away from the claustrophobic 3rd person atmosphere to be strapped into a deck gun and shoot asteroids (or a big boss thing) with slightly dodgy controls does not strike me as a good plan. It doesn’t seem to have any place in the game and adds another game mechanic that we don’t need. Yes, I was quite crap at it and it took me more attempts to do than anything else in the game, but it almost caused me to stop and give up despite enjoying everything else.

My second annoyance is the final boss battle. The game twists and turns its way through some not particularly unobvious twists and turns in the last level, and you get a big old final boss. In my opinion the entire fight section is broken and here is why. Yes, this is probably a spoiler, but I see it more as forewarning:

  1. You pop out of a building, walk round a corner and are then knocked to the ground in a cinematic sequence by the emergence of the boss. A ten/twenty cinematic sequence follows that cheaply finishes off a chunk of the story and then you are thrown into the battle. If you die then you are treated to a cinematic of you corpse being rendered into so much finely chopped mince, again taking a grindingly long time, and are then returned to the building after the traditionally eon-like reloading of the level. When you emerge you have to sit through all the unskippable cinematics again, and as you get better at the easier pieces of boss dispatch, but not at the actual final dispatch, you end up having significantly more time in cinematics and loading than you do playing. This is not Metal Gear Solid and thus should not be.
  2. The boss himself is very similar to the guy from Level 6 – THE LEVIATHAN!!1! This is no bad thing, Lev (as his mates call him) is a classic Metroid Prime style boss, as mentioned earlier, and has several stages to taking him down, learning the patterns of his attacks and taking out the weak points. The final boss, even with numerous deaths on my part, took less time to take down than the one attempt I needed to close out level 6, and only adds challenge through breaking the controls. One of the little minigame-like pieces that pops up during the game (but that isn’t as annoying as the asteroid gun) is when a giant appendage grabs you on opening a door and drags you down a corridor towards its gaping maw. You then have to shoot a big yellow bulging bit of tentacle a few times until it explodes and you are left alone with the bits of the appendage fading around you (unlike every other severed body part in the game… Consistency please, gentlemen). The breaking of the control scheme here is that as you are on your back being dragged along the axes of movement for your aiming are not quite the same as normal, making it slightly difficult to aim, which works. The final boss takes this to the next level, hanging you upside down and throwing you around making aiming totally random before dropping you into it’s more in the already mentioned laboriously slow death scene. This does not work.

So on finishing the game the strongest emotion I felt was relief that I didn’t have to piss about with the final stupid boss again, a let down after a rather good final level of the game (very linear with a series of puzzle rooms, but still fun and scary). For a mediocre game player like myself it took eleven hours of gameplay to knock the game on the head. A well crafted eleven hours of play across twelve levels, but it did feel like I’d tapped pretty much the whole game on the first run through.

However, that all said, the first thing I did after finishing the game was to start playing again – I kept all my upgraded weapons and items and walked through the first five levels of the game in superquick time, further upgrading everything and slicing the monsters up like the inexperienced killing machines they now were in comparison to myself. However, midnight then tolled and I packed up the game to be traded in the next day. I recommend it to anyone who likes a bit of twitchy jumping and a good, but far from perfect, shooting game, but Fallout 3 was out and I have a one in one out policy on games at the moment. I may well pick it up second hand a few months down the line and work my way up to “Impossible level”, but after one play through it has now faded to a fairly standard shooting game with a few nice tricks.

Piccies pinched from Team XBox


Comment from Bazza
Time 7th November 2008 at 9:40 am

Yep. Excellent game. Currently playing it on PS3. I’m surprised I’m not seeing more people on my FL playing it. But, there are just so many excellent games around at the mo’, it’s no wonder that people can’t own+play them all.
Good review, btw.

Pingback from cowfish » Dead Pool
Time 28th November 2008 at 10:30 am

[…] is the sort of photograph you take when you’ve been playing Dead Space for too long. It’s a dangerous thing seeing every scene as an over the shoulder moment before […]

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