A Physics with Astrophysics graduate and level designer specializing in the Source engine. You can contact me here or by yelling really loud.

Dead Space: a dissection

I foolishly bought Dead Space in early December instead of waiting for the post-Christmas Steam sales when it was about a quarter of the price, still, I think it was just about worth what I paid for it and despite the problems I’m about to discuss I did find it to be somewhat enjoyable after getting used to the very sluggish controls. An average gaming experience in all I’d say, and definitely a good lesson of how not to do horror games.

This article will include spoilers, more after the jump.

The Necromorphs are the first problem I’d like to tackle, they are just not scary or threatening at all. Normally you’ll see them drop out of air vents a good 10 meters in front of you giving you plenty of time to choose a limb to slice off, I liked to go for the legs first so the average necromorph died where it landed from the vent. They almost never seem to jump out from behind you, the number of times they do is probably countable one one hand only. They also don’t like to stand near doors, as a habit I take a few steps back from a door I’ve just opened in case there’s something to shoot on the other side but this only happened once through out the entire game, coincidentally the only time I forgot to take a few steps back as the door opened.

Second issue with the necromorphs is that the bread and butter necromorph, the slicer, is the campest monster I’ve ever seen in a game. occasionally they aren’t interested in giving you the hug of death (inventive death animation where Isaac is given a great big hug by the necromorph when, mysteriously, his head falls off), and could be seen prancing about the halls of the USG Ishimura. And I really do mean camp and prancing. When they mutate their feet seem to turn into some kind of fleshy stiletto heel, which gives their legs that bent knee posture. Then their arms seem to mutate to leave the shoulder upwards instead of downwards and their elbows go all slack, flailing your arms above your head certainly isn’t the way to strike terror into my heart. Not to mention Visceral Games seem to have forgotten that a bright pink body on a dark grey/brown background makes it an ultra easy target, lighting and the use of shadows to conceal enemies is never really used and the flashlight Isaac has is only on when aiming a weapon, inverse Doom 3 style. Of the two pictures above, the top is a promo picture and the latter is a screenshot, spot the difference.

Next is the amount of spoon-feeding that went on through out the entire game. One of the main gameplay mechanics is the ‘strategic dismemberment’, you can’t kill a necromorph just by shooting it in the chest, you’ve got to systematically hack off it’s limbs one by one. This in itself is fine, and actually pretty neat, but the instant you get a weapon there’s some blood-writing on the wall that reads “Cut off their limbs” and about two necromorphs into the game, probably before you’ve figured out that chest-shots doesn’t work but after you’ve figured out that limbs can be sliced off, you get a message from Mr Marine explicitly telling you to cut the limbs off. Talk about disappointing, a nice and simple mechanic for the player to learn and the opportunity of working out for yourself is stolen from you.

Dead Space is one of those voice-in-ear games where you’re alone the entire game but have a radio where some pretty much faceless character feeds you instructions. Too many games are like this. Admittedly having a sidekick in a horror game may well shatter the effect but if done properly (see Alyx in Half Life 2) the companion can really immerse you in the game by showing the right emotions at the right point.

Another type of necromorph you have to face a lot is the tentacle…thing… It will burst around the corner and grab you without any warning and enter some pseudo quick-time event where you need to aim at the right spot and it explodes and lets you go instead of dragging you into it’s lair. The above image is one of these tentacles, guess where you have to shoot it. Once you’ve encountered and overcome one of these tentacles, that’s all the boss fights taken care of. As long as you’ve learnt that the giant yellow pustules explode when shot you’ll have no trouble with the bosses.

Navigation has no difficulty to it either they have a 3D map that you can bring up at any time to see the entire area and scout out areas where necromorphs might pop up, but it also shows you the location of your objective, and a route to get there. I’m not really concerned about this as such, but the combination with the ‘bread crumb’ feature does annoy me, pressing ctrl at any time brings this route into the real world, telling you exactly which way to go. Which brings me nicely to my next irk, the frequency of bounce/loop missions.

The levels tend to be all made up of ‘go somewhere, grab something and come back again’ which is a perfectly valid way of structuring a level but when repeated 50 or more times throughout the entire game, it gets a little repetitive and does little to alleviate the feeling of linearity to the game. Because of this, and the very limited environmental differences in the levels the game got quite tedious, each chapter seemed very similar to the one before it, and the one before that. If you ever run out of ammo and have to backtrack early to get to a store to buy some, that’s not a problem because all of the necromorphs spawn in front of you, once you’ve cleared an area you can be absolutely sure that nothing will jump out at you again. The stores at the start/end of most of these bounce sections hamper ammo conservation a lot, I never found myself running out entirely but a quick backtrack to the store meant at any time I could just go restock and come back to where I was fully loaded ready for whatever I faced.

Please games, if you’re going to have slow loading menu interfaces attached to walls where you have to stand totally exposed, at least have the decency to pause the game whilst I use it so the one time I haven’t cleared an area in it’s totality I don’t end up being mauled from behind, unable to defend myself.

I found myself predicting certain events and plot twists, for example I suspected that Nicole was just a hallucination the first time her face flashes up on a monitor when I got near it, then somehow she turns up in the middle of the game and helps out which threw me a little bit. Then when she disappeared again without explanation it was pretty clear she wasn’t real.

My last major problem with it was the way it constantly made me feel like I wasn’t having my own experience, but rather being forced into playing someone else’s. Multiple times I came across crew members who hadn’t been transformed into necromorphs but were still alive and suffering, sometimes in incredibly horrible ways. In any kind of film, or if I actually was in Isaac’s boots I’d fire up my dismembering gun and do them a favour by ending their suffering. Oddly though, there must be someone at Visceral Games or EA who is against euthanasia and decided that Isaac should lower his weapon and just do nothing in these instances. What a jerk, leaving those poor people to die in agony. When Mr Marine was killed again I was annoyed at the way it played out. If the huge pane of glass between us had been smashable there is no way he’d have died, but frustratingly the glass is only smashed after the huge necromorph beast has killed him and turns on me.

Overall Dead Space was reasonably enjoyable even if I spent more of my time fighting the controls than the necromorphs. There were things that were done well, dismembering enemies, the zero-gravity sections, the spine chilling ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’ and Isaac being mute but the really important things: creating atmosphere and striking terror into the hearts of the player were off by a mile.

1 Comment »

  1. Browsergamer Said,

    September 10, 2011 @ 5:31 pm

    Thank you friend for this informative story. As a gamer I enjoyed reading it.

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