Looking Back: Dead Space

By Alec Meer on April 27th, 2009 at 9:23 pm.

I’d love to sit in on a game-name brainstorming meeting some time. Like The Thing, But in Space? “Nah, too prosaic.” DoomShock? “Might be true, but we don’t really want to get sued, do we?” Stampy Guy In A Funky Welding Mask vs Horrible Flesh Beasts From The Stars? “That’s far too exciting. Can you make it blander? Y’know, like really bland – so bland that people forget its name the second they hear it, and forever refer to it as ‘thingy, the brown one with the guy in the funny hat?’” How about Dead Space? “I’ve forgotten it already! Bingo!

The odds were against poor Dead Space from the start. That said, the popular misconception is that this spooky FPS-but-with-more-shoulder shooter didn’t do terribly well. This affords it an underdog status, and the devoted, word-spreading fans that accords. The reason I’ve been playing it recently is, in fact, an impassioned monologue by an oft similarly-opinioned friend as to how great it was.

I’d been resistant because it had seemed so bland from afar. Despite such devout defenders, the truth is it did okay – just not as well as the glut of really heavy hitters released in the Winter of 2008. With this and Mirror’s Edge, EA gambled on new IPs standing out amidst a crowd of big-name sequels, and it was foolish. It had worked the previous year with 2K’s Bioshock, but that enjoyed a rare double-whammy of intense hype from a System Shock/Deus Ex-reared hardcore and the anticipation of great-looking zombie-splatting from the mainstream. Dead Space went it alone, despite attempts to get the ball rolling early with an overly-functional comic/animated series prequel.

So, it sold okay, but it got lost. Even aside from the sales issue, a month like this is a far smarter time to wade into Dead Space. It’s quiet enough to sink into it, rather than snatch a quick play while half my brain is wondering about a crateload of other shooters.

My fundamental impression of Dead Space is that it’s significantly better than I’d been expecting, having previously caught of few minutes of watching friends control its plodding protagonist as instantly forgettable dialogue was spouted by conveniently-located audiologs. It is, to sheepishly blow the cobwebs off one of the oldest of critical clichés, far more than the sum of its parts. It employs every contrived trick in the book, from the aforementioned audiologs, to progression based almost entirely on Locked Door Syndrome, to vending machines that inexplicably sell incredibly powerful weapons to workers on a research station, to checkpoint-based saves, to pop-from-the-closet monsters, to indestructible glass keeping you from offing the baddie there and then… Y’know, the works. Everything we’ve ever moaned at an action game for is in there.

Despite pre-release mutterings of a possible System Shock heritage, really it’s Resident Evil in space – for all the satisfyingly meaty combat, its challenges are archaic and artificial, machine-cold obstacles upon our basic forward motion that we’ve struggled past time and time again over the last 20 years. No doubt this is the kind of statement that will prompt some to accuse me of naïvety or presumption, but the impression is that every potential obstacle and occurence has been implemented with the least possible consideration. Just do the obvious thing, because that’s what people expect. This, it seems to me, is a game that is highly, highly technical accomplished (I’ll get to why and how very shortly), but seems creatively defunct. The hokey, plodding meat-and-two-veg plotline and the over-familiar desaturated palette hint at this, while the backtracking and arbitrarily unlocking doors that characterise the level design positively hammer it home.

And yet it works – because making a game technically watertight at the expense of the flowery, enticing, adventurous Other we call for in most of the games we froth about really can be enough. It’s in your sensory connection to Dead Space’s world – the tangible punch of the weapons when their projectiles hit mutant flesh, the screen-shaking thump when you stomp your rock-heavy foot onto a crate or demonically-distorted skull, and most of all in the sluggish, disorientated trudge through zero-G and/or zero-oxygen sections.

There is something almost physical about the way hero Isaac Clarke controls – not quite natural, but a sense of a direct, puppet-like connection to your mouse and keyboard. His movement, and the unusual close-to-the-shoulder camera positioning, has proven hateful to some – initially I too loathed it, but something clicked about half an hour in, and it began to feel spectacularly there. (A possible helping hand to those disagreeing – don’t turn on V-sync in the game’s options, as it adds a strange extra sluggishness. If you experience screen-tearing as a result of turning v-sync off, force it on in your graphics card’s drivers instead and everything’s a-okay).

The other pillar of this remarkable connection to the otherwise entirely characterless Isaac is the user interface. The HUD isn’t a bunch of numbers and icons pasted neatly onto the corners of the screen – it’s made entirely of in-universe elements Isaac himself sees. Health is monitored by lighted tubes along his spine, his guns project an ammo counter above the barrel, and the endless, tedious exposition of his assistants and nemesises (nemesi?) is beamed just in front of him from his suit, their images shrinking and skewing as his head and body move.

Other games have attempted similar, but there’s something especially slick and complete about Dead Space’s take on it – and it means every inch of screen space shows the game, not the game’s menus. Again, it’s that strangely substantial connection to Isaac – not on any personal level, but the sense that you’re directly controlling him, not a floating cursor.

Two space parasite-infected thumbs up, too, for the sound design – a constant series of background industrial and bestial noises that make the rather plain setting and foes genuinely unsettling. The single spaceship most of the game is set upon may consist of similar, narrow corridors, many of which you have to retread multiple times, but thanks to the subtle ambient sound it feels like a vessel in distress, ready to sunder at any moment.

Dead Space is a technical triumph – a collection of rock-solid systems only slightly betrayed by a stinging obviousness to how the thing actually plays. We do so often cry for creativity and innovation, but what’s less often documented is a game’s feel, how it responds to you and you respond to it on levels other than the cerebral. Dead Space does very little to engage the brain, but it treats the senses with the utmost respect. That it failed to reach a truly massive audience can hardly be said to be a tragedy, but it certainly stands tall as one of the last six months’ more pleasing ways to fire a gun at something’s face.

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