I’d had my eye on Dead Space since it first got announced. It looked superb even though Survival Horror isn’t a genre I really go for. Some of that is to do with the Resident Evil series being the flagship title in such a genre and my utter dismay at the array of broken mechanics and archaic design principles that litter that franchise.
Having played Dead Space through to completion I have to say it’s one of those rare games that exceeded my expectations. As such, it instantly goes onto a pretty short list of games I can whole-heartedly recommend. To me, Dead Space is the the pinnacle of the Survival Horror genre and EA, a company that recieves a lot of criticism, deserve enormous praise for their efforts.
Firstly, the setting is great! Zombies in space. Why didn’t anyone think of that before? (Dino Crisis 3 doesn’t count, ok?) You get all the joy of videogame zombies and the jumps and groans they offer PLUS! extra game mechanics like zero gravity, space-age weapons, sci-fi technology, airlocks and more. It’s a great setting and Dead Space makes the most of it. There are just as many ‘space’ themed events and challenges driving the game forward as there are ‘monster’ ones which not only adds a degree of variety in the challenges you face as a player but, because they’re so well put together, each complements the other and, in the context of the game, the overall experience of both aspects are elevated.
The graphics are uniformally superb with each deck given its own theme (medical, engineering, hydroponics etc). A variety of lighting tricks add enormous atmosphere to the game. Special mention goes to the stunning rendering of the player’s character Isaac, he moves with purpose and believability. I’ve rarely been so convinced of a living player character as I have of Isaac in Dead Space. It just works.
And a game like Dead Space lives or dies on its sense of atmosphere and how well it draws the player into the world it creates. Thanks to the excellent lighting, believable animation and nuances of Isaac and the astonishing sound design, the game excells when it comes to atmosphere. I’ve got some 5.1 surround headphones but, frankly, I didn’t have the balls to wear them whilst playing Dead Space!
Another hugely impressive part of Dead Space is in its user interface – or lack of one. Atmosphere can often be broken by hitting PAUSE and going around some menu items or glancing at a map. Dead Space offers you these features but presents them as a holographic interface directly in front of Isaac in the game. In fact, as you move around your inventory Isaac’s head follows the highlighted area. Whilst navigating this interface the player can still use the second analogue stick to move the camera freely around and, in doing so, you can see the holographic interface from different angles – including reverse angle – and see that whilst it looks flat from the front view, it’s actually a layered interface with different depths. All the time, however, you are kept inside the game world, the suspension of disbelief is not threatened by the need to review your inventory as it might be in most games. Even the player’s ammo and health are depicted as parts of the weapon and armour respectively. All the information is clear and available to the player but it never takes them out of the game world. To me, this is one of the most brilliantly designed aspects of the game and something that works to perfection. Interface design is hugely important in all areas of software, games have extra considerations (such as maximum resolution, having to keep areas of the screen clear and so on) and I think Dead Space’s execution is well worth studying. If you’ve played the game and never really noticed the interface then that tells you how good it is!
Aside from a handful of times at the start and end of the game, there’s barely any cut-scenes either. Nearly all communication in the game is handled in audio or through a holographic video playing out in front of Isaac. Again, because this is in keeping with being kept inside the game world it means that Isaac can still march forwards or open doors and shoot zombies without the game’s narrative insisting that he stand still and listen. Once again, it’s another example of how the sci-fi setting is exploited in the game design to allow the player more freedom to get on and play the game. In fact, this audio delivery is used to startle the player sometimes as your radio might crackle into life with loud static at a most unexpected moment. Everything, it seems, is designed to heighten the game experience.
My only criticism with the game is that, by the time you’re into the second half of it you might anticipate some of the tricks used to manipulate your feelings. Interesting objects are frequently put at the end of long corridors and, as you walk down the corridor focused on the object something will jump out at you from one side. Classic misdirection but it becomes a little familiar. As does the device of having you walk into a room with only one exit in order to obtain a key item and seeing the exit lock behind you trapping you inside as zombies start to spill out of innocent looking hatches and vents.
To compensate, the game has more than enough moments of unexpected thrills and daring (such as realising you’ll need to walk on the exterior of the ship or might choose to indulge in some zero-g basket-ball) that are far more memorable than getting jumped on by a zombie.
Dead Space is a cracker of a game and easily one of my favourite in the last 12 months. It’s Wii counterpart is also shaping up to be something very promising indeed. The studio that produced Dead Space are hard at work on Dante’s Inferno – said to be a God of War style game. I can’t wait!