Dead Space
In Space, No One Has Any New Ideas

By Jamie Love - November 27th, 2008

Dead Space

Throughout this last year EA, CEO John Riccitello has spoken frequently about changing the image of his company as perceived by the core gamer demographic. Keeping in mind that EA is destined to thrive whether that group despises or loves their products, I’ve still been hesitantly optimistic as to how this might materialize via titles like Mirror’s Edge and Dead Space. And regardless of the groups Riccitello might wish to romance, the fact is that given the sheer number of quality studios EA has devoured, they could stand to produce at least a few games that feed a community that supported the industry long before its expansion into mainstream media and casual audiences.

Toward that end, Dead Space is a game that appears to do everything right. It delivers competent play mechanics that give movement an instinctive feel, subscribing to what players are accustomed to, and remaining easily accessible to newcomers as well. Worth particular attention is that when moving through the decks of the USG Ishimura, there is a rare balance of spatial settings. While so many titles have either felt too confined for their scope or too expansive for their content, Dead Space delivers an environment well-suited to its play style and narrative – it’s the porridge Goldilocks might have chosen if she cared about the length and width of a game. The various sections of the ship are spacious enough to feed exploration without inflicting a sense of disorientation.

Of course the tight corridors of the genre are present, and I found them more of a comfort by the end. The real dread set in whenever I faced open areas where there was ample space and opportunity for attacks. Additionally, play mechanics that can often work against success added to the overall appeal of the game. The implementation of telekinesis and stasis work as advertised, simply and effectively. Slowing down objects is always a button press away, though as expected the few obstacles requiring it feel tacked on and the real joy is found in slowing down enemies before using your cutters for creative surgery sessions. Telekinesis feels similarly unnecessary, and most frantic combat situations found me forgetting about it entirely save for the few occasions when I had time to fidget with throwing explosive objects at a stationary creature.

Dead Space

Expectantly, Dead Space’s atmosphere is its greatest accomplishment. The game manages to be genuinely creepy at nearly every turn. Players are attacked from the very start, and there’s that great introductory moment of fear as you begin unarmed, forced to run-for-the-gun before having your fun. But as with so many titles before it, from that point on there are two games being played. Areas where creatures are visibly lurking become psychologically easier to deal with. Players can simply rush in and cut enemies to shreds, knowing then from genre experience that the room is clear and safe to investigate. It’s a scenario that plagues nearly every entry in the genre and truly dispels the atmosphere such games work hard at cultivating.

Compare it with the long empty corridor, or the seemingly vacant engine room. These are areas where the nuances shine as the light from control consoles casts shadows from limp, overhanging cables, where the chatter of computer voices fills the room while a desperate sense of isolation sets in and the player is more apt to keep his/her gun drawn and take slower steps forward. Typically this is when stray objects hit the ground and rising operatic tones build the pressure of intensity until I feel my heart might burst if something doesn’t jump out immediately. The most thrilling moments of survival horror continue to be when the player is the only enemy, left facing the possibilities of his/her own imagination, finding it still more frightening than anything developers can create. Obviously the slasher element still plays a vital role, but for my money the first team to find a means of matching the combat to that suspense wins. As for Dead Space’s part, the two aspects are balanced well enough.

Eventually the game’s monstrous creations do suffer the same repetitive boredom, the non-shock of other titles before it. The creature designs of the “Necromorphs” don’t break any new ground. Ultimately they are designed to make full use of the limb-targeting feature of the game that has players taking enemies apart rather than down. While it is an interesting approach to target the legs of a monster to slow it down rather than pumping its belly full of lead, the initial thrill can only carry one as far as the design of the creatures inspires it.

By this I mean that no horror entry has genuinely captured and surpassed the revulsion that the sickly sexualized monstrosities of Silent Hill confronted players with. These are still the same morphing messes of flesh with claws that frequent horror, reminiscent of the globs of pixelated flesh that served as boss encounters in early Resident Evil titles. And the effect is similar, where you eventually don’t know what the creature is anymore, but just continue shooting until it drops – except for those instances where it won’t stay down of course.

Dead Space

There are several cliched moments at play in Dead Space. I still found myself locked into a room, creatures bursting in to kill me while I waited for the computer to open the doors. Boss encounters seemed to suffer a surprising lack of imagination. Where I might have expected something inspired from Metroid Prime per-se, I was instead at one point confronted by “the larger Necromorph,” which proceeded to break down a door and charge at me like a bull. It’s a disappointment following the shock of opening a door to have a tentacle suddenly grab your leg, dragging you down a corridor while you desperately fire anywhere at its body hoping it will let go.

All of these features are wrapped tightly in a presentation slick enough to make Hollywood proud. The transference between the opening video message and your mission, or the projection of video conversations and logs in-game, such small subtleties prove the greatest feature. Whether it’s the beam of light that shows your path, or the in-game projection of inventory items, the player is kept within the game, with the added challenge of replenishing health in the middle of combat made trickier. If you excuse the existence of store kiosks and save points on a mining ship, then every aspect works brilliantly at preventing the suspense from being broken. Additionally the depth of sound effects, the squish of flesh, monstrous screams, and maddening voices continue to prove that Dead Space’s sound design raises the bar for this current generation of titles. The game is equally stunning visually, particularly at times when there is no action. Standing on the foyer of the USG Ishimura and watching meteors outside catch and bend light through space makes you suddenly aware of what a Nexus 6 wants you to appreciate about life before it dies.

Dead Space

Yet, with every element that Dead Space applies successfully, there is the awareness that this has all been seen before. That isn’t intended to rob the game of its excellent implementation of these elements, but rather draw attention to numerous titles that laid the groundwork for that accomplishment. The point here is that Dead Space is a game that really claims a myriad of innovations as its own, and though mixing them seamlessly, ultimately does little to MAKE them its own. It leaves me questioning the point at which Dead Space becomes its own game, and if game design is being reduced to a matter of simply “getting it right” – and if so, should that be considered “good enough” by gamers?

Two aspects of Dead Space’s development prove helpful here. The first is the idea that EA somehow has taken a risk in developing a survival horror title – as opposed to the bland Middle Eastern shoot-em-up it might have spent money on instead. But try as I might, I fail to see the risk. EA has taken a popular genre from the film market and married it with a successful genre and style of game-play. The wheel hasn’t been reinvented here, and that’s fine, except that the genre hasn’t even been challenged by Dead Space. So despite the solid nature of the game, I find myself still more attached to poorer entries in the genre that suffered hiccups in the attempt to approach the idea of design and game-play from new perspectives. Dead Space takes no such risk, and in reality is assuredly the safest bet with sequels, Anime, and comics all attaching themselves during the games development.

Dead Space

The second aspect was mentioned often during the game’s development, the fact that developers were challenged to make a game that they would enjoy playing. And that probably says the most about Dead Space in the end. It is the amalgamation of numerous games that were enjoyable. Like many EA titles in the past, it feels like the derivative by-product of committee thinking. Of course this is only negative if you care that Dead Space has nothing to call its own and makes no attempt to push the boundaries of its genre. And as this is a genre that expects a little more originality than EA may be used to, it will be interesting to see the results. For now I’ll admit that it is a game that is enjoyable to play at times, but ultimately, beneath the ever-so-shiny-surface, has all the narrative appeal and game design depth of a glass of water.

  1. Subscribe to this page's RSS feed to be notified when someone chimes in.
    Subscribe to the Toronto Thumbs RSS feed to be notified when new articles are published.

    13 responses so far:
  2. Posted on Nov 27, 2008

    While I haven’t completed the game yet, I am quite enjoying Dead Space. I agree with your analysis based on my experience with it so far.

    The dev team also spent months watching horror movies (many of them completely horrible) to psyche themselves up to make the game. Unfortunately cheesy elements from the bad movies crept into the game.

    We’re at a stage where narrative in gaming is becoming more cinema-like. But more often than not, it’s as stale and derivative as a Michael Bay production.

  3. By Jamie Love
    Posted on Nov 27, 2008

    If you’re going to develop a game for an established genre, I think there’s a decision right at the beginning about where you see your game against the competition. If you aren’t going to push the boundaries of story telling, or introduce what you believe to be a unique plot, or bring in some play mechanic that re-invents the wheel, then you’re only introducing a “me too!” title.

    Again the game is visually stunning and atmospherically charged, but with Silent Hill Homecoming now and Resident Evil 5 ahead, I would expect a development team to go further and prove just how much they want to be part of this genre by creating the most compelling product possible, not by delivering a fan-ish and subsequently dated experience.

    Even disregarding plot, why couldn’t the creatures have some radical new system of spawning new forms, through random encounters with DNA available throughout the ship that created some hybrid spore-like situations where you never seemed to fight the same creature twice? – as one possibilty.

    There are a lot of titles from the last few years that didn’t create franchises, but were worth playing because they introduced some new approach to narrative, play mechanics etc. Haunting Ground comes immediately to mind, and even where it doesn’t hold together as a full experience, what it does do successfully simply interests me more.

  4. Posted on Nov 27, 2008

    For me, Dead Space does just enough to make it worthwhile. The interface design decisions of keeping stats on the character and the fact that all dialogue and status windows are visible to the character definitely help maintain the atmosphere.

    I think these steps are, as you say, good enough. But I also think this has opened up a door to greater potential. Whether it’s EA who steps through this door or someone else remains to be seen.

    I’m interested to hear your take on the new Silent Hill. A close friend of mine who’s big into the series had some issues with it, and knowing that you’re a huge fan I wonder if you’ll spot the same things.

  5. By Techni
    Posted on Nov 29, 2008

    I disagree with all of your complaints.

    Half your review was spent complaining about how the game doesn’t do anything new. I couldn’t disagree more. The stasis and kenesis were meant to be used far in combat more than you did. The game forces you to do so on harder difficulty levels. I found the strategic dismemberment to be a new gameplay element.

    I don’t care that it was inspired by movies or other games. That doesn’t make it any worse of a game. No reviewer complained Gears of War was inspired by some PS2 game.

    Yes this game is good enough. It was fun. I’d rather developers throw a ton of elements from other games and get a great game as a result rather than try something new and come out with some crappy Wii game/glorified tech demo.

    Innovation doesn’t make a game automatically fun. Though I found this game to be both.

    BTW, improving upon something that exists already is classified as innovation.

  6. By Jamie Love
    Posted on Nov 29, 2008

    @Techni

    I can think of several reviewers that might make mention of the inspirations Gears of War takes shape from. But where it could have just implemented the duck and cover system seen in a game like Kill.Switch, Gears merged that system with squad mechanics and created environments and enemies that made it impossible not to use it, building the progression of the game around those two key concepts.

    Throwing objects at enemies via mental powers, or slowing down enemies to increase player reaction time has, as I said, been done before. And though Dead Space does an excellent job of integrating these elements, the game is not built around them, but merely features them as usable elements. But the game is definitely built around the limb targeting feature, which again is designed aptly and functions phenomenally. However, even on harder difficulty settings, I didn’t find that this made stasis or kinesis consistently necessary. They certainly provide an alternative to quick reflex combat, but in the atmosphere of survival horror it is exactly a sense of impending death and quick reactions that I find the most rewarding. Stasis might provide enough time for the player to circle an alien and attack its back, but it is also possible to take the creature down with a frontal barrage. Even in early Resident Evil titles there were more effective ways to target enemies that were always optional to the player.

    I mention that there is enough good about Dead Space to play through. But as a rapid fan of survival horror, I find it bland compared to other offerings, feeling that it has more polish than substance. As a genre fan I am well aware of how few titles get produced and admit to high expectations.

    As for narrative, that’s for each player to decide. I’m the kind of player that wants to explore every detail a game offers and am driven mad by people who skip cut-scenes for instance. That’s not a guideline to playing, simply the way I do, which allows me to experience the game in it’s entirety, including game-play, narrative, and overall presentation, and then review how each were implemented and to what degree were successful. Silent Hill for instance has established itself as a game with classic horror elements, where the town of Silent Hill serves not only as its own tragedy, but also as a place where the repressed anxieties and fears of the series’ protagonists confront the player. Dead Space doesn’t seek to pioneer any new ground here, and that’s fine, as long as you don’t expect me to praise unevenly when considering that. Gears of War certainly isn’t a narrative masterpiece, and neither does it need to be, but consider that it entered into a genre and style of game-play where those elements are rarer than the genre Dead Space positions itself within.

  7. By Jamie Love
    Posted on Nov 29, 2008

    @Techni

    BTW thank-you for your comments. Whether people agree or disagree with my position on certain titles, the most important aspect is that “we” as players devote some thought to these products, which is only strengthened when people participate and make their own positions heard. I hope that more do, and certainly appreciate you taking the time to.

  8. By James
    Posted on Nov 30, 2008

    I can’t believe this reviewer totally cut this great game down. most of the design in Dead Space was totally innovative. I wouldn’t want to develop another game were all you do is take down enemies with head shots every time, or the same zombie that you can throw in any game.

  9. By James
    Posted on Nov 30, 2008

    You must not really be a fan of the genre if all you do is complain about a game that scares you. you say this game has no new elements and you whine about a tentacle that grabs you.

    if you are going to be a reviewer, you should be more educated with gaming

  10. By Deryk
    Posted on Nov 30, 2008

    Will all due respect, if you are going to review a game that is good, HOW DARE YOU point out any of its shortcomings, cliche as they are! If this is an attempt at a vdieogame review by you than you should not mention anything bad about it because the game is a masterpiece.

  11. By Jamie Love
    Posted on Nov 30, 2008

    @James

    Actually I said the tentacle was a great moment in the game, one of the more inspired ones, so good that it overshadowed a particular boss-like encounter that wasn’t as creative or surprising.

  12. Posted on Dec 1, 2008

    I must politely disagree. I think that as reviewers, I myself one, we tend to focus on details too much. Taking elements from various games and making them work together is no small task. Additionally, many games have attempted to go without a HUD before. This is the first game that got it right. More over, this game is simply fun and scary. The goal was to make it enjoyable and to creep people out. On that front, it wins. I agree that this game borrows heavily. The shooting is out of RE4, the kinesis if out of Psy-ops, the overall plot and setting are from Event Horizon or Sunshine. Sure, it’s got a lot of influences. However, you praise Gears of War for it’s ingenuity. Aside from combining multiple aspects, which you’ve mentioned, it did nothing truly unique. It took kill.zone’s duck and cover, slapped on squad mechanics from any of a number of Clancy games, and set it all in a world eerily reminiscent of Halo.

    Also, as a survival-horror fan, Resident Evil is no longer survival horror and Silent Hill is in a downward spiral. This game is far more comparable to the early Resident Evil titles, which is no small feat.

  13. Posted on Dec 1, 2008

    @LJ Katz – Yes, the game has a definite Sunshine vibe to it, particularly the set-up of the intro and how stuff falls apart. Thanks for your comment!

    As for the game, or more specifically Jamie’s review of the game, I don’t believe he’s mentioned anywhere that Dead Space is bad. You say you disagree at the start of your comment but your comment itself echoes his sentiments, right down to comparing it with early Resident Evil titles.

    Jamie’s comment on Gears of War wasn’t necessarily that it did something unique, but rather that it forced players to use the game’s squad and cover mechanics via the level design. Dead Space, on the other hand, doesn’t always do this (and for the record I don’t think that’s a bad thing, necessarily, but if you’re going to have new game-play gimmicks it is fun to be compelled to use them more).

    I’m not sure what to make of your remark that game reviewers focus on details too much. Focusing on details isn’t just something reviewers should do as part of their jobs, but something all thinking gamers should do in order to fully appreciate, understand, and (dare I say it) be able to deconstruct a game which deserves such a level of analysis.

    That said, there are a wide assortment of reviews and writing styles here on Toronto Thumbs, and I invite you to check a few others out.

  14. Posted on Dec 1, 2008

    I should clarify that my above comment RE: “Dead Space, on the other hand, doesn’t always do this” is in reference to the telekinesis and slowdown effects in the game and not, as the sentence structure may erroneously indicate, regarding the game having squad and/or cover mechanics. Sorry for any confusion that may have caused.

Comment away!

Please keep it clean. Unnecessary cursing will be removed.

Article comments by non-staff members do not necessarily reflect the views of Toronto Thumbs.


eight − = 1