Monday, September 20, 2010

Dead Space

I've been living off cheap, slightly older games on Steam for a while now. Dead Space is another one with a sequel coming out soon, and while the original didn't sell like gangbusters, it built up a lot of cachet with regular gamers because of the things it did right. As a horror third person shooter set in space, there isn't much about the game that's original. The setting is a hodgepodge of various science fiction horror films, and to say that the gameplay was merely inspired by Resident Evil 4 would be quite generous. But it takes all of its borrowed elements and puts them into a mostly interesting whole, one that mostly nails its intended atmosphere and sense of place, and has a design formula that manages to sustain itself for most of the game's length.

You play as Isaac Clarke, an engineer of space-type objects and the loudest silent protagonist of all time (he never met a thing he wouldn't grunt at), and arrive with a small crew at a mining ship that has been sending a distress signal, and happens to have your girlfriend on its crew. You quickly realize that the cause of the distress is alien in nature, as a couple redshirts get dispatched by grotesque, flailing monsters and Isaac finds himself alone with only a (surprisingly effective) piece of mining equipment to protect himself. What follows is a long journey to basically fix every system on the ship while the surviving crew members from your ship bark orders at you, and you encounter the aftermath of what turned the vessel into a derelict mess while fighting off hordes of ravenous beasts.

The gameplay will feel familiar to anyone who's played a survival horror game before. You have to watch your resources, manage your equipment, fight off or avoid dangerous enemies, and solve rudimentary puzzles. Few things in this game even qualify for that word, as it's mostly just tracking down the right object to pick up or panel to activate, and the game even gives you a line to follow that leads you right to your destination. Occasionally things are mixed up by various environmental hazards, like an airless vacuum, or a room without gravity, or an invincible alien tracking you down. The combat is solid, with a nice feel to the shooting, a decent variety of weapons (even if a few seem pretty useless, at least without heavy upgrades), and a unique feel to defeating the enemies, as the key is to cut off their limbs rather than fill their torsos and heads with lead. There's also a couple boss fights and a minigame that involves controlling a turret, although neither are very fun and the latter in particular caused headaches for everyone who encountered it.

It's a decent enough formula, but a very easily identifiable one, and I couldn't quite sustain my excitement in continuing to go through it starting somewhere around halfway through. It's another game that seems like it doesn't like you, as it continues to shove more and more difficult and frantic enemy encounters at you and never relents with some of the more chore-like objectives. By the end of the game you're literally just dragging a giant object around for an hour while being constantly hounded by enemies. The story is decent, especially the way it's told with a combination of found audio, video, and text, as well as in-game encounters with the few surviving people you run across. And it looks and sounds nice, but all of the atmosphere they effectively build doesn't result in a lot of actual scary moments and doesn't totally make up for what I felt was quite a bit of repetition. It's a good game, well polished and mostly a fun time, but I don't think it's a great one, and I'm not exactly dying to learn more about the vast multi-media universe they created around it or dive into the soon-to-be-released sequel. I'll probably give it a shot some time, I just guess the magic wore off for me a bit earlier than most people.

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