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I Shouldn't Be Gaming Right Now… But I Am!

Impressions/Review: Dead Space (or how I learned to stop freaking out and kill aliens)

Posted by deckard47 on November 4, 2008

So, I’m still playing through Dead Space, but I thought I’d stop by and write a bit about it. I’ve recently been thinking that too many games operate in the shadow of Aliens, especially in the atmosphere created by that movies’ characters. So, it’s with amusement that I encounter a game that steals everything else from Ripley’s world: setting, plot, enemies (kinda), and lines of dialogue. I mean, when you hear somebody give the “we’re here to destroy, not to analyze or bring back” line, you know what’s going on.

This has, of course, been pointed out by many people, all over the internet. It seems to me they’re also talking about gameplay. They say that this game is like Aliens, with its frantic action and small scares, and less like Alien’s slow creeping dread. Again, correct. What they don’t mention is that the story, which mixes the aforementioned movies with The Thing and a bit of religious zeal, is hackneyed beyond belief.

The game sends you from one end of the spaceship Ishimura to another, fixing leaks, restarting generators, and basically acting like the meanest, most badass space janitor/engineer in history. Let me say, right out of the gate, that I loved this game. I thought that it was beautiful, fun, tense, and occasionally scary. I never for once thought it was original or creative (except in its depiction of zero gravity and vacuum situations, which are absolutely brilliant).

What Dead Space is, is carefully and stylishly unoriginal. You’ll love playing it, but when you aren’t playing it, it’s hard to say what’s so great about it. It has some really great set-pieces, some sweet effects, and solid gameplay, and that’s all. Every other design move smacks of laziness or lack of creativity.

Let’s take our hero and avatar, Isaac Clark. Mr. Clark (whose face you can only glimpse for a moment or two from start to finish) is a voiceless middle-aged white dude it would appear, who specializes in heavy breathing and killing things. You are ostensibly interested in the plight of the Ishimura becasue your ex is on it, but we never really care about this “relationship.” The problem is that Isaac has been saddled with modern video games’ most ludicrous trope: the “everyman” silent protagonist.

Isaac never speaks, and you never get any indication of his mood, other than that he doesn’t like dying. He wear’s a mask throughout the game, and reacts to little. Apparently, this makes him relatable, because so many of us are demure, voiceless, deep space mechanics who constantly wear masks. Again, really guys? I don’t see how you can relate to a character who does not exist. I guess it lets you make stuff up about him, it lets us call him a “blank slate” or some other foolishness.

What it also does is make me absolutely not care about his plight. I don’t care about his ex, I don’t care about his shipmates (why should I, they just spout dialogue and send me to tighten some screws down in Engineering), and I really don’t care about the [Spoilers ahead] stupid mad scientist who talks at me through windows and wants to meld humans and aliens. Unthinkable. [End of the spoilers] The plot is bad, and it gets worse, and eventually you wonder why you’re still playing.

It doesn’t help that Dead Space makes Drake’s Fortune look scary. It creates a very creapy setting, and does next to nothing with it. I can count on my hand the number of time I was scared by this game:

1) When the unkillable monster is banging around in the walls and coming after me and he has such a scary voice! No really, this part scared me silly, and had me running around without my normal care and caution. Oh, right, that was stolen from Resident Evil 2, and Nemesis unless I’m much mistaken.

2) The first time a vent pops into your face and nothing evil pops out after it. This will happen 500 times throughout the game.

3) The first time the lights go out. For more on numbers 2 and 3, check out Graffiti Gamer’s take on Dead Space. No, seriously, go check it out and come right back, because I am too lazy to say what he put so well.

So there you have it. Three scares. Of course, I kind of like this. I love killing monsters, aiming precisely at their limbs, changing guns manicly (oh, and let us congratulate EA Redwood on the Ripper, my favorite remote controlled spinng saw gun), and cursing my frail engineer’s body. Its fun, and it never got too scary, like some games that make me take a break or two. You get the feeling that they’re trying so very hard, and its a bit sad. When I see a dark shape in the distance, which turns and disappears, I don’t get scared. I know he’ll pop out of a vent later! Likewise, when I find a scientist who promptly slits her throat because of the horror, I just check for an item drop. None of the survivors ever surprise you and go hostile (which I think would have been a brilliant scare), so you never have to worry.

They miss even the basic scares. Where’s the alien dropping on my face when I’m minding my business in an elevator? Where’s the alien that actually surprises me, ever? I’m not sure how to accomplsh this, but I know that AVP 2, Drake’s Fortune, and all of the Resident Evil games did a better job at creating atmosphere than Dead Space does. I mean, the hallway where arms attack/grope Leon Kenedy in the police station scared the living daylights out of me, and that was one of many moments in the game.

This is all to say that the game annoys me on a very deep level, and is still amazingly fun. I want to play it again, on either Impossible mode or on Hard mode again with beefed up weapons. It’s a lot of fun, and I’m sure I can forgive it its faults for another run through its scary spaceship. The interface is fantastic. It’s a holo-inventory/map that you project into the air in front of your suit. It’s sweet and pretty and fun. Oh, and about an hour ago, I realized that it was emitting from the collar of his suit, where there was a little readout. So cool! Must go look at in an elevator for minutes!

In case you were wondering (and who isn’t!), this is what I wanted the next Aliens game to be like. I’m sure Colonial Marines willo be alright, but if this game had been about Ripley’s monsters, I would have been in heaven. If that world could have been realized in the same way as the Ishimura, all would have been right with the world. Oh well. How about in the sequel, Isaac talks? Please? And maybe we all can stop pretending that we empathize with masked space mechanics who don’t speak.

UPDATE: Some guys just dropped into my elevator. They were not sary.

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4 Responses to “Impressions/Review: Dead Space (or how I learned to stop freaking out and kill aliens)”

  1. Sam said

    How about how the way that “scary shit” translates into a game mechanic is very often, for the slow-reflexed among us, actually an impossible reflex-based surprise that you have to try three times and makes you yell at the console each time a monster spends ten minutes eating you?

    “Hard.” It’s all I can do to make it thru normal.

  2. Gary said

    I’m stuck on the meteor shower and mass-driver. I’m just not that good at aiming these things. And now I’m frustrated. The most dangerous thing so far has been a space-walk with invisible killing meteors that blow me up when some lady says that there are impacts on the starboard side. *** SPOILER ALERT: death is coming head-on *** Now that I sit in the mass-driver control chair, I’ve died a hundred times and still can’t quite make it through a barrage of little rocks. Maybe I’m close, but I’m also very bored. I guess the scariest part of the game is that people — like myself — that haven’t played this stuff before could encounter such a trivial, stupid mini-game and find the experience of such a mind-blowingly beautiful, awesome game to be tainted or even ruined. I won’t play anymore. It is pointless and I’ve lost interest in the fate of the guy that can fuse his own circuits but can’t turn on the radar-controlled mass-driver guidance. Just a degree or two of flexibility in this thing and I would be set. But no, the fate of space traveling remote-control-saw making societies will be left to a world-war-2 style turret and aimed-by-thumb potato guns. Heck, isn’t destroying the ship and everything on it a better choice than letting even a tiny bit of this necro-whatsit escape? Maybe I’ll keep trying, but the game could be improved by making little side-games like this optional or easier if you flub them too often.

  3. DAISHI said

    There’s a book called “Ecclesiastes” that says the exact same thing. One of its more famous quotes is “There is nothing new under the sun.”

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