a review of Dead Space
a videogame developed by Visceral Games
and published by Electronic Arts
for Microsoft Windows, the microsoft xbox 360 and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by action button dot net
Dead Space is an interactive cinematic experience about depressed, frustrated kleptomaniacs stomping corpses in zero gravity. The main character is a schlub who serves as a crew member on a ship that is going to rescue another ship that suddenly stopped talking to other ships. In a radical departure from “the norm” as regards video game character design, the main character stands with terrible posture. His knuckles dip below his knees. We never get a chance to see him without his shirt, though he probably has a beer gut. He could be standing this way because his suit is heavy. That’d be one way to explain it. His boots must weigh four hundred pounds. Anything he stomps on explodes.
We accidentally left our hidden porn camera on while playing this game for six straight hours; if one were to edit those six hours of footage into a feature-length film, about an hour and fifteen minutes of that would probably be the hero guy (think “Excitebike Rider: The Movie: The Game”) stomping on corpses. The man has no prejudice: he will stomp an alien monster’s corpse as soon as he will stomp a dead human soldier’s corpse, as soon he he will stomp a scientist’s corpse, as soon as he will stomp a doctor’s corpse. The man belongs to a rag-tag band of space-hoppers who are going to this distant starship because it is broken and they are repair-people. As he sits on the bridge of his home ship, osmosing a mission briefing and listening to a distress call from a woman he might know in the imaginary real world, it is perhaps not possible for him not to be rubbing his proverbial hands together and daydreaming about stomping him some flesh and bones. He’s probably literally thinking: “Man, I hope there are some dead people in there.” It’s said that the art team of Dead Space researched photographs of car-crash and train-wreck victims in order to achieve a command of the accent of death; we wonder if the game designers didn’t do similar research, like, maybe by visiting actual car-crash sites and jumping up and down joyfully on the dead bodies while wearing football cleats.
It’s not your fault if the guy in the TV is stomping so many innocent corpses, either. The game designers of Dead Space want you to stomp the corpses. The evidence of this is that you are able to stomp corpses, by pressing the R trigger. Usually in an Xbox 360 game, the R trigger fires your gun. In Dead Space, you have a gun. The game designers of Dead Space obviously consider corpse-stomping more important than gun-firing. Dismembering corpses by stomping them on their articulation joints is so important to the game that the box art shows a detached hand floating in zero gravity.
The “function” of the R-trigger stomp is to stomp corpses, though also to stomp on boxes (which look like original Xboxes), releasing the goods inside. The stomp is a sudden joyful frictive movement. The character steps back, like his aft leg is nailed to the floor, lifts his foreleg like a sumo, and brings it down like a hatchet. The screen shakes a precise few degrees one direction, then the other. The controller thumps like a tennis racket handle the moment of a serve.
However, the nature of the camera is such that you never really feel like you’re stomping the box so much as you’re stomping the ground a few inches to the left or the right of the box. What was perhaps a clever little nod to Super Mario Bros. (jump up to hit blocks) now becomes little more than a Cause For Hunger. Box fragments disappear after boxes are stomped. Corpses do not. In fact, you can stomp a corpse roughly in the middle of the arm, and now his arm will be detached and kickable. Kicking the arm requires little more than walking in its general direction. Watch it flip and flop and fly and possibly get stuck for a few twitchy, glitchy, hilarious seconds to the front of your character’s suit.
It’s like, one of the bread-subsisters on the design team must have taken some time away from his dinner roll to hoot in the direction of a colleague: this technology we are using, sir, it allows limbs to be broken off at specified articulation points! Maybe we can make the character stomp corpses? The colleague, then, calling his colleague “sir” because he was confused which of them was in charge of the other, did not stop for a second to think that maybe his colleague was a serial killer or a pedophile, possibly because being able to stomp a corpse seemed like a good idea to him as well. Eventually, someone got the idea for corpses to occasionally turn into alien freakmonsters, meaning that the player, fearful of his life meter dropping below danger level again, will start obsessively stomping corpses both because of the joy and because of the vague sense of security it brings. In fact, stomping corpses might actually not help the player complete the game. There might, however, exist an Achievement and a Trophy for every player vigilant enough to leave no corpse unstomped.
So yeah, this is a videogame. It takes place in a ruined environment that once housed human life (BioShock), features an over-the-shoulder third-person camera perspective (Resident Evil 4, Gears of War), a hero wearing a power suit complete with a helmet (Metroid), a gravity / telekinesis gun (System Shock 2, Half-Life 2, Psi-Ops, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed), slow-moving grotesque monsters (Resident Evil) who happen to be aliens (Gears of War), bleeds in back-story snippets via “Audio Logs” recovered from kleptomaniacally scouring the environment (BioShock), and frequently asks players to solve puzzles (Zelda, Metroid) to advance. Eventually, the bad guy is revealed to be a poster Muslim (Fox News), and the walls start growing flesh, hair, and teeth (Silent Hill). Atop this heap of identitylessness Dead Space drops
1. A decently realized atmosphere
2. A Tetris-gun
3. Enemies that die when you shoot their limbs off
#1 owes perhaps thousands of royalty dollars to the film “Event Horizon” (right down to the sound design). #2 (in that your gun fires rectangular bursts and can be held either horizontally or vertically to cut off different enemy limbs) is only cute until you realize it is not necessary. #3 was most likely concocted by the whiteboard itself, after the designers scribbled “Resident Evil 4: Zombies: Human-shaped person-things: They have arms, legs, torsos, and heads: sometimes their heads turn into tentacle beast-monsters when you shoot them in the head”. All signs currently point to “innovation” in the games industry being defined as “giving the player a reason to shoot something other than his humanoid opponent’s head”. In Dead Space, it’s the legs or the arms. Since legs and arms might be hard to shoot off, precisely, the developers have made one of the key features of the alien monster-creatures that they have numerous superfluous appendages growing out of their necks and/or rectums.
Dead Space certainly looks nice enough, really, for it to secure funding and make money, though ultimately the evidence of an inferiority complex between the game designers and the artists becomes impossible to ignore. Simply put, the game design does not exist. (The art, on the other hand, does.)
One of the first abilities you learn in Dead Space allows you to slow down time. Not all time, though, just time as it relates to one object. Does that sound cool? Maybe it is. Put that in a PowerPoint and EA Producer Man will probably slap five dollars on the table right there and tell you to buy him a Chai Latte and keep the change.
In Dead Space, you find the time-slowing down thing on the ground literally three feet away from a door that is opening and closing at roughly the speed of sound. Pick it up and someone tells you: “That’s a Stasis Module. You can use it to slow down time! Try using it on that hecking psychotic door right in front of you.” Then, a tutorial message pops up, telling you to aim your gun with the L bumper and shoot the Stasis Module with one of the face buttons. Then a second window tells you that this is the only way to slow down this door. Try walking through the door, and your character gets cut in half. Okay. Use the Stasis Module, and the door slows down. Now you can walk through it.
Up the stairs and down the hall, there’s a “puzzle”. A computer panel tells you to “manually attach the arms to initiate repair”. Okay. You press the lever on the left side of the room. One of the arms shoots out and connects to something. Press the lever on the other side of the room (look out for the monster lurking in the shadows!) and the second arm shoots out, grabs a thing, and then shoots back a second later. You have to touch the computer panel while the second arm is attached.
Have you thought of the solution? Of course, you have to shoot the second arm with your Stasis Module and then press the lever; it’ll now take ten seconds to get to the Thing it needs to repair. You can enjoy a little walk up to the panel.
What a tenuous, weird puzzle. Later in the game, you get the gravity gun thing, which lets you pick up boxes and stuff. The very first “puzzle” involving the gravity gun — sorry, “Kinesis Module” — requires you to lift up a box and move it out of a hallway. While we understand that the main character’s boots are heavy, this is still kind of stupid. Pick up the box and YAY, the box hovers in front of your character. This would be exciting if we weren’t already spoiled by the experience of having used a remote control to turn the TV off from the next room, using a mirror, to our big brother’s horror, at age nine.
Seriously, if you’re going to put telekinesis into your videogame, try making a Powerpoint presentation to lay out the reasons, first. If your list of “reasons” is merely a list of titles of games that have telekinesis in them, maybe you’re doing something wrong. The chubby, Dorito-huffing human beings playing your game are already experiencing a telekinetic-like joy of moving around a real-like imaginary human being inside their television. Try making that imaginary person interesting before you think about giving him the ability to hover boxes over his head. Really. And if you’re going to give him telekinesis, make the whole game about telekinesis, and make it interesting. Before we know it, “telekinesis ability” is going to be a feature listed right there on the back of the box alongside “Rated ‘M’ For Mature” and “720p High-definition”.
Every once in a while, you’ll stop in a room, get all the way to the door, rotate in place several times, and wonder why no enemies are screaming at you with bile dripping out of their jaws yet. Then you realize that There’s Probably A Puzzle In This Room. You scan your surroundings for levers that can be flipped. You survey what happens — door opens, platform moves — when you press the switch. Now you consider, are you going to slow something down, or move something around? Eventually, the game is giving you super-fast-moving elevators with switches across the room and — we stuff you not — ultra-heavy boxes obstructing the elevator entrance. The solution to this little brain teaser is to use your telekinesis stuff to pick up the ultra-heavy boxes and then shoot the platform with the slowdown gun. Then flip the switch. This is no joke. One mid-game puzzle has a moving platform with a wall in the middle of it: it must be slowed down, ridden, and then boarded again on the opposite side.
Now it’s time for a counterpoint: the game’s scenario flows decently enough. You don’t know what happened on this ship, though hey, flesh is growing on the walls and there are freaks to shoot and corpses to stomp. Your ship is destroyed in the hangar bay, meaning you can’t simply throw up your hands, sigh, and go back home. You’d think that the story would write itself: get to the bridge and use the radio to call for help! The writers take it one step further, fabricating nice enough excuses for the player to traipse to the far reaches of the ship. Like, in one chapter, there’s a meteor shower coming. The auto-firing turret is offline! Get there and operate it manually until your tech guy can get it up and running again. You make the journey, and play a minigame.
Eventually, though, the context evaporates. Missions merely become a case of Something Going Wrong (example: oxygen depleting) and your hero needing to access a room at the end of a long, remote corridor and Press The Context-Sensitive Button (A button on Xbox 360, X button on PlayStation 3) to perform some “task” (example: mixing together chemical ingredients for some virus-killing serum). At one point, your commanding officer literally tells you, “I don’t know what you did, though it sure saved us”. That about sums it up. We feel exactly the same way.
Upon reaching this point of sympathy, we would like to suggest a better way for Dead Space‘s design team to handle the puzzle layouts for the sequel: The Puzzle Button. (B button for Xbox 360, Circle Button for PlayStation 3.) For god’s sake, you already have a Health Button (X button for Xbox 360, Square Button for PlayStation 3), and the in-game tutorial even calls it that, capital letters and all. Anyway, when you walk into a room and the exit is not immediately visible, press the Puzzle Button and the main character will walk to the nearest computer terminal and begin banging on keys for six straight real-time minutes, occasionally heaving a sigh. Then, the door opens.
There will, of course, be an enemy freak-monster on the other side of the door. He will burst into the room, foaming at the mouth. You will shoot him, and then enter a hallway with several Puzzle Terminals and several monsters. Eventually, there’s a boss.
Oh, look, we’ve walked right into the section of this review where we will dissect Dead Space‘s level design. Our hypothesis is that we’re not going to like Dead Space‘s level design very much.
How did Dead Space‘s level designers get hired? What did they write on their resumes? “Game development: ten years of experience developing independent games”, where “independent games” means “counting to one hundred while scrubbing public toilets to stave off insanity”? Or worse — maybe they wrote Dungeons and Dragons modules. When Dead Space‘s level design isn’t biting you on the ankle, it’s punching you in the crotch. We’ve been over the so-called puzzles, and even presented a solution for the problem they pose, so let’s talk about enemy placement: it’s terrible. When you need someone to arrange the flowers at your wedding, don’t call Dead Space‘s level designers. Every other room you walk into, you’ll see a flickering light at the end of a corridor; as you near the entrance of the corridor, an enemy will walk across an intersection, accompanied with an orchestra’s reaction to the conductor’s being taken out by a sniper. You dip into the hallway with the teabag of your character’s body, and not a split-second later, you hear an orchestra’s reaction to the concertmaster’s sudden and nonchalant stomping of the conductor’s dead body. An enemy has materialized behind you! He is stabbing you in the back with his tentacle arm things! Turn around and you’ll see that the enemy who had just crossed your path has now turned around and is wheeling toward you. We reloaded a save conveniently located just a room before such a scenario, and were careful to walk into it backward. The corners of the entrance vestibule were clear; we dipped into the hallway; the music cue landed; an enemy literally appeared out of thin air right in front of our eyes. We giggled like the living room’s atmosphere was ninety percent nitrous oxide (disclaimer: it was). We tried to count how many times this happened in six hours of play, and ran out of fingers. More often than not, the enemy walking down the intersection in hallways was originating from an extraordinarily shallow dead end. Usually said “dead end” was merely an indentation of four feet at the end of a hallway. What was this guy doing before we came in the room? Just standing there? Taking a smoke break? Wouldn’t it be more tactically advantageous for him to wait there until we approach? Of course, that would miss the opportunity for “horror”. Again, we recall that the graphic designers of Dead Space looked at photographs of car crash victims to perfect the gruesome appearance of the monsters. Maybe that’s a sign of something wrong. If you have to go out of your way to look Actual Death in the eye, maybe you’re just not cut out to do horror. The best masters of horror were, by all accounts, genuinely, innately disturbed people. Ian Curtis of Joy Division, for example, was just some schlub factory worker. He didn’t need to actually commit suicide in order to sing about committing suicide. No, he committed suicide afterward. Et cetera.
The makers of Dead Space probably asked themselves, numerous times during development, “Is this a horror game — or an action game?” Producers might tell you that a game cannot be both. It has to be more one than the other. Many horror game fans will bleat that terrible controls are the whole point of games like Resident Evil, that the slow, sloth-like, tank-like rotation of your character contributes to the atmosphere. We say to hell with that; we recognize that Silent Hill 2 sucks on a mechanical level in spite of its expertly crafted atmosphere, and we hypothesize that none of the fans would have complained if it had actually been fun to play. To Dead Space‘s credit, its designers seem to hold the same opinion — that a horror game can perhaps have fine-tuned action. It’s simply unfortunate that it can manage to make neither the horror nor the action first-class.
Instead of going into great detail on what we mean, let’s just make fun of some of the level design. Three times in the first few acts of the game we stand helpless and watch someone be mauled by an alien freak monster on the other side of a bullet-proof glass window (like the first Big Daddy scene in BioShock). Also, thrice, we are treated to the “surprise” of an alien suddenly shunting a tentacle into elevator doors after they’ve closed. If we were making this game, we’d make it so that alien tentacles jabbed through every elevator door, sometimes inexplicably, even while the elevator was moving between floors, just so we could guffaw like baboons every god damned day when he hit up internet forums and see that no one seems to notice.
The very first Action Challenge in the game requires you — weaponless — to run from a stampeding alien. It chases you down a sloping hallway. An elevator stands, open, at the end of the hall. You run into the elevator, turn around, and press the button. The elevator doors slam shut. The alien jams his tentacles into the door. The doors open partway. The alien sticks his head in. The door slams on the alien’s head. The alien dies. You think: Whew! Close one!
Now let’s try running down the hall, jumping into the elevator, turning around, and not pressing the button. Just stand there, looking down the hall. The alien will literally run right up to the doors, stop, look at you, and then turn around. Come out of the elevator, and the enemy will turn around and chase you again. If any of the developers of Dead Space are reading this, please email us with the subject line “re: first elevator in dead space” and the message text “You’re not supposed to do that!” Please wait patiently for our reply — it takes us a while. We promise that you will never forget the five words we choose to employ in our response.
Moving right along, let’s talk about zombies. Why does every other game have to be about zombies? We’re going to lay down the secret here, in the interest of Joe Sixpack and Jennifer Twoliter. The truth is that zombies are the Zero Enemy. They are Drone Zero. They are humanoid in shape — like a target at a shooting gallery! — and slow-moving — as in “the opposite of fast-moving”. Game designers very seldom consider the enemies the player is going to battle at the planning stages. Normally, they are considering how many guns the hero will have access to (or, if they’re in Japan, what the hero’s hair is going to look like). (Game designers must make terrible lovers.) When drafting the minute specifications of each gun, the only requirement for the game designer is that the guns be satisfying to fire into a moving, humanoid target. Nearly every this-gen action shooting game made thus far has most likely started development with the enemy drones as shambling humanoids that don’t fight back, their mere touch being deadly to the game designer’s test avatar. The goal is to make the mere firing of the gun exciting, innovative, or even novel. When you play a game like Gears of War 2, however, you get the very distinct sense that the enemy drones were intended from the start to equal the player characters in weapon handling and mobility. With every other game, the main focus of the enemy design seems to be that they look “scary”, or “cool”, or “despicable”. You want shooting the enemy to be some kind of cathartic moment, whether the decision to pull the trigger carries any weight or not (it never does: it’s always “kill or be killed”, after all).
In a good game, you can’t tell that all the enemy drones were initially zombies, because the designers cut all the zombieness out and give the enemies unique patterns, weapons, and appearances. A stellar (and ridiculous) example would be the original Super Mario Bros., where the most common enemies are the Goombas, who are different from the hero because they move from right to left while he moves from left to right. Mario can kill Goombas by stomping them. Goombas can kill Mario by touching him from the front. We can imagine that, when Super Mario Bros.‘s first few levels were transformed from graph-paper to playable, the Goombas were the only enemy. It took actual ingenuity for someone to come up with the Koopas, who, when stomped, retreat into a shell, which can then be kicked so that it bounces frantically and deadly between two stationary objects. (Actually, seeing as how Koopas were kind of present in Mario Bros., this argument might be flawed. Just bear with us for the sake of hypotheticality.)
If Dead Space‘s designers had made Super Mario Bros., the enemy roster would consist of Goombas, Goombas With Shit Growing Out Of Their Heads, Goombas With Tons of Shit Growing Out Of Their Heads, Large Goombas With Shit Growing Out Of Their Heads, and Large Goombas With Tons of Shit Growing Out Of Their Heads.
It’s like, it’s obvious that they started with a zombie drone, just as it’s obvious that the designers of Resident Evil 4 started with a zombie. However, the designers of Resident Evil 4 felt a little creative, and decided to make their zombies unfamiliar: gray, gaunt South Americans with demonic voices and superhuman leaping capacity. Turbo-Zombies, is what they were. Dead Space is obviously a love-letter to Resident Evil 4 penned by a budding Star Trek fanfiction author, as evidenced in the game’s exuberant one-upping of Resident Evil 4‘s “don’t shoot the head” mechanic. So how was this game planned? It kind of hurts to think about it. They started with zombies, yeah. Then someone wrote on the whiteboard “headshots = no”. So we’ve got enemies that you can’t shoot in the head. They also happen to be zombies. In a change from Resident Evil 4, where you could shoot the guys in the chest to kill them, Dead Space contrives this nonsense wherein you have to shoot the enemies in the limbs. As we’ve stated above, the designers implemented this gimmick with a tiny hesitation. In order to illustrate to the player that he should shoot the enemies’ limbs and not their heads or any other part,
1. The enemies have huge, elongated, plentiful, exaggerated, constantly flapping, undulating limbs
2. On the wall above the workbench containing the first weapon in the game, the words “CUT OFF THEIR LIMBS” is written (Portal) in blood with very clean handwriting (you look at the dead scientist on the floor, ask “Did you write that, jerk?” and then stomp him in the middle of the thigh, cutting his leg off)
3. Upon picking up the first weapon, a tutorial message pops up: “WEAPONS: Use LB to aim, and press RB to fire. (Press B to continue).” Press B, to continue, and the next tutorial pops up: “Shoot the enemies in the limbs to kill them more quickly.”
4. Walk down the hall and a monster appears. Your superior begins talking in your ear: “Isaac [your hero’s name is Isaac]! Shooting them in the head doesn’t seem to work! Aim for their limbs!” Isn’t our superior supposedly waiting for us in some comfortable safe room? Was he even carrying a gun?
5. An hour later, after we’ve shot and killed maybe a hundred freakmonsters, our superior reminds us: “Isaac! Are you being sure to shoot them in the limbs?”
6. Another hour later, we pick up an “audio log” (BioShock) lying in the middle of the hall. It’s the frantic voice of a scientist. “They’re everywhere! We’ve been shooting them in the limbs, and it seems to be working!”
A week after this game’s release, a group of game designers on the other side of the globe conversed in a big stinking huddle: “Maybe we should have a type of enemy with long arms. You know. You’d have to shoot him in the arms to kill him.” A man with acne that resembles mild leprosy took a very deep breath through his mouth. “We’d have to preempt that with maybe five or six tutorials, you reckon?” “Five or six would be about right.”
So, in summary, Dead Space is Space Zombies that cannot be killed by headshots. In order to kill them, you have to shoot some part of them that isn’t their head. The part of them that must be shot in order to kill them is their limbs. Regular arms and legs are too small to be shot at, so the enemies in Dead Space have dozens of huge long flapping superfluous appendages. Shoot two to kill an enemy. Since requiring the player to think outside the box like this might be construed as “difficult”, the game designers have seen fit to give the enemies in Dead Space no actual methods of attacking aside from getting close to the player and flapping their needless appendages at him, causing damage. How much of the game was developed and playable before EA Producer Man finished his chai latte and proclaimed something “missing”, we might not ever know, though we know that it was most certainly after this point that the game designers decided to add “fun” touches like The Gun That Slows Enemies Down (programmers must have had to work overtime to make every enemy marginally faster), a Chase Scene where your character can be slowed down by Glue On The Ground, and Several Dozen Rooms Filled With Tiles That Kill: Step In Them And You Die. Sure, Super Mario Bros. had bottomless pits, though the visual weight of falling into them, and disappearing without fanfare off the bottom of the screen was so poetic. In Dead Space, there’s no elevation. You step on a floor tile with white Air Lines streaming vertically out of it, and your body explodes. So you start walking through every stage as slowly as possible. You even walk through every stage backward, so as to not be surprised, so as not to die, so as to not have to endure that god damned loading screen, which, believe us, is a sight scarier than any nurse (Silent Hill) committing suicide behind bulletproof glass (BioShock, Dead Space).
In conclusion, Dead Space is Zombies in Space. However, they’re not just any zombies — they’re interesting zombies. The big question is Who The heck Says We Have To Make Zombies “Interesting”? Can’t we give up on zombies, already?
Dead Space most likely secured funding because it looked good graphically and because it promised pseudo-innovative things like the zero gravity segments, which are too few and too ham-fisted to really make a difference. The best way to summarize the zero gravity segments is to say that the solution is always painfully obvious — it will always involve one of the two Puzzle Buttons — and that the only reason to fail is because you get bored. One zero gravity segment sees you plodding slowly across a long stretch of the space station as asteroids fall intermittently. Whenever the asteroids start falling, you have to stop to take cover behind a Jutting Rectangular Thing. The only way to die here is to be an idiot or to be bored. If you’re an idiot, it’s because you’ve never played Gears of War, and thus do not realize that any Rectangular Thing higher than a game hero’s shoulder is impervious to anything. If you’re bored, you try to go too much farther than you can in the interval of time during which the asteroids are not falling. This elevates the segment to about as much fun as a boss in Dynasty Warriors, where all you have to do is run in circles, hit him in the back when he does his big slow attack, and then run around in circles again, waiting for him to do that attack again. If you have the steely nerves of a Chinese Warrior Poet, you’ll refrain from trying to get two hits at a time. However, if you are playing videogames and not, say, meditating in the name of peace, chances are you’re not patient, so out with the healing potions! This is as fun as playing “Red Light, Green Light” by yourself in a dark room (possibly while lying down in bed with your eyes closed).
Now for the positives:
At one point in Dead Space, an alien monster grabs the hero by the leg and drags him down a corridor. We yawned for precisely fifteen seconds before we accidentally touched the right analog stick and realized that we could still aim our gun. So we shot the hecker! That was kind of cool — a Progressive Quick Timer Event, if you will. Good job, Dead Space!
Thus concludes the positives. Did you know: some &^#$#s can tie their own shoes?
You might be expecting us to, at this point, salute the in-game User Interface. We are torn, however. We’re going to stay on the safe side and just write the User Interface off as contrarian trash. For the uninitiated reader (sup dad) we will explain that the UI is represented as something with an actual concrete existence in the world of the game. Video game staples like “life meter” (a gauge representing the amount of health the player character has remaining) and “inventory management menu” are represented with logical in-game-world counterparts. The life meter is especially “clever” — made up of LEDs running down the spinal column of the main character’s suit. The inventory management screen, when opened, appears as a hologram projecting out of a lens on the main character’s wrist. These two things were huge “Talking Points” that marketers most likely decided to pump up when they realized that talking about the actual contents of the game might not have been a great idea.
Once you get down to the particulars of the “newsworthy” UI, however, you’re either groaning or you aren’t getting enough oxygen. Why have a life meter at all? Isn’t the current vogue to not have a life meter? Aren’t we trying to represent player health through more subtle visual / animation cues such as painful limps or the screen desaturation effect in Uncharted?
And why can’t the hero just, you know, have his health regenerate automatically? Why have the Health Button at all? If his suit is high-tech enough to assess his health and present a visual readout to any person standing behind him, why can’t it automatically utilize health recovery items just as the wearer’s health dips below a certain point? This is a very serious question. If someone had asked it of the game designers midway into Dead Space‘s development, they would have frozen up, and answered: “Because that would break the game”. Not if you break the game yourselves, first!
Also, by making the character’s inventory a “part of the game world”, you are only further hammering the subliminal question of where in the hell the guy is keeping all of these trinkets. Whenever he picks up an item, we don’t even see him touch it with his hands. There’s just that huge blustery stomp, a quick crouch, and then a sterile icon appearing in the center of the screen, telling us what we just picked up. Under these circumstances, who, really, gives a standing stuff that the menu looks like a hologram shooting out of the guy’s suit? It’s a cute gesture, guys, and it was probably thought up with dreams of games’ finally being celebrated as Real Art, though when you get right down to the execution, it’s just another god damned Thing In a Videogame. We realize that DARPA recently made a tank powered by a Windows PC and remote-controllable with an Xbox 360 controller, and yeah, that’s heckin’ meta as hell, though we don’t reckon that any clever PDA engineers are going to take a crack at game-like inventory management menus for real people any time soon. If you want to do something clever, one-up that recent (terrible) Alone in the Dark game (1/2 star), which used the character’s jacket pockets as a menu — give us a huge, Australian-style hiking backpack with a zillion pockets, where it’s hecking impossible to find anything, and let the analog sticks control our right and left hands. Make the menu into a game, not just something in a game. Or else lose it entirely.
So yeah, on top of this, we will now complain about the in-game store: can we not sell guns in a “store” on board a ship that also has a “clinic”? A “clinic” is a sign that the people making this videogame and/or writing its story had some concept of the environment in which the story happens as being a place where characters representing “people” live and work, meaning that they get sick and/or hurt here as well. Why would the crew members of a military vessel need to pay money for guns? Seriously?
That Dead Space‘s game designers saw fit to make an item inventory menu that looks like it’s part of the game world is one thing. That you obtain new weapons by finding “schematics” which make new guns “available” at the store terminals is just videogamey enough to knock the cute menus back down two rungs on the entertainment ladder. Tone-wise, Dead Space is like what would happen if the producers who made “Super Mario Bros.: The Movie: This Ain’t No Game” somehow made a movie out of Super Metroid and then commissioned EA to make a game out of it. For all its inspiration, though, it’s a little ham-handed. You’d like to think that — in a perfect world — people with inspirations take the best bits of the things that inspire them. The makers of Dead Space, more often than not, take the bits of their inspiration which would be immediately easiest to implement. Where Super Metroid would place ceremonial importance on the archeological uncovering of a new power suit, Dead Space takes the easier inspiration from Resident Evil 4 and/or BioShock, and lets you buy one from a vending machine. Et cetera. One point we won’t bother getting into is how at least Resident Evil 4 contextualized the weapon merchant by making him Mysterious As Hell, and making it possible to kill him and make it so that he never comes back and you are screwed if you want new weapons. Also, in Dead Space, you can sell guns to vending machines. No wonder this vessel fell prey to the alien threat — all the men on board probably sold their standard issue firearms to fuel their poker / hooker / porn binges.
We’re almost done.
Here’s a paragraph we wrote while woozy with the rush of a hundred pushups. We’re going to present it as a blockquote:
The sound design in Dead Space is of the most fantastic production quality. More games need this attention to detail. The music, on the other hand, while certainly recorded using expensive equipment and talented people’s time, happens to quite coincidentally always sound like either an air-conditioner having an orgasm or an earthquake swallowing an orchestra.
Actually, we’re not sure what else to say. Maybe it’s worth pointing out that we didn’t finish Dead Space. We got to what we thought was the end, at which point we had acquired a drill-bit-firing gun that can kill enemies with one shot to the chest, which kind of defeats the purpose of the whole limb-cutting gimmick. It’s a modern game design tragedy, and it happens too often: eventually, a game has to kill its own gimmick in the name of its level designers’ incapacity for thinking of anything “new” or even “different”. Eventually, the game was so much of the same thing over and over again — the same plodding, humorless, gamefuneral-like tone, punctuated only by “hilarious” advertisements (BioShock) for meme-things like “Science!” (Portal) on the walls — that when it started to try something “different” it was vaguely shudder-worthy, and we walked away to avoid losing face. Having walked away allows us to, of course, think fondly of the parts of the game we never got to play. To wit:
The final boss of Dead Space may or may not be David Bowie in a business suit, nonchalantly tempting the player: “You go right on and keep trying to shoot me love, I’ll be teleporting“. He then teleports — to the left, to the right — as you shoot him and Space Fire spreads like spilled orange juice. You cannot win. This could be the end of the game — we wouldn’t know because we didn’t play it that far. We liked it at the beginning — with space, and pretty twinkling stars. We liked the cold steel of the abandoned space station. Then the game showed us an alien killing an innocent person behind glass, while we stand and watch, unable to help. Then it did that three more times. Environmental snippets present a story for the gleaning: something about people researching mutation. Eventually, the walls started growing flesh. As the game’s story was apparently written by nine-year-olds who’d just seen “Event Horizon” and didn’t realize that the language the “Jurassic Park” guy was speaking in That One Scene was Latin and not some alien tongue, we figure that any explanation for flesh on the walls we can come up with is probably as good as if not better than theirs. We feel exactly the same way just about every time we do anything in Dead Space. The developers must have felt the same way as well.