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howdy doody im gonna use this spot here to witter about Dead Space
So I'm not much of a horror game player. I like them, love them even, but I'm generally rubbish at playing them. I get jittery pretty easily and if things get too intense then I have to put the game down (I tried playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent twice and both times I had to stop after 30 minutes due to nerves). And I've always been kind of sad about that. To me, horror games attempt more than almost any other game to subvert expectations and reach past the medium in which it is confined to affect the recipient: it's an amazing genre with some excellent games to show for it.
And then we have Dead Space.
I remember seeing the marketing for this game years ago (along with Left 4 Dead; always raised an eyebrow at the hand-oriented marketing for the both of them): I thought it looked neat and foreboding and I'd have been game to try it if only I had the means. Of course that was about 10 years ago by my measure and since then I've found out a decent bit more about this game. Chief among my sources for Dead Space info was Zero Punctuation, which tore into the game with a fair bit of abandon. It was fairly disappointing to see: I've been a fan of the video series for some time and to see him judge what I thought was a neat concept as tawdry chaff didn't exactly raise my hopes for what my experience would be like. At the end of all that though, I still had an interest in seeing it for myself.
Obviously I won't be reviewing the entire experience here: it's fairly decent-sized and to linger on too many details would be tiresome, so broad strokes are necessary. The game is mostly built around you exploring a devastated mothership in an attempt to deduce what happened, breaking up each visit of an area into chapters and reusing the odd couple for the story's sake. Along the way you'll be facing off against Dead Space's signature Necromorphs using the slew of weaponry the game provides you with. That's a summary in broad strokes.
I'll start off with what the game has going for it:
-Premise. It's definitely a cool idea: a spaceship releases an alien infestation that warps the crew into twisted, fleshy abominations. What's not to love?
...what? Alien? Never heard of it.
-Fun. Whatever I say about it next, for the most part this game has all it's marbles when it comes to the meat of the gameplay. You explore for resources and fight Necromorphs and both have their charm. There's little areas tucked away to search if you're feeling brave and resources are scarce enough that you don't feel too safe, at least for the most part. As for the combat, it relies on dismemberment to incapacitate and kill enemies and works really well: it feels more involving than the general method of pumping enough lead into your enemy that they crush bathroom scales underfoot. The weapons also serve the gameplay fairly well: you have your standard fare like the Pulse Rifle and Flamethrower, but you also have dynamic weapons like the starting Plasma Cutter and the Ripper for precise shots. I used the Plasma Cutter throughout the entire game and it never felt useless, which reflects good gameplay design. This ain't your Doom pistol, lemme tell you that much.
Also the anti-gravity is neat.
-Imagery. The Necromorphs look delightfully grotesque and there's generally enough monster variety that complacency doesn't become a huge issue. My favourite is the Divider, those are neat.
But I imagine you guys know what's coming, so this is what Dead Space fails at:
-Horror. There's various bits of panic from difficult combat situations and there's the odd startle, but horror? No, there's none of that.
The reason Dead Space exists is because of one very influential game: Resident Evil 4. The most obvious caveat is the over-the-shoulder view, but it's also present in the abundance of action in what purports to be a horror game. Monsters pop up, you whack them down, you continue on your merry way, repeat. So what's the difference between the two? My first guess would be the tone. Dead Space's problem is that it's aiming for your standard horror atmosphere while boasting RE4's over-the-top, frenetic gameplay and the two just don't mix. RE4 knows what it is: it's silly and fluffy, with you trying to rescue the President's daughter from Midget Napoleon and company. The overall tone matched the frenetic core gameplay, in other words.
So if Resident Evil 4 made its gameplay and story camp, then why is it more scary? All accounts point towards the subtleties: the depictions of the strange yet relatable, the well-used music, the random curios that aren't part of the main experience but help in giving it life and mystique. All of which are sadly not present in Dead Space, with its fully formed Necromorphs and the conductor falling into an orchestra pit with each encounter. It feels like the developers took their cues from movies rather than video games, which does a disservice to both. If I were to give advice, it'd be to perhaps introduce enemies that are in the process of turning into Necromorphs to emphasize and imprint on the player that these things were once human. That and some restraint with the music, heh.
And as you may have guessed, the action-oriented gameplay doesn't lend itself to the more traditional form of horror either. Even the small points, like monsters dropping items and the chapter format, those do their part to breaking immersion and lessening the atmosphere of dread. The writing doesn't help either, with the attempted plucking of the heartstrings and the rampart cliche. One of the best ways to effectively horror it up is to make us sympathize with the good characters before awful things happen to them and it just isn't present, neither with the main character or the NPCs.
-Story. Part of my beef with the story is covered in the previous part, but the other thing that bugs me is the fact that almost the entirety of the main plot is a series of contrivances. It's fine at the start where your initial objective is subverted, but after a while it just feels like the story is throwing roadblock in the way instead of organically progressing. It gets tiresome and - again - undercuts the tension the game is trying to achieve.
-Those effing Drag Tentacles. It's an enemy that will kill you stone dead regardless of health level if you can't shoot it enough times. Sounds like any other enemy, no? Except this is while you're being dragged along a corridor at a weird angle, using your cockeyed RE4 aiming system that needs response time to position for accurate shots. It's annoying and the final boss pulls this trick as well for token gameplay variety. Oh yeah, speaking of which...
-Random gameplay variance. I'm looking at you, turret sections and out-of-place optional minigames.
I think I'm about run low on vitriol, so I'll sum up my thoughts on Dead Space. At the end of the day it is still fun to blast through and has the makings of something scary, but it shows that the people who made it didn't quite grasp the subtleties that make a game truly terrifying. And from what I know of 2 and 3, they never quite managed. It's a shame.