Sunday, August 16, 2009

Dead Space

Dead Space (360)
"Dead space" is the small bit of air that doesn't do anything in the inhale/exhale exchange of gases during respiration. One wonders whether the developers chose this term for the title of their game because of the portions of it that take place in the vacuum of space or because it sounded like a cool title for a sci fi/horror game. I guess the origins of its name don't really matter, but the more I think about it, the more generic it sounds. It's like setting your game in a fantasy world's forest and calling it "Arbor & Elves" or something. This "generic" feel is an undercurrent for my feelings about the game because, while I liked it and felt compelled to finish it, I could never shake the feeling that 90% of what's good about it is cribbed from other, more original games.

Dead Space reviewed well at the time of its release. Which makes sense because it is a mechanically and technically sound title, looking and playing very well...but it has no heart, soul, or spark of originality. To put it another way, on an objective level, this game is excellent and one of the best of this generation. But the 'feel' of it and the ideas at play are hollow and shallow. I imagine people sitting around listing games/movies they loved, eventually deciding to make something literally formulaic from those starting points: the setting of the Event Horizon movie, the basic gameplay of Resident Evil 4, the plot of most sci fi/horror movies and games, and so on.
For a game that tries to be scary, it never is. Dead Space relies so heavily on 'jump' scares that by the end of the first chapter of the game, you start predicting when the next creature will jump out. Will it be when you cross a certain part of the room, when you pick up this item, when you're in the middle of doing a puzzle, etc.?? There are some attempts at a more psychological horror style--whispering voices, weird noises, the lights going off--but since the game is so easy and your weapons so powerful, you never once feel truly vulnerable. You're guaranteed to die more often to the cheap deaths that result from puzzles, such as giant industrial fans or incinerators.

Still, a game being easy isn't a bad thing in my book, since I'm a wimp. What really got to me was how awful the story is. For starters, you see every single plot twist coming a mile away, and they're all such cliches that they seem like a parody. It was a bit odd when I mentally guesses most of the plot ahead of time, hoping the game wouldn't play out in such a trite way. Oddest of all is how the game gives too much detail about the origins of the monsters and the ominous 'Marker' object that caused this whole mess. Seeing as how the explanation given is really, really, stupid, I kind of wish that had stuck with more mystery. I also wish the game would have taken a lesson from the Metroid series and made you play through the bulk of the game alone, without a bunch of annoying radio chatter. In fact, for a game that tries so hard to be a 'serious' horror game, it not only fails at being scary but it fails at giving you a suspension of disbelief. Various parts of it stick as as very "videogamey", from the way you begin and end each chapter with a tram ride and an explanation of the various gadgets you'll need to find/fix, to the way convenient save points and Stasis recharge stations are located right near tough areas or Stasis based puzzles. Resident Evil 4 got away with "videogamey" elements because it had a smirking sense of self awareness. Dead Space tries to be believable, which merely serves to underscore its ridiculous moments.

And for what it's worth, Dead Space has one of the lamest, cheapest endings of all time, an attempt at one final scare that caused me to say "what the fuck??" out loud. Especially since this takes place after the main character has dramatically taken off his helmet, an action which has no impact at all since we haven't seem his face or heard his voice until now. I mean, the guy doesn't even physically emote when things are happening.
Despite all of this, I found something engaging about the experience. Again, a lot of that has to do with the fact that the game looks and plays great. The graphics aren't outstanding, but they are quite good, and all of the lighting (or lack thereof) is well done. Moreover, the controls quickly become second nature, allowing you to expertly slice up enemies. The game's much touted "HUD-less" design is effective but more of a successful experiment than the next step in evolution for videogames. All Dead Space did was move health bars and power meters from the corners of the screen to the back of the main character. And shooting monsters' limbs off instead of their heads doesn't feel that different, ultimately, since its an arbitrary, nonsensical thing to begin with. After all, you shoot enemies in the head because that's where the most vital organ of all is located. Why would cutting off a couple tentacles spell instant death for a beast but not plugging it in the brain?? Anyway, if you're like me, you either maxed out a weapon pretty quickly and could just fire away at random until stuff died or you used the gun that shoots a remote control saw blade, which easily dices up foes.

What works best in Dead Space are its original elements: the zero gravity and vacuum of space sections. Granted, things like this have been done in games before, but they're very enjoyable in Dead Space. A few are frustrating or drag on too long (and the game always predictably throws enemies at you during them) but as a whole, they're the best things Dead Space has going for it. They give the game what little character and freshness it has to the point where I wish the entire game took place in zero-G.
Still, after finishing Dead Space I was left with mixed feelings. The plot sucked but the game looked and played well; the original elements were mostly interesting but some of them were more cosmetic changes than meaningful; it had an OK atmosphere but it wasn't truly scary. Well, I went back and re-played the demo of Resident Evil 5 yesterday and I figured out why I stuck with Dead Space til the end: because it reminds me of other, better, more original games. The audiologs and spooky atmosphere are right out of, say, BioShock and Doom 3. The gameplay--right down to the shop and upgrade mechanics--is from Resident Evil 4. And the story is rote sci fi/horror. I still ought to play the full game of Resident Evil 5 to make my final analysis of it (despite what I said in my old post about its demo, I kind of want to play it now), but thinking about it now, Dead Space is one of those games that people play to tide them over until something else comes out. Dead Space has a real "me too" feel to it, adding/changing just enough to not qualify as a straight copy but not doing enough to distinguish itself as truly original and un-formulaic. It's not a bad game by any means, and I'm curious to see how the sequels turn out, but it's hard to shake the feeling that most of its critical and commercial success is due to the fact that it came out well after Resident Evil 4, when people were still hungry for this sort of thing, and also before Resident Evil 5, when Capcom went back to the RE4 well for this generation of consoles.

So, yeah. Dead Space is one of those 4 out of 5 experiences, not as good or original as it could've been but mechanically sound and with a couple neat ideas of its own. It's a game that previewed extremely well, reviewed extremely well, but in hindsight it isn't fully deserving of its success or praise.

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