Monday, October 27, 2008

dead console, Dead Space

Well, I had been planning to finish Dead Space in time for a Halloween review, but my 360 died on me. Fortunately, this is only the second time I've had to replace a 360.

That I consider two replacements fortunate is certainly a testament to the console's terrible reliability. When my first 360 got the Red Rings of Death, I donated the replacement to my brother and bought myself a 360 Elite, believing the updated console would last longer. It didn't. Apparently, Microsoft decided at some point that it would be cheaper to stomach the cost of countless console replacements and continue to sell blatantly unstable hardware than to meaningfully modify their original design and forge new contracts for the manufacturing and shipping of new parts.

As I've always said, the Xbox 360 is unreliable hardware saved by an excellent library of software.

I've highlighted a lot of stuff in this review for quick browsing.

Anyway, Dead Space. Before my console broke, I had only completed the first chapter or two of the game, in between sessions of Saints Row 2 and Fable 2. But I've decided to go ahead and offer my impressions, however limited, because this game is awesome and the perfect center of a Halloween party.

The other day, I was playing Dead Space on a friend's console as he watched. Even though I was playing on a small TV and with sunlight streaming through the windows, my friend was enraptured just watching. And this is a friend who's as fidgety as can be. Dead Space is one of those rare games that's almost as enjoyable for those watching as those playing.

The first thing you notice is the stellar graphics. Dead Space looks as close to film quality as games come. The animations are fluid and believable, matching well with dialogue. The voice-acting is excellent.

The storytelling early on is compelling overall, accomplished largely through player interactions. It has a lot of what I'll call "soft" cutscenes, for lack of a better term, because they're basically cutscenes that occur without removing the player from gameworld. So, for example, rather than watch a movie, your character is separated from other characters by a locked door as he watches a scripted scene through windows (ala Bioshock). At many points, you'll pick up an audio or video log which pops up in front of your character, allowing you to move as it plays and continue imagining yourself as Isaac.

My only gripe with the story so early in the game is that one of the main characters, Kendra Daniels, strains believability. Kendra is the tech support of Isaac Clarke, the player's character. What is hard to swallow is that her relationship with Zach Hammond, sergeant and apparent captain of their ship, seems to suggest Kendra has no experience working with captains or military, even though her earliest dialogue suggests she is not a rookie at her job. She's brazen and independent... that much seems real. But who tries to countermand a captain's orders to his pilot and constantly act like she knows better after having worked with captains or military many times before? She's hysterical, and people prone to hysteria aren't uncommon, but I would think that sort of behavior would be dulled somewhat by experience. Wouldn't you? Kendra's actions don't seem to correspond with the experience her dialogue suggests.

But that's really the only significant flaw I've found in the game so far.

The controls are direct, simple, and fluid. Using one of the 360 controller's bumpers to sprint throws me off sometimes, since the opposite bumper is used to sprint in Saints Row 2. Arm and boot swings feel appropriately weighted.

The UI is completely integrated into the world so as to be unobtrusive. The health bar on the spine of Isaac's suit doesn't dominate attention the way typical health alerts do. I'm very impressed by the ability to click on the Right Stick and see a momentary blue line appear on the ground and direct me to my next objective. That's so much nicer than constantly having to look at a map (the game also provides a map, though I never needed it). The blue line doesn't linger on-screen like Fable 2's golden trail does, a small but appreciated difference.

But none of that really says anything about the game, because the ultimate point is: this game is scary.

Like Bioshock, Dead Space has a unique and intricate setting which is fulfilling all by itself. Even before I saw my first enemy, I was sucked into the game. The audio is full of eerie noises that keep you guessing at the source. The lighting also toys with your expecations. Sometimes the lights go out, leaving you with only the light on your weapon's sights; you're sure you're going to be attacked, but then the lights come back on. Sometimes you'll enter a room that you've been in before, but you don't realize it's the same room right away because the lighting is different or now there's water dripping from the ceiling.

When you do start encountering necromorphs, the audio is often what alerts you to danger. You'll hear movement, or breathing, or the music as it rises to a terrible scream. And the game doesn't just frighten you with attacks. Sometimes the monsters will be crawling toward you from the other side of a grate, unable to reach you. Sometimes you'll only catch a brief glimpse of one as it jumps into a ventiliation duct or runs past a corridor.

The combat in Dead Space is the edgiest I can ever remember playing. You never know when a necromorph is going to lunge at you or is sneaking up from behind. One caught me completely unaware from behind as I was focusing on killing another in front of me. They don't all charge you from the moment they see you. Some creep toward you, then sprint toward you suddenly. Some leap out at you. Some fall from above. It's the unpredictability of enemy locations and behaviors, as well as all the uncertainty of sights and sounds (the lighting and audio), that keeps you on your toes and makes familiar enemies fresh terrors.

I'm surprised to find a good degree of replayability in Dead Space. Horror games are always so linear and static. But Dead Space allows some variance through the strategic selection of supplies, the customization of gear through power nodes (a branching modifier system), and dynamic AI.

You loot money from necromorph bodies (they used to be humans, afterall) and can sell surplus items for more, then purchase gear and items at stores. How much surplus can you afford to sell? If you're a little short on cash, do you sell an extra med-pack to buy that new gun? Which weapon will you buy, or do you prefer an upgraded rig instead?

You also must choose what to apply your limited power nodes (upgrade tools) to and how to apply them. Do you go for better armor before damage? Is increasing your suit's air capacity for ventures into space or vacuums a priority? Damage, rate of fire, and clip size are other possible gear upgrades.

And lastly, the enemies themselves offer some replay value. The ship has a fully developed ventilation system for the necromorph AI to use in response to your varying actions. So enemies won't always come at you the same way or time on your second or third play-through.

Anyway, as I said, I only managed to play through a few hours of Dead Space before my console died on me, so these impressions aren't based on a complete experience. I haven't even experienced zero gravity in the game yet, which comprises a significant chunk of the game. But I'm very impressed with what I've seen so far. Dead Space kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time I played.

It's too bad it had to be released in the middle of so many other great games. But if you've got the free money, consider Dead Space an investment in this and future Halloween get-togethers. Turn out all the lights, crank up the stereo, and watch your friends jump as you play the game in front of them.


  1. I hear they finally got the hardware right on the most recent version. No clue how to actually tell if my replacement is the newest or not, however.

    It's still quite noisy during GTA4 so maybe it isn't...

    I might give it a shot someday. Rental first though, unless they put a demo out. Tired of blowing $60 and hating the game *cough*Halo3*cough* to do it any more if it can be helped.

    Did you ever try Condemned? That's another "turn out the lights" type with plenty of creepy moments and some startles as well.

  2. Hoping Microsoft finally fixed their overheating problem is almost too much to ask. But it'd be great if my replacement console is actually reliable. Even when 360s aren't breaking, everyone seems to experience freezes from time to time.

    Yeah, I tried Condemned. It had a great creepy setting as well, and scary combat. But it ended up feeling a bit shallow just fighting the same enemies over and over. So far, I've come across three very different types of enemies in Dead Space, just in the early game.


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