Thursday, September 1, 2011
Dead Space impressions
I've been playing Dead Space for several days now. It sounded really good when I read about it, I liked the setting and people had a lot of good things to say about it. While I don't normally play survival horror games, that's more to do with my hatred of the Resident Evil control scheme than for the feeling of fear and trepidation that a good one inspires. The truth is I really wanted to like Dead Space, and there's much about it that I did like, but after a few hours playing it felt more like a chore that I had to finish than something I wanted to do.
I don't know why that's the case. I didn't finish the game; I stopped early in chapter 4 or 5. I've been thinking about it, and here's what I've come up with: the enemies didn't scare me, the RPG elements interfered with the horror elements, and the lack of some form of health station meant that I was a little too obsessed with hoarding health packs. I shall attempt to explain, but bear in mind that this is going to be even more subjective than usual. Also, I played on normal mode, perhaps the difficulty difference on hard would have been enough to make it scarier and changed my overall opinion, though I believe most of what I have to say would still have been valid. Since I didn't finish it I'm posting this as my impression of the game rather than a review.
First of all, let me say that the setting is brilliant. A huge spaceship in a distant, uncharted sector of space: it's the perfect setting. There's no chance of help from outside, you are surrounded by the cold hard vacuum of space and only an increasingly fragile metal hull protects you from the a silent yet agonizing death. Plus it reminds you how little you really know about what's out there, what horrors exist just outside our protective atmospheric bubble? Well, here's a little glimpse. Think Alien and Aliens: when done well it works like a charm. And the game does a great job with the setting; as you work your way deeper into the ship (well, further into the game anyway) it gets progressively more disturbing. At first there's a perplexing lack of people and intermittent signs of damage, but soon the lights are dark and flickering as if the ship itself is dying, there's blood all over the place, and the random corpses on the floor have been replaced by still-living humans seemingly being absorbed into the living tissue growing across the walls (I had to try very hard not to think about that, because if I did I would not have been able to turn the system back on again out of revulsion and horror) - and that's just halfway through the game. There's lots of little voice and text recordings that give you glimpses into how things fell apart to begin with; desperate pleas for help and insane rantings of people driven mad. And the makers haven't forgotten the fact that we are in space; the ship itself is falling apart and you're constantly fighting to prevent catastrophes just to buy a little more time.
But the real menace is the Necromorphs; clearly (wisely) influenced by the Xenomorphs in the Aliens movies, they crawl around through air vents, ready to attack you at any time and at any angle; it makes you paranoid to the extreme and every little sound has you spinning in circles for fear of being ripped apart from behind. But there's an added wrinkle; they're not just aliens, they're aliens made from our own dead - the inherit fear of the completely alien enhanced by the horror of the recognizable corrupted into a grotesque new form. It's a great idea, on paper it's a real winner - if I was reading a book about this stuff I probably wouldn't sleep for a few nights.
The problem seems to be that it's let down, not by execution, but by necessities of gameplay. The developers chose to make Dead Space a third person game; I assume there's certain advantages to that, though I can't think of any really compelling ones. Perhaps it's more cinematic? Less camera jittering and more slow, careful exploration? Perhaps it was for fear of alienating (haha) survival-horror fans, or the fear of trying to make a first person game with a slow movement speed and non-regenerating health in these times? It's true that first person shooters in narrow corridors feel very confining, but that can work to the benefit of a horror game. We know that first person games can be scary; just check the internet for a list of FPS/horror games. Admittedly I have limited experience myself, but several regular FPS games had levels that gave me quite a scare. Ravenholm in Half-Life 2 is probably well known, though the one I found most memorable was the dark office level in Area 51 (pitch black apart from your narrow flashlight beam - right until something leaps at your face and your muzzle flash lights up the room; brilliant). Personally I believe the first person perspective is inherently more terrifying because it's happening to you rather than some guy on screen.
Regardless, the game is third person. Let me take a moment here to talk about Resident Evil. The controls for the first few games were terrible. You could not move while shooting. Compare this to Devil May Cry, another Capcom game, where you can double-jump off walls while shooting, and perhaps you'll see why I find it so limiting. Even in the cutscenes of Resident Evil 2 we see people back-pedaling while firing at the advancing hordes, yet you cannot do it in game. People said that's why it was scary; if the controls were better the zombies would be no threat at all. I say, that doesn't sound like a well designed game to me. Anyway, Dead Space seems to have the opposite problem; because of the third person perspective enemies had to be made slow, otherwise they would be too hard to kill when they're coming at you from all sides. That makes a single enemy too slow and too easy to kill; they have effectively turned Necromorphs into zombies, and made them less scary in the process. No-one is scared of one zombie; everyone knows it's only a horde of them that's dangerous. This is in stark contrast to the Xenomorph in Alien; there was only one yet it carried the whole movie.
So there's the first problem. The individual enemies aren't really scary. Yes, you're still scared of being caught from behind or mobbed, but it would be far more scary if you faced less enemies, but each one was terrifying. This, I believe, is caused by one of the main problems of the game. It claims to be a survival horror but plays in many ways like an action game. The problem is that the two tend to be in many ways polar opposites - while action is traditionally about the feeling of empowerment, horror is about the feeling of helplessness. I think it's easier for action games to have scary segments than for horror games to have action segments. Changing the rules to suddenly make the player vulnerable can be very disconcerting, but empowering the player undermines the atmosphere of fear; the feeling of vulnerability that is so vital becomes hard to sustain when you're the one ripping things apart (the exception would normally be at the end of a game, when it's time to stop running and strike back).
Another problem I noticed was the strategic dismemberment system. Like Zombies, Necromorphs have a vulnerability you should aim for. Unlike Zombies it's not their head, but their limbs. It sounds appropriate in a horror game at first, but there are some issues. Apart from the fact that it feels weird to see them ignore getting their head blown off but die when you shoot their tail off, and apart from the aforementioned "less scary when you're the one ripping things apart" problem, it takes the focus away from the enemy. Instead of blasting away and praying they fall before they reach you, you're focusing on lining up your shots. Instead of staring at their hideously deformed faces - the visual focus of the creature - as they come closer and closer, you're busing staring at their legs because shooting there is the best way to slow them down and kill them (thanks to the wide beam of your weapons and the enemy's slow, shambling gaits, it's far easier to get leg shots than you would expect), so you're not really looking at it. Make no mistake, it's technically and visually very impressive, seeing a monster lose it's legs yet keep crawling along the floor towards you is very cool, but since you always target the leg so the same thing happens every single time it quickly changes from dynamic to formulaic.
There's a number of different weapons all designed around the dismemberment system. This is one of the strong points of the game, at least if you see it as an action game. The initial plasma cutter works quite well and I was still using it with success when I quit, the only real problem being that you'll need to reload mid-battle in the larger fights, which can be fatal. The second weapon I got was basically an assault rifle, which was very effective thanks to it's high rate of fire and ammo capacity (especially once you've upgraded it's clip size a bit), and it's alternate fire is brilliant when you're surrounded in tight spaces. The flamethrower looked nicer than in most games but seemed to be very weak - I had to spend it's entire canister to kill a single small enemy that I would normally kill with just a few shots from the plasma cutter. I also briefly tried the force gun, which looked like it would be fun. There's a line-cutter that should be very powerful based on how little ammo you can hold for it, and a ripper gun that I'm told is extremely effective, but I didn't buy them (more on that later). There may be more weapons unlocked later in the game.
On a similar vein, your suit has magnetic boots and an oxygen supply (only about 40 seconds initially, but you can upgrade it later). These are used for two other types of gameplay: zero-gravity sections and vacuum sections (and combinations of the two). The zero gravity bits are a great use of the setting and work very well, and the vacuum segments help change the pace a little by introducing a timed sections that force you to pick up the pace as well as being thematically very fitting. However, this again makes the makes the player feel less vulnerable. Personally, I think it would have been better to start without these two abilities (plus this means at one point the player could open a door only to be almost sucked out as air rushes into the void, so he has to grab on to the door and pull himself out before he suffocates or loses his grip - a one-time scare that would help ramp up the tension and increase the overall threat level), only to unlock them later. This allows the introduction of the zero-g and vacuum sections and allows the player to reach previously inaccessible areas - which is actually a good objective for the player ("You need to find an air supply for your suit so you can reach the control room!" or something of that nature).
There's also a couple of psychic powers: stasis and telekinesis. Stasis slows things down, leaving enemies helpless for a short while, but it uses energy that has to be replenished in charging stations or with stasis packs. It's also needed to pass environmental hazards and solve puzzles, but there's always charging stations around for those times. Telekinesis works much like the gravity gun in Half-Life 2, able to lift items and either drop or throw them. While it's main use is for interacting with the environment, it can be used to throw things like explosive canisters and fan blades at enemies. Fan blades are not terribly useful, but throwing canisters is a great way to conserve ammo and quickly take out powerful or numerous enemies. Between all the weapons and psychic powers, there's quite a few ways to take down Necromorphs. That's good for letting the player enjoy fighting aliens, but bad if you wanted them to feel vulnerable and afraid.
But the real issue with the weapons is that you have to buy them. And this is where it all breaks down for me. Shops? Money? In a survival horror game? Money implies order, stability - people only use money because they are confidant that other people will also accept that money. In any sort of a catastrophe money immediately becomes completely worthless. And yet here, in deep space, on a ship that's rapidly breaking down, who's crew have either become monsters or been killed by them, we only have to walk a few feet to reach a shop where we can buy weapons, ammunition, health, etc. It completely undermines the biggest advantage of the space setting, the feeling of being isolated, the feeling that everything we understand and rely on is gone, that nothing is as it should be. Plus it undermines the scavenging and scarcity of resources - you're not so worried about ammo and health when you can probably buy more. Ammo, medkits, and especially weapons are supposed to be scavenged - slowly giving the player new weapons is also a good way of creating a continually changing and escalating gameplay experience, seeing the available weapons and having to decide whether to bother buying them or not when your current weapons seem to be doing the job and you're saving up to upgrade your kit (you can only sell back at half the price) is neither fun nor encourages the player to experiment. What's more I didn't find money to be inherently scarce; I had quite a bit saved up by the time I gave up on the game.
And how do these shops operate anyway? Are they like vending machines, with a local store of items, or are they like a fetching system from a central storage location? The fact that they can be used to save and retrieve items from anywhere on the ship suggests the latter, in which case I have to ask: how come such a system is working when everything else on the ship is falling apart? Regardless of how it works, surely an engineer like Isaac or his friends, who are constantly hacking doors and the like, can't find a way to simply raid the shop? Get their hands on all the weapons and ammo? Why didn't the crew try it (or even just buy those weapons - surely some of them had some money saved up) when everything was going to hell? We never see any weapons lying around except the first plasma cutter Isaac picks up. There's ammo scattered around everywhere, arguably because the game's "weapons" are actually industrial machinery. Which we never see lying around. Actually, it doesn't really make sense either way.
This ties in to the other main RPG elements, upgrading your equipment. Your weapons, suit and psychic powers can be improved using power nodes. But it can take several power nodes for a single upgrade, and they are quite scarce. I think I'd found at most 10, which is probably enough to upgrade one weapon halfway. You can buy power nodes, but they cost a lot (I said that I had quite a bit of money before; but if I had spent it on power nodes I would have been able to buy 5, which would probably buy about 3 upgrades - a weapon generally has 10 or more to get). The problem here is that, if you want to upgrade your weapons you need to save up, which means not buying weapons, ammo or health if you can possibly avoid it. In other words the weapon upgrade system tends to prevent you from using weapons - somewhat ironic, don't you think? Not only that, but it led me to desperately hoard everything - health, stasis packs, air tanks, everything - because I refused to buy them. This won't be as big a problem for most, but people who obsess over games (like me) will find losing a big chunk of health after being caught by surprise a bitter pill to swallow, not because it makes the next section of the game harder, but because it means you have no option but to use a medkit (there is no other way to recover health), which potentially means less money to spend on upgrading. Having 'med stations' that fully heal the player would have helped alleviate this problem, and would probably just help gameplay as you have something to 'look forwards' to, to hold out for.
Finally, a couple of minor complaints that I wish to mention. There's no option to add subtitles to speech; sometimes I had trouble understanding what people were saying (not everyone has a great speaker system). There's a few areas that are almost pitch black, but you only use your flashlight when in aiming mode, which slows you down (including your turning speed preventing you from spinning to see what's around quickly, which is why I generally prefer to scan my surroundings normally and only using aiming mode when I have a target). Speaking of which, you cannot adjust your sensitivity (perhaps to prevent you from turning quickly and force a certain difficulty level) or any of your controls except for stick inversion (something that I consider inexcusable, no matter how many times people tell me that players might choose a "wrong" control scheme if you let them).
What it all comes down to is that, in my opinion at least, the game can't decide what it is. The focus on action and RPG elements serve as distractions from what the game claims to be, rather than enhancing the experience. I think perhaps the creators should have considered the maxim 'less is more' - trimming the fat might have created a more bare-bones experience, but hopefully it would be a more tight and focused one. Perhaps it's a game that can be enjoyed by a wider audience than something like Silent Hill, but I think it will be less enjoyable to people who were looking for an actual horror game. As it is, it's certainly not a bad game - there's a lot that it does very well and nothing that it actually does wrong.
So while I didn't enjoy it myself, I'm giving it a 7 out of 10: a good game that could have been a great one.