Last year, I ‘reviewed’ Dead Space, which is to say, I played it for a few hours and watched it crash relentlessly, declared it a bad purchase on Steam and threw it over my shoulder. I was pretty upset with it, to be wholly honest, especially because in my heart of hearts, I wanted to like the Dead Space games. EA, in their efforts to make the Origin system not reviled, have released the game for free. As of the time of this review, this will only be on offer for four more days, and if you’re wondering, this review is going to come down quite squarely on the idea that this game is definitely worth it at a price point of zero dollars. If you have a pre-existing Origin account – such as if you played Mass Effect 3 multiplayer, or The Simpsons Tap Out, then you can just toddle along and grab a thing, for no dollars.
Therefore, since this version of the game fixes the bugs, failed to crash at all, even after I started trying to crash it, and has a price point that can’t get lower unless the game starts giving you money, I feel it is worthwhile to revisit this game, a first for the Game Pile.
The Game’s Mean
Dead Space is a grungy, industrial third-person shooting game, which is to say 99% of the way you interact with the world is by shooting things. You sometimes shoot them with a tractor beam and sometimes you shoot them with your own trajectory, but really, most of the time you’re shooting them with a gun. The things you shoot are sometimes target holes in a wall, sometimes they’re places on a track, rarely they are fuses, and of course, usually, they’re Bad Guys.
It’s a competent game, with large, expansive levels with non-linear sections, a mute protagonist, and a consistent, steadily evolving game experience. First, you’re just plodding around, killing a few things and using a tractor beam, or a time slowing device to slip through obstacles. Throughout the whole game, there’s always some new-ish piece introduced, like enemies that can’t be killed, or anti-gravity rooms, or rooms where you can’t run, or rooms where you can run, but you’re under a timer. There’s a good, steady mix of gameplay experiences, while still holding tight to its core of shooting bad guys.
The worst thing I can say about Dead Space as a game, up front, is that the mouse control is a bit floaty. When you move the mouse, there’s a tiny bit of momentum that the cursor or perspective has to gather, making it slow to start with, but it keeps that momentum when you stop moving the mouse. Whenever you aim, therefore, small adjustments are hard, as are large adjustments. Everything you do is best handled in terms of medium distances , and when combat becomes frantic and aggressive, you will probably waste ammunition. Maybe you could be ‘good’ at Dead Space by being a precise aiming master and only ever hitting things in their most vulnerable ways, and never unloading ammunition into things after they’re dead. Maybe. That’s not how I’d recommend it, though.
If you want to be good at Dead Space, the skill you should refine is hoarding. Find the weapons you like, use them early, and then, whenever you see things on the floor, grab them and run them to the store. You’ll make progress slower, but this stockpiling habit is the best way to defeat the game’s deprivation-based mechanics.
Me? I picked up the Ripper early on, regularly expanded my inventory, and enjoyed myself greatly. There was always a nagging voice, though, in the back of my mind, asking myself… Is this how I’m meant to be playing?
Dead Space as Horror
Dead Space advertises itself as a horror game. Do not think, for an instant, that this game is not trying to be scary. It’s about being trapped in space, aboard an empty shell, surrounded by things that can move in ways you can’t, survive what you won’t, look amazingly gross, and want to kill you.
It is also not scary.
Don’t think that you’ll play this game without tension, without some reaction of fear, but it’s the fear you feel when you know a jump scare is coming, and there always is one coming. When you walk into a room with seven vents on the walls, you know they’re going to pop open and something flesh-eating will spring out, and you’ll have to deal with it. And then the others will pop open, and then the others, and finally you’ll have the vents all open and that’s when the music will stop and you can just deal with whatever puzzle is in the room.
This design is an attempt to create tension within fightboxes – it lets you make a space safe, then forces you to move to an unsafe space in order to continue the story. Also, unlike other fightbox designs, like, say, Hard Reset, Dead Space uses the space between boxes. Sometimes they’ll change. Sometimes there will be things in them. Sometimes the travel will be made weird with antigravity or a timer, or be about escaping something that you can fight, but not stop.
This is good! It’s good game design! It’s just it’s also an element that gives the player almost explicit control over the pace in the game, and that makes it hard to create tension.
There’s also the super-grisly, graphic deaths. I didn’t see many of them – though as scripted scenes, the ones I saw did surprise me with their theatre. There’sa style of player manipulation that’s been on the rise lately – and you’ll see it in Tomb Raider when I review that – that thinks that by making failure states gruesome, players will want to avoid them. I’m not sure how seriously to take that notion. I’ve been playing videogames for decades and I’ve never found the grossness of death, abstract or explicit, as a reason to want to avoid failure states. You want to avoid failure because it is failure. It isn’t like there’s a whole separate, worse narrative when you die – there’s just an abrupt conclusion.
Without tension, and without fear, Dead Space isn’t a game about being afraid. It’s not a game that made me feel horror.
Bad game, right?
Dead Space as Not Horror
No no no no no no no no no no. Dead Space is a great game.
As far back as Quake, modders have been striving to make targeted, locational damage matter. However, most of the time, games that let you target zones on the body either make the guns behave ridiculously (where a shotgun can blow a limb clean off like a power saw), or, realise that the core of the body is still the best target. Dead Space, on the other hand, is built around that idea. Enemies in this game have limbs, and you will typically do the best damage – and survive the best – if you tear those limbs off. Slow ‘em down, then dispatch them with a boot or a followup shot. Enemies are more dangerous based on having smaller limbs, like stumpy legs, or well armoured fractures on their bodies.
How can you make a game that’s all about tearing off limbs? You need an enemy with discernable, learnable anatomy, and yet no sympathy so you don’t feel bad about shredding them up. A meets B, and bam. You have a zombie horror aesthetic, wrapping around a game with fantastic, skill-based shooting tools.
Carrying through the aesthetic, trying to build tension and fear, the game also doesn’t push you out of the action with an interface. All the game’s screens are shown as projections that Isaac can see. There’s no pausing for door openings, there’s no save-point pauses or your inventory. There isn’t even a health indicator anywhere ‘on the screen’ – it’s on you, it’s physically shown on Isaac’s model, along with the fuel for one of his tools. Ammunition? Shown on the weapon. Zombie aesthetic leads to a minimalist, intelligent interface, and gives you a site full of creepy, ugly things to kill!
If that was all to it, though, I think I’d just like Dead Space. It would be just a decent game, with enjoyable mechanics and a good aesthetic sense. What I think pushes me into genuinely loving Dead Space is the framing device.
Wait, the framing device? Didn’t I talk about how the game is a bad horror game? It does pretty explicitly frame itself as a horror game, and I say it’s bad at being horror, so… what?
Not that framing device. No, the framing device of why the player is doing stuff. The framing device is that Isaac Clarke is the engineer brought along to help repair the Ishimura. We need to repair a tram? Okay. We need someone who can unlock maintenance machines? Okay. And this idea is expanded out into the other elements of the game. You’re wearing a suit designed for maintenance and hazardous areas, so you can go into gravity devices, communication arrays, and power generators. You’re carrying tools designed to break and cut things, and that thematically gives all the combat a ramshackle, industrial feel. You don’t run like an athlete, you run like a worried astronaut – healthy, with weight about your body. You stumble and flail when you’re not using your tools.
In most games, you can usually ask yourself why am I the one doing this? And the answer is often unsatisfying. Perhaps not always as in The Walking Dead: Season 2, where Clementine, a little girl, is sent off to do things because she’s The Protagonist, but in many games, the efforts to make the player’s character an eye-level individual often means they’re sent to solve problems without any special reason to do so. In this case, however, this problem is completely solved. Isaac fixes things. Isaac uses heavy industrial tools. Isaac has access to maintenance devices.
Dead Space: Crap horror. Great shooter.
As I mentioned earlier, this version of Dead Space that worked without crashing and without piles of bugs, was free via Origin. It’s also available on Steam, though that version is not free, nor is it very reliable.
Buy it if:
- You don’t mind inexact aim controls.
- You already have an Origin account.
- You want a sizeable third-person game with a great interface and aesthetic.
Avoid it if:
- You hate jump scares.
- You hate Origin.
- You hate zombies.