Monday, January 26, 2009

Dead Space: Easy to swallow

I started playing Dead Space last night, and I’m about three hours in at this point. It’s a really well constructed title—great atmosphere, gorgeous to look at, some of the best sound design I’ve ever seen, a ridiculously cool interface, just an all-around top-notch production. It’ll certainly tide over any horror fan until Resident Evil 5 comes out in a couple of months.

One really notable thing about the game that I haven’t seen mentioned in any reviews is just how incredibly accommodating it is to the player. Frankly, it’s maybe even a little too accommodating. For starters: Up until recent years, games in the survival horror genre featured checkpoints at relatively lengthy distances from one another. And when I say “relatively lengthy”, I don’t mean they were actually all that far apart, just in comparison to Dead Space. It seems like anything notable that you do in this game results in a checkpoint. Even the very similar Resident Evil 4 only featured checkpoints at the start of each new area. This actually breaks one of my rules of survival horror games listed in the “Games are terrifying” entry. It empowers the player just a little too much, and I think the game could have potentially been a lot more tense and scary if death actually meant something to the player. As it stands, he might lose a minute of playtime. Of course, this also alleviates a lot of potential frustration. One could make the argument that games in this day and age are lengthy enough that there’s no need to artificially lengthen them by forcing the player to replay large segments. But survival horror games have always been somewhat about the struggle to, well.. survive. And in Dead Space, the struggle just isn't very meaningful.

Next order of business: The game’s missions. So far, I don’t think there’s been one point in the game where I was remotely confused about what to do next. This is because the game actually features a button that draws a line on the floor pointing out the next location you’re supposed to be at. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s possible to finish the entire game without listening to any character dialog or reading any mission objectives. There is absolutely no thought required, save for the occasional simple puzzle involving the game’s gravity gun device. This is not to say the game is completely brain-dead. The combat, especially when multiple creatures are present, does require a good bit of strategy. But the missions are just a little too simplistic for my taste, and the level of hand-holding here is one of the most extreme examples I’ve seen.

Overall, the game ends up feeling very streamlined, as if the designers recognized that they were going to be pulling the player through the survival horror motions, so they decided to allow him to reach the end as simply and painlessly as possible. The approach works pretty well here, but I just hope this isn’t too indicative of where games are headed. If the next Deus Ex game is this easy on me, I don’t think I’ll be a happy camper.

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