Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Dead Space Impressions (360)

I've been meaning to spend more time with Dead Space for at least two months. It was released right before a glut of games (including Fallout 3) descended, and while I thought it was interesting, it got moved well down in the pile.

Well, it's popped back up now.

I have very mixed feelings after two hours, and I probably won't be playing any further into the game. Usually, that would mean that I found the game very disappointing, but with Dead Space, that isn't really true.

First off, let me mention the positives. This game has some of the cleantest, most intuitive design I have ever seen.

And when I say "ever," I mean it.

Obnoxious health overlays and status bars? Gone. In an absolutely beautiful bit of design, the health bar is built into the back of your character's space suit. With the game played from a third person view, it means that the health display is entirely organic, and this creates a tremendously cinematic feel to the game.

I've been arguing for this kind of approach for a long time. Let us see what's going on with our character by what's happening to our character, not a bunch of artificial overlays that take us entirely out of the gameworld.

As far as I can tell, Dead Space has no overlays that are pasted on the screen. None. Information is contained in the suit.

I don't know what's above A+ as a grade, but that's better than A+.

Also, if you want to know the shortest route to your primary objective, pressing down on the right analog stick shows you a lighted path that appears for a few seconds, then fades. Again, as part of the wonderful design, it looks like a function you call up from your equipment, and there's an animation to reinforce that notion.

Is it artificial, that you can be guided like that? Yes, in most games, but not here. It makes sense that blueprints of your destination (the mining ship) could be downloaded before you got there, and it also makes sense that your onboard computer could route you automatically.

Again, that's damn good design.

Besides the clarity of design, I was very impressed by the game's obvious level of polish. There's nothing sloppy here, and for that, the development team deserves credit. At times, it's genuinely creepy, and they do an excellent job of establishing the feeling of isolation.

That's plenty of good. Why did I stop playing?

Well, this is very much an entry in the "BOO! BANG!" genre of games. It's not really more complicated than that, and it's extremely linear. The conceit is that you've been separated from your crew mates and are doing a series of tasks to assist them, but the tasks themselves have absolutely no drama to them--it's just a mechanism to separate the time between BOOS!

The game is so beautifully designed that I didn't notice this at first, and even after I did, I kept playing for a while. What this game is crying out for, though, is a way to make me feel connected--to anyone. I see people on the ship being attacked, or people who've gone mad, but I can't save any of them. If I felt like a shepherd instead of a corpse counter, I'd be far more involved. As it is, though, I feel very remote from everything, and I don't mean that in a good way.

It's sterile.

What would also have been a natural for this game would be to add a tactical strategy layer. Make me the commander (kill the original commander, which makes my added responsibilities a surprise). If there are three "fetch-it" quests to get parts or turn on engines or whatever, let me choose crew members to assign to those duties.

Then, randomly generate results.

I'd have to go in and fix whatever my crew couldn't complete successfully, so I'd have to weigh the difficulty of tasks with the competence and skillsets of my crew. Plus, I'd have decide how much risk I could afford to let the crew take on their shoulders.

I might get someone killed because I made a poor decision. That would be freaking great.

So there would be a strategy layer on top of the action layer, and my action missions would be influenced by my decisions in the strategy layer.

That would make me care about my crew. It would force me to make all kinds of uncomfortable and possibly incredibly selfish decisions. Would I focus on protecting my own life instead of the lives of my crew? Would I be a hero or a bastard? Or both?

I know, that's a different game, but that's the game I wanted to be playing. Instead, I played a very linear BOO! BANG! game that had great interface design.

This is not to say that Dead Space is crap, because it isn't. The interface is wonderfully, it's atmospheric, and it's highly polished. As a shooter, it's certainly more interesting than most shooters that I've played in the last few years. But I think the shooter genre is getting very, very long in the tooth, and additional elements need to be incorporated to keep me (and many other people) interested.

Maybe some of these things happen later in the game. It might well be that the earlier part of the game is more constricted than later sections. But they lost me, so I'm not going to find out.

Site Meter