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March 17, 2009D. Riley

Man, why am I hoarding money on an abandoned space station? Why do I have to be told three times in five minutes that I need to shoot the limbs off the monsters? Why does shooting the limbs off the monsters even make sense?

Dead Space is a game that works in the moment. There are evil alien babies that scamper around walls and fling spikes at you from black tentacles. They don't just look small and deformed, they are literally mutant babies. That's totally messed up! There's a type of monster that resurrects other monsters, and every time you see it you freak out and fire all your assault rifle bullets, ignoring all other enemies and maybe getting yourself killed in the process.

A tentacle grabs you and drags you along the floor while you clumsily aim your gun at its big, glowing weak spot. It takes a second before you even realize you're not in a cutscene. When you finally figure it out, you have to scramble, aim your gun as fast as you can, and pray that you don't get smushed to bits. You are freaked out. But a couple days later, you wonder if the game really needed to repeat that scene two more times. You wonder why the tentacle has a giant glowing yellow pustule on it.

Dead Space is like that. Cobbled together, a little too cocksure, and a little too willing to cherry-pick ideas from better games to spackle over its holes. It has a store because Resident Evil 4 had a store. It has a gravity gun because Half-Life 2 had a gravity gun. It has audio logs from survivors detailing the plot because System Shock 2 (or Bioshock, if you prefer) had audio logs from survivors detailing the plot. Remember how Resident Evil 4 had a shooting gallery that gave you prizes? Let's do something with zero g basketball that gives you prizes!

These things are not nearly as noticeable when you're actually playing the game. You loved those other games! Later, you'll think about it more critically. You'll wonder who built a hallway on that space station that could only be traversed by using telekinetic powers from a robot suit to drag over a high tech hospital bed that (conveniently) also functions as a gap-spanning platform. Mankind has been building bridges for thousands of years, and that seems like about the least efficient way to do it. Buying flamethrowers from vending machines is ridiculous too, but that doesn't bother me because flamethrowers are awesome, and so is buying guns in games. The fact that this space-faring culture hasn't figured out how to build a corridor without leaving a gigantic hole in the middle of it that can only be traversed by magical psychic powers is not awesome, it's more like retarded. Show me the estimate that said it would be cheaper to equip every crewman on board that vessel with a telekinetic gauntlet than it would've been to just put a couple planks over that hole.

That's the problem with Dead Space, nothing stands up to close scrutiny. An alien trapped in an escape pod is jettisoned from your infected ship, and the military vessel coming to aid you picks it up, unknowingly putting the crazed alien in the middle of a 24-hour soldier buffet. That's some classic horror-movie "don't open that door!" set-up. It's enough to make you buy it... for a minute. But hey: how did one of those things take out a whole bunch of people armed with real-live guns when I've been killing them for four hours with a high-tech blowtorch? For that matter, why did they even let it out of the escape pod? If it was me in that situation and the pod I just saved from deep space had a frothing, flailing, scythe-armed alien creature in side I might think it over. Y'know, maybe make a cup of coffee before I opened the hatch and let him loose across the ship.

Taken bit by bit, it's exciting. Does that make it worth playing? More than once you're tasked with killing zombie aliens in a decompressed area of the ship, where the only sounds are your character's choking breaths as his suit's oxygen runs out. Those moments are pretty intense. If they were intense then, why aren't they intense now? Why don't I look back on them with the same excitement I had in the heat of the moment?

It's weird, is all. It's got enough of a game in there to be considered good, but all those niggling flaws add up. All that "me too!"-ism seeping out of its pores, all the unbelievable architecture in a supposedly realistic world, the contrived twist at the end, the glowing yellow lumps that serve as "shoot me here!" weak spots for enemies from the common grunt to the end boss.

These flaws are small. By themselves they'd be the 1% bad in a 99% great game. But 1% bad becomes 2% bad becomes 3% bad, and they keep adding up until you forget the zero-g sections and the scary resurrecting bat monsters and the tentacle babies. You forget the feeling of helplessness the first time you were overwhelmed by a swarm of bite-sized enemies (the kind that would be pistol-fodder in any other game) because the last hour of Dead Space is, under all the spike-flinging babies, an incredibly boring box puzzle with one box and a single track to push it along.

The best you can give Dead Space is a "good try." It makes me sad to say it, because every time I think of something bad, something they half-assed or cribbed from a game that did it better, it makes me think of something extremely scary, or fun, or at least a little engaging. It's just never enough.

7 comments for ‘Failure By Degrees’

#1 GreatWhiteHorse Mar 20, 2009 03:11pm

You know, I got Deadspace from my wife for X-Mas because I begged her to remember to get me the game that everyone said was awesome, and being the good woman that she is...she remembered. I have still not gotten past chapter 4.

Is it too hard? Not by a mile, in fact it is too easy. Is it so scary that I can't bring myself to turn it on? Despite what the paragons of journalistic integrity over at Game Informer say...no. In fact, my Isaac walks through the Ishimura with his lil' blowtorch cutter and just waits for anything to be dumb enough to pop out at him so he can dismantle it and giggle a little.

It has ambiance, but it doesn't deliver the kinds of chills that had my cousin and I (grown men) afraid to walk outside of our little valet shed where we played Silent Hill 1 at work on the midnight shift.

I see what it wants to do...really. But it just doesn't deliver anything new. I played the "alien-artifact-that-controls-people's-minds" bit in Mass Effect, watched it in countless bad movies like Supernova and read it in Tommyknockers. The first time I came across a work station in the middle of a waiting room between wings of the ship, where any fool can walk up and graft circuitry to weapons and robo-suits I nearly turned it off.

Why is the science officer walking around the hellish death-ship looking like Sir Gallahad while the security chief with the gun is hacking the computers on the bridge? Why is there a girlfriend angle in the game that nobody cares about? Why are those upgrade nodes just sitting inside panels at random when they are used to construct weaponry? Why does the assault rifle suck?

I will eventually play through this game...I just don't know when.

#2 MetalLink1979 Mar 22, 2009 09:57am

I feel like Dead Space was a good effort from EA to try a new IP, but I think it fails in personality. RE4 works because Leon is relate able and spouts manic one-liners like they were tube-fed. Half-Life 2 works because the universe that surrounds it is an morally ambiguous and sound one. Bioshock and SS2 work because their twists are both obvious and yet totally unseen; it's like a giant elephant walked into your house 5 hours ago and now you notice because he's trashing your kitchen. Dead Space is both functional on every level yet completely vapid and dull. Scares are repeated, enemies are repeated, puzzles are repeated; it's like they had enough good ideas for about 1/3 of the game and then built the rest with just those ideas. Great review Mr. Riley! I look forward to more FKftG!

#3 SPIKE Mar 24, 2009 08:42am

Yea I was disappointed in the scariness factor I was also perplexed how the repair man got the space worthy armored suite that can receive multiple upgrades to all facets of its functionality, and the armed security team that accompanies you get casual jackets.

Also don't watch the dead space animated movie whatever you do. I netfflixed it and despite saving tons of money over renting I still felt ripped.

#4 D. Riley Mar 24, 2009 05:37pm

Clearly he's got that suit because in space bullets can't really go that fast (no air, dude! vacuum!) but fire and gas and other maintenance hazards are all like... woah, this is some dangerous stuff. Like, you don't want to be caught without your armor on when the toilet decides to explode (that visor is positively poop-proof), but space bullets? Less scary than you'd think.

#5 SPIKE Mar 26, 2009 06:23pm

Ah clearly I need education on the true hazards of space travel.

And I think the reason the space marines that pick up the pod are such wastes of space is because they are authority figures. As we all know in any horror story the police man that's your only hope has to be a complete idiot who ignores every warning sign and blunders in to be murdered in some gruesome fashion.

#6 Archangel428 Jul 29, 2009 06:29pm

Why is it that everyone has to go around and butcher this game? It's a good game and there's no point to go and compare it to everything else. And "NEWS FLASH" all of the mechanics that you mentioned that were in other games, they're pretty much just basic things that fit in the context of the Dead Space universe, you just have to take those assumptions for the duration of the game. You guys are just nitpicking this game.

What really surprises me is that people think that RE4 is better than this. I mean, the controls alone in RE4 are enough to make me stop playing after the first 20 minutes. At least the controls in Dead Space make sense and feel natural.

Anyone who thinks that RE4 or 5 are better than this game are out of their minds, but I guess we can't all be fan boys for RE, now can we?

#7 Rat D Nov 17, 2009 11:37am

I really enjoyed this game. I'll admit that I haven't played many of the games that it was apparently derived from. But after I reached mid-game, it was just so satisfying having all of the controls at the tip of my instinct where they needed to be to combat the aliens that didn't see fit to give me a minute to heal myself, change weapons, reload, etc. when I needed to.

I did see the parallels with Event Horizon, but at least it was done well. I felt like I was stuck out in the ass-end of the universe, alone & scared and grasping for my last chance to get home. And power-ups, ammo, & bonuses and stores were few enough to give me that sense that I needed to be smart about my decisions.

This is a game I get out to show people the potential of the XBOX. It's beautifully rendered, the aliens are fleshy and disgusting, the music is movie-score great and each level has a different look and feel. After I finished, I played again through half the game to see what the upgrades would be like.

You may be justified in calling it derivative, but I didn't experience it that way. I just had a hell of a time.