Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dead Space (PC)

Dead Space is a sci-fi/survival horror third person shooter game. I'd say it's a sort of spiritual successor to Doom (a game with a very similar theme - encountering hellish monsters in space), which I grew up on, but with a third rather than first person perspective. On a cinematic level, it seems to draw inspiration from many classic titles in this genre, such as Alien, John Carpenter's The Thing, and most obviously, Event Horizon. The result is a very effective (that is, scary) survival horror game in space, that also manages to be lots of fun to play. The game is not without flaws (which I'll go into), but except for one spot in particular, they didn't prevent me from enjoying my gaming experience very much.

In Dead Space, you play as Isaac Clarke, a seeming jack-of-all (or nearly all) trades, who is part of a very small crew sent in to investigate the USG Ishimura, a "planet cracker" (a large starship that mines planets from space) in the midst of a total communications blackout. After your inevitably rocky landing, it quickly becomes clear that some horror without precedent has occurred on this ship, as the crew is mostly dead, the few survivors seem to be insane with terror (or something else), and the ship is crawling with "necromorphs" - a kind of biological alien predator that manifests from corpses. The ship itself is in a state of total disrepair, and so you must embark on a quest to get the ship back in relative working order, while trying to uncover the mystery of just what the hell is going on.

And it has something to do with a "Marker" that was discovered on the planet below, which is probably alien technology, and certainly is the source of the necromorph invasion - but exactly how is a little hard to work out. Many of the crewmembers of the Ishimura were (perhaps not uncoincidentally) members of a fanatic religious cult that views the Marker as some kind of divine idol. Their fervor, which involves an unhealthy fascination with the necromorphs, does nothing to facilitate the needs of those who'd prefer to live - and stay human.

I think Dead Space is fascinating on a number of levels - first, from the horror perspective of exploring a ship crawling with monsters; but also the idea of trying to get this ship back up and running. That task takes you all over the ship, one section at a time. For example, you have to visit the medical bay to recover computer access codes from the body of the captain - who lies in the morgue. Than you have to travel to the engine room to get the ship up and running, after which you have to divert power to asteroid shields so the ship isn't torn to pieces. Then you've gotta head to hydroponics to sort out the problem of alien growths polluting the air. This goes on and on until the ship is almost as good as new (okay, I'm exaggerating), at which point it's inevitable that you're gonna have to find some way to get off of it. It's lots of fun, although from a logical perspective I think it's amazing that a crew of just three (with Isaac clearly doing the majority of the grunt work) could put a ship back together that its own much larger crew couldn't hold together. I mean, it's not like we're not also being ambushed by these necromorphs at every corner! But I guess maybe we have the advantage of not being subject to the sheer confusion of an entire ship under attack and perhaps also in mutiny.

Let's talk a little (or a lot) about gameplay, which is where my main gripes come up - although Dead Space has a lot of clever innovations as well (at least as well as I can tell, given my lack of experience with a lot of modern games of this sort). The primary difficulty I've had with this game is with the interface/motion controls/targeting. I'm willing to chalk it up to my inexperience with third person shooters that use the mouse (I like the simplicity of Doom's keyboard only setup), but I was a lot less confident in moving around, as well as targeting my gun. Of course, that enhances my feeling of vulnerability, but not in a good sort of way. I also felt that the mouse was a little slow or choppy in responding, which further added to my frustrations at trying to stay alive - particularly when the necromorphs swarm and ambush, sometimes causing considerable slowdown. That may be a function of my computer's capabilities, though, as I do not have a computer optimized for gaming.

Ultimately, I've been able to more or less adapt, but every once in a while there'll be a portion where it becomes a frustrating difficulty. That frustration is partly compounded by what is actually one of the cleverest innovations in this game - that the necromorphs, alien organisms that they are, can only really be killed by cutting off their limbs (though I'm still not sure why). So instead of firing into the large mass of flesh that's hurtling toward you, you have to aim for its flailing limbs (although shooting out the legs is a frequently effective strategy) - hard enough when the adrenaline is coursing through your veins, but even harder when your mouse isn't responding as fast as you'd like (and sometimes, when you start impatiently jerking it around, you find yourself spinning 180 degrees, losing track of the monster that's clawing at you, and then by the time you've got the gun trained back on him, you're dead...). I'd also mention the difficulty of opening up your inventory (a painfully slow process when each second could mean your death) to use a med pack to restore health in the middle of a fracas, except that I discovered there's a 'health' button that does that automatically, that I guess I missed the first time I went through the tutorial at the beginning of the game. (facepalm)

I have to take a moment to mention the Asteroid Defense System. About a third of the way through the game, there's a little "mini-game" portion, just before you get the asteroid shield up around the ship, where you have to manually shoot the asteroids hurtling toward the ship from a gun turret for a couple minutes (that feel like eternity). It's like playing Asteroids in 3D, except that it's IMPOSSIBLE! Maybe with a hair-trigger mouse it wouldn't be such a big deal, but with the slow response I had to deal with, it was really, truly, impossible for me to get past that portion of the game. I was honestly this close to just giving up and not finishing the game, but finally I turned in desperation to the control options and upped the mouse sensitivity the highest it would go. It was still kind of jerky, but fast enough that I was at least able to actually beat that portion of the game. But I still have very strong negative feelings toward it, and I was only slightly reassured (during the height of my period of frustration) to read an interview with the game's makers apologizing for that part of the game, and assuring the public that it wouldn't be reprised in the game's sequel.

More on gameplay. I love the stasis module (which freezes/slows things down - good for combat and non-combat situations), and even more, the kinesis module, which allows you to grab things at a distance, draw them toward you, and then shoot them away, if you like. Very cool. The weapons are lots of fun too. I ended up using the first weapon - the Plasma Cutter - well into the game because I was so familiar with it. But once I started picking up less ammo for it, I had to resort to trying some of the other weapons, some that are more useful than others. The Line Gun is currently my favorite. Powerful, with a wide shot - excellent for taking off an approaching necromorph's legs, and if that doesn't do him in, another shot will tear off his arms as he starts crawling toward you. Also great for those little buggers who jump on the walls and have those three tentacles that shoot darts (well, except when they're hanging vertically). I was excited when I picked up the Flamethrower, but I ended up using it very little, since fire just doesn't kill the necromorphs fast enough. The Ripper is really neat - it shoots a spinning razor blade that hangs in the air - but I've had a lot of frustrations trying to handle it appropriately. Love the Contact Beam - not for regular combat, but for taking out those nasty pustules (particularly on the grabby tentacles) in a single hit.

There are a couple of other guns; my only real complaint is that you can only carry four at a time. I guess that means there's some strategy to what guns you're gonna carry, and I think the ammo you pick up depends on what guns you're carrying - so that, I guess, you get ammo for the guns you're actually using. But I like the Doom method of having each gun designated to its own number. It makes getting familiar with the guns much easier as they're always in a particular spot (5 is the rocket launcher, 3 is the shotgun, 7 is the BFG, etc.), rather than being shuffled around the only four carry spots you've got. But oh well. I think it's interesting that each gun has a secondary fire mode, which is fun to discover (some of them I haven't even bothered to learn yet, since I don't want to waste ammo, and the middle of a scuffle isn't always the greatest place to experiment).

Other neat gameplay elements include the Zero-G and vacuum portions (which may or may not occur simultaneously). The Zero-G portions were lots of fun for me. After the first one, I said to myself, that was really cool, I hope there are more like it later in the game. The suit you're wearing has boots that can attach to the floor, so you don't actually go flying through space, but you can jump onto the walls and ceilings, and there are often large, circular rooms designated for Zero-G areas. It's lots of fun. As for the vacuum areas, they're cool, too, although there's an element of impatience involved, as your suit only has so many seconds of oxygen before you need either a refill, or to exit the vacuum. It's like the underwater portions of other games, where you can only hold your breath for so long. I've always hated those portions, because I like to take my time and not feel rushed, and make sure I'm not missing anything. But in this game, it's rarely so bad that you don't have enough time before you exit the vacuum or get to an oxygen refill station, so I'm less scared of those portions. Plus I love that the sound actually mutes in those sections (well, mostly), given that sound does not carry in a vacuum, which is very cool. On that note, I noticed that when monsters attack in those vacuum sections, it's less scary for me, which indicates that a not insignificant portion of their intimidation is a result of the scary sounds they make, as well as the scary music and other effects that usually accompanies their attacks.

Alright, I've almost exhausted what I want to say about this game. One last gameplay element is the bench. In the game there are benches where you can upgrade your weapons and equipment with power nodes that you can collect throughout the game. You can make your weapons faster, stronger, hold more ammo at a time, etc. You can also power up your stasis and kinesis modules (improving range and duration and such), as well as your rig (which is your suit) - you can increase your HP and the amount of oxygen your tank can carry. At first, I didn't like this gameplay element, because it involved making decisions - what to upgrade and how, as the upgrade dynamics are not linear: there are connected dots on a 2D grid, some of which indicate upgrades, others just placeholders, and you can only activate a dot adjacent to one you've previously activated, with only certain dots on the perimeter designated as entry points (sorry if that's not very clear). I just hate the feeling that I might upgrade one thing, and find out that I wasted those nodes because a challenge I face later in the game requires more functionality from one of my other weapons, for example. But I guess that's really just me being overly cautious. Because I've warmed up to the system, and I actually really like it a lot now - it allows a certain customization of gameplay: so that if I like a particular weapon, I can make it really powerful; or I can decide between upgrading a gun's capacity or reload rate in order to have faster or less frequent reloads (an added advantage of the latter is that the more the gun holds, the less inventory slots you'll use up for spare ammo); or if I, for example, have particular trouble on the vacuum portions, I can dedicate my power nodes to upping my oxygen capacity, whereas someone else who has no problem with those areas, but instead has trouble with the challenges that require stasis, can use his power nodes to increase the duration of his stasis!

And that's actually one of the biggest contributions to this game's replay value. I just beat it (finally) the other day, and I wasn't planning to play through it a second time. But you get to keep all your equipment on subsequent playthroughs, along with some extra gifts for beating the game, so the temptation for me to collect more power nodes and make my equipment that much more powerful is strong. There's another thing, though - I still have some questions about some of the details of the plot. There's actually a very interesting plot to this game (even if I think the cult's fanaticism is ridiculous, and no better than the ravings of a lunatic). I've got the basics down from one playthrough of the game, but I'm a little uncertain about the motivations of various characters, and what exactly the truth is about this Marker, because there are some different perspectives on it from different sources, and I'm not a hundred percent sure yet who's right and who's not. So maybe another playthrough will make that a bit clearer for me. I know I'll certainly enjoy it, even as my confidence and familiarity reduces (though definitely not completely) some of the feelings of fear and vulnerability that this game creates.

Which reminds me of one thing I forgot to mention, and that's how much I hated the one necromorph that's effectively immortal, constantly regenerating his limbs. I hate him with a passion. They throw you into a room with this monster, and then the ship locks the doors in quarantine, and you have to fight with this monster until one of your crewmates can override the lock and get the doors open. Trick is, you can't kill the immortal necromorph, you just have to run around, killing all the other necromorphs that break in through the air vents, trying not to let the strongest one catch up to you and tear you a new one. Even more difficult than it sounds, and very frustrating. I'll tell you, it was with great satisfaction that I finally had a chance, considerably later in the game, to effectively incapacitate him.

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