So EA was kind enough to fly me out to the west coast to visit their studios and to check out Dead Space. I got a chance to hang out with some of the team and there was a roundtable with a few presentations, as well. I’ll be detailing those later, but first things first I want to write up my experiences playing the game.
We got to play three long sections of the game and while I’m not allowed to talk about the first one yet, I can tell you in detail about the latter two and overall how the game plays. I got a chance to take both the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions for a spin and both played just as well as the other.
Let’s start with the controls: You move Isaac (viewed over his right shoulder) with the left thumbstick and control your view with the right thumbstick. Holding the left bumper makes Isaac run and holding the left trigger readies your gun (which also doubles as a flashlight). This does slow you down a bit, but not inordinately so. While aiming, the right trigger will fire whatever weapon you have, whereas the right bumper is your alt fire. While not in aim mode, the left trigger performs a melee attack and the right bumper performs a stomp.
The A button is your reload while aiming, and your general interaction button while not. The X button is a quick heal button, the Y button is your ‘stasis’ button and the B button is your kinesis button. The back button brings up your inventory and the d-pad switches between your weapons. The start button miraculously pauses the game, contrary to some early rumors.
The start button is about the only thing that does pause the gameplay, though. The game doesn’t have a normal HUD or inventory system. Isaac’s health is displayed on the spine of his ‘RIG’ with a blue bar that changes color as it depletes. Other traditional HUD elements are projected off of various parts of Isaac’s RIG as holograms into the environment.
Pull up a weapon and it will project a hologram showing how much ammo you have in the chamber. Pull up the map or your inventory and it’s projected from your helmet. You can spin the camera around to see any of the holograms from the back, confirming that they’re really projected into the world. The light from them will play over the interior surfaces of the Ishimura.
The map feature is pretty unique. You can set your object in the map screen and it will display a path through the map to show you where you need to go, but that’s only visible while you have your map screen open. If you click in the right thumb stick, a hologram will project from Isaac’s hand onto the floor for a few seconds, lighting up a path showing which way you need to be headed, but doing so leaves you defenseless for a short moment.
Get used to feeling defenseless, too. Since playing in your inventory doesn’t pause time, you aren’t going to have time to mess around in there while you’re being attacked. All this is meant to make the game feel more immersive, and scarier… and it does, without making the game needlessly challenging. You don’t have to go into the menu to heal, or see which way you need to go, so it doesn’t feel unfair to force the player to make those kind of interactions in real time.
One of my favorite touches is the video messages you get from the rest of the team that are also projected into the world and fully animated.
I’m sure you’ve all seen the videos showing off how nice the game looks and there’s no smoke and mirrors involved in making those trailers. The environments, animation and lighting all really do look that good.
Over the course of the two levels I can talk about, I got to use a variety of weapons, against a variety of enemies, in a variety of situations.
Dismemberment isn’t just a cool feature in Dead Space; It’s the only way you’re going to survive. Unloading your guns (which in many cases are tools not designed for combat) into the enemies will put them down, but it burns through your ammo really fast. Cutting off arms and legs will kill the enemies in much fewer shots, but it makes for a much more purposeful and precise encounters.
When you don’t have many rounds left, and you have a number of enemies lumbering towards you and you have to make those accurate shots count, you’ll maybe understand why the team stress so much that it isn’t a shooter. A number of other people started out trying to play it like a shooter. If they didn’t end up dead after their first few encounters they ended ammoless and as good as dead.
Isaac’s primary gun is the plasma cutter, which cuts either horizontally or vertically (toggled with the alt fire). It has three guide lasers so you can see where it cuts, and aiming that across the arms, legs and necks of advanced freaky things is a new skill to develop.
Naturally you can mix in stasis to slow down enemies to make things easier, but don’t drop your guard. Only enemies you hit with stasis will be slowed down, so it isn’t like bullet time in the games that have it. While you’re carefully aiming at a slowed down enemy another could be charging at you from behind.
Your average enemy is a ripper; a vaguely humanoid thing with big long bony blades jutting out of their forearms nearly down to the ground. These aren’t too hard to deal with in small numbers. Take off a few limbs and they’ll probably drop to the ground dead. One limb isn’t going to slow them down too much. You could try and save some ammo by taking out their legs and stomping in their heads when they get near you. Taking off a head will get them blindly swinging and coming towards you a bit faster than normal… sometimes a bad thing, but if you can do it to one in a group, you can cause a nice bit of chaos.
Pregnants you really have to careful with. Their torsos are filled to bursting point with little crawling things that like to swarm you and burrow into your flesh. If you’re careful you can take them out by taking off their spindly arms and legs, but should you accidentally hit one in its central body mass that torso is going to tear open and spill out a swarm of angry teeth.
When the swarm gets on you, you can pull them offer before they do too much damage by mashing the A button, but while you’re doing that, you aren’t running away from anything else that might be trying to tear you in half and things do quite literally tear you in half. Death in Dead Space is a bloody spectacle.
Avoiding enemies may seem like a good idea, and it often is. Enemies don’t seem to be able to use the doors in the spaceship (a nice security feature) but sadly some of them have little respect for walls, and others are a dab hand at finding their way through the air vent system.
Pro tip: if you see an enemy enter the air vents, don’t think you can forget about it. An enemy that has gone into the air vents can come crashing out of any air vent later on and that happens dynamically. Sometimes it’s best to kill an enemy when its out in the open, rather than having risk it come smashing down behind you in a tight corner later on.
Finding your way about the Ishimura is usually straight forward. With all your current objects selectable on your map screen and the guide hologram always there to tell you which way to go you might think navigating the game is going to be a bit too easy. Well, ignoring all the freaky alien shit you’ll run into on the way, it usually is. Naturally you’ll be using your telekinesis ability to manipulate obstacles in the way. You’ll have to repair parts of the damaged ship to restore power to areas you need access too. You’ll be finding key codes and that sort of stuff, as well … but the game has two other neat tricks.
Some areas of the ship are depressurized. In this environment, your RIG will switch over to its built in oxygen tank. You’ve only got about seventy seconds of air to get out of there, or to get to one of the stations that let you refill your tank, before you suffocate.
Other areas of the ship lack gravity. Isaac’s RIG will stick him to metal floors well enough, but you can’t exactly just walk up walls. You can jump from surface to surface, and if a surface is curved you’ll be able to walk up and around that. To jump you aim at where you want to go and hit the Y button. You’ll either get a little red error on your gun if you can’t jump, or Isaac will leap in a straight line where you wanted to go.
Even with the guide hologram these sections get pretty perplexing at times. Add in the fact that sometimes you’ll be in zero g and without oxygen, and navigating these areas are no piece of cake, though they are a lot of fun.
For one, anything that isn’t alive is just going to be floating around like you’d expect. Bump into it and it’ll spin off just as something in zero g should. Some monsters hold onto the surfaces to get around, and if you take off the limbs they’re holding on with, they’ll be stuck floating around, but still alive.
We were told that the game was very close to completion, and everything we saw seemed to back that up as its already looking nicely polished. The graphics, lighting and sound were all in place as they’ll be in the final game this October, and it’s looking pretty damn good.
Even in a room full of other people playing the game in half hour-long sessions, with a pair of headphones on, the game was scary. Having spent a good while talking with the team this week, I’m pretty confident that it’ll stay scary from start to finish. What we saw of the story (a lot of which I can’t talk about) was pretty damn promising, as I’m sure anyone reading the comics already knows.
Since the game was unveiled last year, Dead Space has been high on my list of “most wanted” games, and I’m glad to say that after a few hours with it, it’s now firmly entrenched there. With the Ghostbusters game apparently in limbo, and Aliens: Colonial Marines slipping to next year, Dead Space is going to be the main single player horror experience this October … and they’d have to spend the next few weeks undoing all their hard work in order for it to disappoint.
Finally I’d like to thank EA and the guys on the Dead Space team for letting me take such a deep look at the game and the work that’s gone into making it. I’ll have more on the game, the comics and the animated movie (and hopes of a live action one) over the next few days, so stay tuned!
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