Sunday, November 2, 2008

Dead Space: Initial Experience

Dead Space piqued my curiosity a while back when I saw a teaser trailer. It looked like a survival thriller set in space. Then I heard one of my colleagues talking about the game and how it had some really cool game play mechanics and was a tense and scary experience.

So, I carved out some time for a hands on -- and after a couple of hours I must admit that it's starting to get good. The initial experience was pretty lousy. Had I not been convinced by a couple of other people I trust that the game got better I would most likely have given up and been sad that I purchased instead of rented.

Although the team tried to push the level of immersion to a new level by incorporating the standard HUD into the game world, the sense of immersion was constantly broken by awkward controls.

Some of the issues I noticed:
  • A 3rd person shooter without a reticle makes for a frustrating experience for me. Unfortunately I am generally Y axis inverted, except for some platformers and third person games that don't involve aiming. When I aim I require inversion to drive the reticle where I want it to go. Without a reticle I find myself constantly fighting the Y axis during exploration mode (constantly stare at my feet when I try to look up and vice versa). The thing is that I can't leave it non-inverted or else I won't be able to aim my weapon. I can see how the reticle could be turned off by default (like in King Kong) but there needs to be an option for folks like me.
  • The basic controls were complex enough (and not taught well enough) that I got stuck and almost had to quit when I was about 20 minutes into the game. I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out how to use the "stasis" power or even how to heal myself.
  • The tutorial isn't very good. It's basically a series of billboards that relies on you remembering the lesson you were taught (if you bothered to read it) instead of having you figure it out as you play along. 
  • Moreover, because prompts often come when you're focused on something else, you often ignore or forget them. This highlights a separate problem: It's almost impossible to find where these tutorial hints are logged (who would have thunk that there would be a set of logs before chapter one?)
  • Basic and advanced controls are hard to discover. It's unclear why the buttons are mapped the way they are. Moreover, a few simple UI affordances would help make remembering controls (especially controls accessed when holding LT) much easier.
  • Progression is weird and slightly frustrating. The basic econ system seems similar to Ratchet & Clank and Bioshock. The problem is that the player is just dropped into the system of shopping and upgrading without much help. This means that the player can waste a bunch of currency by mistake because he/she doesn't understand the tradeoffs involved. There could have been much better pacing of how Credits, Power Nodes, the Upgrade Bench, and the Store were introduced.
  • The level design seems old school in terms of the basics: Find a key, use it to unlock a place you can't reach yet, and don't die. Also, the econ system seems kind of weird from a story perspective: We crash land onto a ship to try and repair it; the ship is malfunctioning and overrun with creatures; yet I still need to gather "credits" in order to spend them in a shop. It's funny how this didn't seem to bother me at all in Ratchet & Clank and only bothered me a little bit in Bioshock
  • Combat seems like it might be interesting... Lots of weapons (with alternate fire) and varied creatures means that there should be some tactically interesting scenarios. However, I have encountered some QTE/button press sequences where I'm being mobbed by enemies that I can't quite figure out (I just die).
The story started in an intriguing way, but then devolved into listening to two of my party bicker back and forth. I want to know more, but I'm not as engrossed in the story as I was with other recent RPG, FPS, and Action Adventure games. Also, I want to know a bit more about my abilities -- why am I able to use telekinesis and stasis? Is it just the suit or do I have special powers as well?

I'm going to give the game a couple of more hours and hope that it will eventually meet the bar of some of the other great single player action/shooter games that have come out in the past few years. It just feels very derivative right now -- kind of a Frankensteinian mixture of Doom 3, Half Life, and Brute Force.

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