This week Zero Punctuation explores the USS Kill Beast Buffet and reviews Dead Space.
Just for once I'd like to see a spaceship in a horror game that actually seems like it might have been a nice place to live. You know, tasteful light-fittings, eloquent lacquered wood panels, or, at the very least, throw a fucking carpet down now and then. At least that way it would almost be a surprise when it gets invaded by a horde of flesh-eating mutants. Frankly, if you paint your spaceship gun-metal gray and fit it with about half as many flickery-ass fluorescent lights then are necessary, then you might as well rename it the "USS Kill Beast Buffet."
Dead Space is a sci-fi survival horror featuring an engineer named Isaac Clarke -- oh ho! I see what you did there, EA! He starts the game en route to a stricken mining ship with his friends Arthur C. Heinlein and H. G. Verne. The crew turn out to be perfectly OK, and the problem was a minor communications issue which is easily fixed. A little anti-climactic, but at least it's original. Wait, sorry, I'm thinking of something else. Of course, the ship's totally fucked, and the crew have all taken up the trendy new slavering monstrosity exercise regime. If you want to know more about the plot, you should probably just go and watch Event Horizon, because Dead Space rips it off about as frequently as it does limbs. Your commanding officer even looks like Laurence Fishburne, and sounds like someone from North London doing a terrible Laurence Fishburne impression.
Isaac Clarke is basically the character who does everything we keep yelling at people in horror films to do: he has a suit of armor that he never takes off; he uses convenient, high-power cutting tools to carve his initials into slime monsters; and he never speaks, because he knows that his dialogue would have to come from the same god-awful script that all the other sods are using. He's also apparently concerned about his lady-wife who was one of the crew of the stricken ship, although since the big galoot never speaks, we only have the game's word for that. Perplexingly, they keep trying to tug our heartstrings with glimpses of the wife, but it falls completely flat, because we have no emotional connection to Isaac whatsoever. It's like asking us to feel sorry for a brick because its brick children have all left home and never write it letters. Come to think of it, a lot of Dead Space comes across like it was developed by someone who knows that horror films exist and may even have seen posters for a couple of them but doesn't quite grasp the principles. You can't just tell us we're supposed to be feeling sympathetic for someone - you have to characterize them first.
And yeah, it was pretty scary the first time a monster that I thought was dead jumped up and bit my ear off, but after six or seven times it had lost a lot of its sting. And I had long ago run out of ears. I've heard people praise how scary it is, but really all it does is startle, and that's not difficult; I was startled when an opossum jumped into my window - that doesn't make it the marsupial answer to Stanley Kubrick. There's absolutely no pacing or effective use of stillness. The monsters just can't get enough of the spotlight, displaying themselves like mutilated peacocks from the earliest opportunity. I guess you could say I find it lacking in atmosphere, which is appropriate, when you think about it.
Gameplay is fine. Textbook, almost, if the textbook mainly consisted of pages photocopied from other textbooks. So we have Resident Evil 4 - sorry, 4 Resident Evil 's - over-the-shoulder precision gunplay and incredibly frugal inventory management combined with 2 System Shock's claustrophobic, tangent-heavy level design and bossy support character who sits in a cupboard somewhere eating pies, constantly telling you off for being slow. There's also a time-slowing mechanic (just in case you weren't completely sick of those) and an aggressively unnecessary physics gun, which you use to pull levers and move boxes and other things which could be easily achieved by two working arms. Or even one working arm. Or even just bumping against it with your stumps for a few minutes. My guess is that physics guns cost a lot of money and Isaac is determined to make the most of it.
On the other hand, the zero gravity mechanic is well done and creative, and it's used to great effect in a particularly spectacular boss fight that's like being stuck inside a tumble dryer with a Shoggoth. The core dismemberment combat is jolly entertaining, and it's nice to see monsters with weak points other than giant, glowing eyeballs lodged in a vagina. But the weapons are a big overpowered. Just one shot from the ripper can carve up enemies like Thanksgiving turkey, and once I figured that out I was having to throw away most of the ammo I found like wrapping paper the day after Christmas.
Also, some of the enemies have very cheap attacks, like the little swarming, scuttley buggers that make Isaac spaz out like someone dropped a caterpillar down the back of his shirt. It takes him a couple of seconds to shake just one off, so if you didn't see the swarm coming and your plans for the evening didn't involve being picked to the bone and strained through a hundred tiny digestive systems, then you get to eat shit, space cowboy! Oh yes, and anyone who designed the security system so that it locks all the doors every time a monster shows up has absolutely no right to complain when they get their twats bitten off.
To compress this review into a pithy but less marketable three-word phrase, Dead Space is competent but bland. It looks all right and it plays all right. It passes the time, but it's not going to enthrall anyone. And if, as a developer, you'd be satisfied with that, then yay for you - a round of applause for Captain Ambitious over here! But it's repetitive, it's littered with cliché, you could replace the entire cast with puppy dogs and they still wouldn't be likable, it's repetitive, and despite its original ideas it still somehow fails to kill the feeling that we've seen it all before. All in all, it comes across as the sort of thing you'd get from a soulless video game-generating machine if you fed an Aliens box-set into the slot and asked for something less compelling... and more repetitive.
Still hung up on Silent Hill: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Also having a dramatic orchestral sting every single time a monster showed up made it seem like they all had radios set to Classic FM stuck in their throats
Evil Genius is a management sim, not a sandbox crime game, shut up you idiots