Thursday, June 18, 2015

Dead Space : The Man Haunted By a Sharpie

Actually, the Black Marker (and Red Marker, and so on) are alien (?) artifacts, not drawing implements. But anyhow!

First off, like anyone who keeps an eye out for the $1.99 sales, I have a nice little Steam directory now. On a virtual drive, on my MacBook, accessed via Wine. As of the moment, the only non-Steam PC game I've played on this Mac is the free "Times" version of Tomb Raider.

So what works? My entirely unscientific, practically non-technical compilation of what ran pretty much out-of-the-box and what stalls or crashes on the loading screen, is:

Tomb Raider Anniversary: runs pretty much normally, controls can be a little twitchy but that's just the game. Sometimes have to toggle v-synch in order to stop the screen flicker.

Tomb Raider Legend: same as above. Did have a recurring glitch at the start of Kazakstan but finally cleared that up.

Tomb Raider Underworld: real-time water reflections slow things down a bit much and had to be turned off, but basically handles the graphics with good frame rate; also completed.

Tomb Raider 2013: have to take the graphics down several notches in some of the big set-pieces (pretty much anything around the shanty town) and some patches of texture render black. But then, there is a Mac version avail anyhow, which I'll even play one day.

Skyrim: game loads, and with a little tweaking the graphics look good and frame rate is quite playable. But no sounds play, and worse, the dialog box never pops up in play; meaning I'm stalled at the start of the adventure just before character creation.

Dead Space 2: fails to start, dropping back to Steam with a cryptic Windows warning pop-up (one of the ones that gives nothing but a hex code).

Bioshock: everything works fine, although the bloom+blur is so distracting I played a lot of it with the effects turned down or off.

Space Engineers: crashes back to the Steam browser when loading.

Fallout 3: locks up on the new game loading screen.

Black Mesa: frequent crashing but otherwise looks fabulous -- played through to the Xen portal.

Dead Space: everything plays flawlessly. More review below the fold:

Dead Space is a 2008 "survival horror" game in a science-fiction setting. Like Alien (and the other films of that franchise, and countless imitators) everyman heroes are beset in an enclosed and claustrophobic environment by horrific monstrosities who kill most of them off, leaving only a few scarred survivors.

The specifics in this case being Isaac Clark (an engineer with nice coveralls) and the members of basically a space tug, a busted-up deep space mining rig, and the distorted and zombified corpses of the previous crew of said mining ship. It wears its references proudly, with more than a few subtle call-outs.

The thing that surprised me most on first play is the lack of the isolation and atmosphere-building I'd been expecting. This is a post-digital revolution culture, all right. You are constantly surrounded by pop-up displays, with communications from your surviving crew, audio and video logs, even pop-up tutorials -- all presented diagetically, in one of the purest cases of a diagetic interface for a computer game I've ever played.

The game largely moves as an endless series of fetch quests, with you returning to central hubs or certain recurring locations over and over, picking up key cards or replacement motherboards or whatever and trundling them to some distant part of the ship while necromorphs leap out at you and your crew (and other people) yammer in your ears.

"Get this, Isaac, over here, Isaac, are you done yet, Isaac." Really -- felt like my day job at times. Add to this the GPS-helpful mapping scheme, and basically I found myself ignoring the plot and even where I was on the ship, confident that I'd be sent in the direction the plot needed me to go. So different in feel from the almost existential isolation of Half-Life (aka Black Mesa), where you find yourself marooned and underground, your workplace shattered and co-workers dead, and hideous monsters lurking in the vents looking to add you to the list.

(I have to stop and wonder if all this physical carrying from place to place makes sense in such a digitized universe. And one can't excuse the fact that the ship is heavily damaged because this sort of thing is what Isaac is shown to do for a living.)

This is another inevitable grunge universe (to paraphrase another reviewer, would it kill them to put some carpets down?) Even Isaac's iconic RIG, which looks high-tech and mysteriously complicated in promotional material, is basically thick coveralls with stuff glued to them and looks shoddy and battered in-game. It looks not just an unpleasant place to live, but rather low-tech. Which is a bit absurd considering that hand-held telekinesis, hand-held stasis, equipment-reconfiguring nano-tech "benches," and so forth are in profusion.

To look to other examples, they from the looks of it achieve everything with forcefields and software and the entire ship could be reduced to a big power plant and a crew of two telecommuters. Who could for all that the tech needs to be actually interacted with by human fingers be moving glowing crystals around while they lounge around in their togas. On a planet far away from all the grime.

Thing is, this magical technology is shown at all sizes and power scales in the game world. It can't just be excused by saying it is magic-tech made necessary for the specific mechanics surrounding the character.

Those character-specific solutions, however, at least being marginally clever. Like several other Steam games -- Half-Life, even Portal -- Dead Space introduces a levitation tool to let you interact with physics objects without having to stress out the animators in trying to figure out how to show your character physically interacting with them. Isaac is able to stomp on goodie boxes (a habit he no doubt picked up from his ancestor Lara Croft), but he can not lift as much as a screwdriver without using a "kinesis" module given to him early in the game.

This permits the usual moving-the-box puzzles. (As an aside -- the earlier Tomb Raider games do indeed give Lara the ability and the animation to shove boxes around with muscle power. They also -- a trend the 2013 game took further -- have you pulling around ridiculously massive objects as long as you use a grappling line on them instead of trying to put your own hands on them). You can also melee with Kinesis, but unlike Bioshock it is clumsier to use and there is a lot less ammo lying around the environment. Half the fun in Bioshock is killing Splicers with ashtrays and haddock, but in Dead Space even the Exploding Drums are inconvenient to grab and the monster is usually on top of you before you can get one ready to throw.

The "Benches" are a decent compromise with crafting systems. There is only one universal part (these are entirely "software" upgrades to your weapons and armor) and although it is found in caches it can also be purchased at the stores. This avoids the excesses of Bioshock, where you find yourself carrying kilos of string and nails but can't actually make anything useful because copper tubing is a rare (and completely random) item drop, or Tomb Raider 2013, where the undifferentiated "Salvage" pool appears to imply you can modify a Police Positive into a Desert Eagle with rusted nails found on a 17th-century whaleboat and the bones from a dead rat.

The high technology also explains why Isaac's own clothing shows his remaining hit points, (and gives him way more than you'd expect him to have). And it even sort of justifies the in-game tutorial pop-ups (in the same way that Kendra's instructions over the radio to "Use your stasis module on that door" are entirely in character with the same woman who told a communications tech on your ship to "boost your power to clear up that signal." And got snarked at for it, too.) This is at least on the face of it an OSHA-conscious universe, and the pop-up displays about how to use your gear are in character with the warning posters and audio safety warnings.

So neither is a great break with immersion. Indeed, the strongest "out of game" moments are the save points. Which really should have been integrated seamlessly and invisibly (as are the invisible save points created just before certain fights). It seems that once again modern games just can't reconcile the necessity of saved games with their fear that they could be abused by save-scumming players.

(My opinion? Saves should be permitted at any time, no limits. Who are you to define how I'm going to play a game? I think I can moderate myself, making the choice that's right for me in balancing the tension and the feeling of accomplishment against the loss of time having to play through a boring section just to attempt a badly-written QTE over and over again.)

So, yes -- this is the only game I've played where the floating icons over every weapons drop are completely diagetic and make sense within that universe. Even their annoying frequency and their digital beeps for attention are, far from immersion-breaking, part of Isaac's in-world experience. It only makes sense that the inventory system is real-time, and you are indeed fumbling with a poorly-designed holographic interface trying to top off your oxygen system in the seconds before hypoxia kills you.

The game also gets cleverness points for the zero-G sequences. Which make everything free-floating, and most surfaces walkable, so you basically range around the inside of a space walking or running from wall to ceiling and around again, and sometimes jumping from one wall to another. Can get quite disorienting, especially as the game has opinions as to your facing direction and will swivel the camera violently when you land.

But what of the play experience? Diverting enough. I played through almost twice. Got to chapter 10 of 12 on Medium difficulty, but I'd been using only the starting weapon (the iconic plasma gun) and the later monsters were too tough and my ammo and money supplies too low to really experiment with the other weapons options, so I went again on Easy mode to be able to play around more and have fun with the options. And I finished the game in that mode.

And, yeah. Like a lot of games, there are way too many weapons. However; your inventory slots are few and the weapons really eat ammo (at least ammo drops are consistent with your load-out), so you really can't effectively support a large host of weapons. I finished my second run with Ripper, Plasma Cutter, and Flamethrower, but really, the Plasma Cutter is almost never the wrong choice and you can hardly go wrong by just putting all your points in upgrades and ammo for it.

Especially as the game also gives you Kinesis and Stasis as combat options. Given enough Stasis charges, you can stop fast enemies in their tracks and take your time doing the Dead Space equivalent of head shots, conserving ammo. Mostly the absurd inventory management keeps this from being always viable; you can't fumble for a fresh stasis module while the enemies are charging you.

But, still, I'm reversing an earlier opinion. I stated a while back that games like Tomb Raider 2013 lean on combat so much because combat has replay value. Combat stays interesting, whereas a puzzle once solved is a puzzle solved forever. However, I found combat somewhat bland in Dead Space and the desire to fight some more Necromorphs is not driving me back to play the game again.

And, yes -- I tried most of the other weapons. The Ripper is very good for those harried close-in melees, large battles as well as scripted close encounters (the game loves having a Necromorph pop out of a cupboard at you). It is conservative of ammo in those settings, too -- you can take out as many monsters as are in saw range in one shot. I got comfortable enough with it that in the zero-g sections I'd chose to jump to where the ranged spitters were and chop off their tentacles instead of trying to play cover shooter with them.

(As an aside, the wall monsters that drop those one-tentacle spitters are the hardest ones for me. Never did find an efficient solution to them. Best was to run up close, stasis everything, then unload several magazines in quick succession. The armored beasts, on the other hand, were almost easy. Stasis and run around to the back and use the ripper.)

The flamethrower is marginally useful against those squirmy little things that do small damage but Zerg rush you. It is so marginal against anything else it is tough to do the change-ups, though.

And the three boss fights are specifically ranged battles. If you didn't bring enough ammo for a long gun, you lose.

"But what about atmosphere?" you say. Or character? Well...not a lot to say about it. The ship is really big and that is portrayed well, and the planet with the giant crater and the asteroids crashing around you are suitably dramatic. Other than that the settings are rather generic, in that "everything will be textured steel plates in the future" way. The other characters do their job. There's a fairly nice bit of slow revelation in the interaction between Hammond and Kendra, with it starting out with him looking like the authoritarian with secrets and her as the cranky realist. Their communications subtly change over time as you realize the real story is rather different.

But Isaac doesn't speak and you can't even see his face, and his in-person interactions are almost nill. There's a couple of scenery-chewing NPCs on the doomed ship but, really, you don't get that much interesting character from anyone.

And the story? Functional enough. Arriving at a blown-apart looking system and a mysteriously silent giant ship. Crawling through the wreckage trying to repair it while other forces conspire. And then a last-act change of plans to trying to stop the evil at its source. It is a pity, horror speaking, that the Necromorphs pop out of the woodwork very early on and stand there in good light gibbering at you for a while. There's really no sense of stalking menace here (although the super-beast does get a little nice stalking in eventually.) And there's no equivalent of struggling through an important repair or sneaking into a distant part of the ship while hoping the monsters don't break in right in the middle; the monsters are always there, and almost without exception you can clear the room of them then conclude your work in peace (that is, except for their obvious scripted spawn events).

Looked at from any distance, though, the plot is a mess. On longer thought I can accept the idea that the Markers can manipulate genes as easily as thoughts. Those both require physical manipulation, all your asides about electromagnetic fields in the brain notwithstanding. And I can even accept that humanity made the Red Marker (or reverse-engineered it) -- they seem to have the technology. In the biggest of the back stories, apparently the implicit conceit is that humanity has gotten too dependent on energy-intensive technology to where they have to do such destructive things as tear actual planets apart for raw materials and fuel. And to where they will dare the half-understood alien tech of the Markers despite pretty good evidence that it kills every race that tries. It is a rather nice back story in that Olber's Paradox works in this universe because the Markers are everywhere and if advanced civilizations don't self-destruct on their own, they invite hell in via the Markers.

Which is to say, humanity is isolated, alone, and doomed; they have built a society that can't support itself, and there are no good directions to go. Given the nearly inevitable trend of Steam-brokered games to end on a total downer, this does rather work for it.

None of that is really seen in the first game, though. The Red Marker wants to go back to the planet, apparently, and when there it invites back the giant chunk of crust the mining ship had ripped away. With fore-seeable consequences. Why the necromorphs work so hard to keep you from returning the Marker is less clear. Why Earth keeps changing its mind about what it wants with the Marker is really opaque. And what all the mad scientists were doing with the infected is...opaque is not a strong enough word for it.

It is entirely unclear from the game if the infected arise as some effect of the Marker, something brought back from the planet, or something cooked up by unethical scientists on the ship. And for all the run-around you have from one surviving scientist and his "greatest creation," you cook the creation in a shuttle's engines without much trouble and he gets killed randomly. It looks and plays like the rejected ideas from the first script meeting, before they decided that the Markers were the Big Bad all along.

Even with listening to all the various logs and things you find lying around, I could really make no clear picture of what the humans were about. Really, I'd vastly prefer if instead of nebulous conspiracies and "for the evilz" behavior from academics, the entire human story had been the natural (aka foolish, self-serving, but also sometimes noble) actions by humans trying to understand and survive the catastrophe. The kind of compounding problems that happen in real disasters, "And the Band Played On" style. That would be a hell of a lot more interesting than B-movie psychopaths strapping people down for "experiments" then taunting you over the radio over it all.

And, lastly, there's just too much time consumed. The actual plot that makes sense (what few parts of it do) is not enough to stretch over the hours of game play. And significant parts of those hours are walking corridors, riding elevators, and waiting on doors to open. And retracing your steps through all of that once again. One welcomes the often clever alternatives, such as diving from cover to cover outside the ship in the middle of an asteroid storm, using the Kinesis module to throw stray things into a handy hatch, re-arranging the dish elements in a radio array, or sitting in a gun pod shooting at asteroids.

Oh, yes. And a lot of repetitive combat. The fear and shock goes away quickly, giving you the mental space to step back and try being creative, but the monsters are just tough enough that trying to come up with clever ways to kill them mostly finishes with you in a game over cutscene. So pretty much you blast your way through them in the most boring and efficient manner possible.

So maybe combat isn't the panacea for replay value after all? Perhaps, once again, Tomb Raider 2013 wasn't being a smart game -- it was just being a stupid game that took an FPS shooter engine and loaded it down with typical AAA game, E3 showcase video assumptions, and left the Rianna Prachett script and the Tomb Raider concept and character by the wayside.

Dead Space attempts less, and succeeds better. It was amusing enough to play and I don't begrudge the four bucks.

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