Visceral horror on the small screen
Dead Space brought true survival-horror back from the dead. After years of seeing the genre drift further into action territory, EA’s Visceral Studios showed us how important that feeling of vulnerability is to delivering real scares. Just as importantly, it showed that you don’t need to have clumsy, dated controls in order to give your character limitations, incorporating all the interface improvements of a modern third-person shooter with the ethos that made the early Resident Evils so terrifying.
Of course, intuitive console-style controls aren’t exactly the strong suit of touchscreen gaming. Conventional wisdom says that to bring a console shooter over to the phone, there has to be some major compromises, stripping away some gameplay features, if not reinventing the game altogether. Even on the Wii, Dead Space was dumbed down to a simple rail shooter, so why should our little ‘droids fare any better? And yet here we are, with a full-fledged, original chapter in the Dead Space series on our tiny phones, and it’s far closer to the console experience than I ever could have imagined. EA’s Iron Monkey Studios have crammed every gameplay element that made the series great into a touch-friendly package that actually works.
Despite a lack of titular distinction, this is not a remake or an adaptation of the first game, but a full-fledged midquel set between the events of the original and Dead Space 2. Players control Vandal, a newly converted intitate to the mysterious Unitologist faith that emerged after the discovery of a site known as The Marker. Vandal is sent by the Church to a space station, but the entire mission is a ploy to unleash the Necromorphs – twisted humans deformed by alien dna – on the station, and Vandal’s goal quickly changes to surviving the onslaught.
Dead Space’s success is largely thanks to a genuinely brilliant interface that minimizes the need for on-screen buttons or pads that are so often the bane of these sorts of games. The only buttons at all are the menu and weapon-switching icons in the top corners. Sliding a thumb on either side of the screen simulates the dual-analog pads. Tapping anywhere on the right draws and fires your weapon and tapping your character’s back launches the slow-mo “stasis” blast. A few motion-based controls prove awkward, like jerking the phone to jump in the occasional zero-grav segment, but these are so seldom used it doesn’t matter.
Everything else is how you remember. Despite being designed for older hardware, the graphics are nicely detailed and boast all the lighting and shadows needed to recreate the eerie atmosphere of its big brothers. The sound, too, is as uncomfortable, creepy, and ambient as it was in the console games, and well worth popping in a pair of headphones for.
Most impressive of all, Dead Space actually manages to be scary. Played alone in the dark with a good pair of ‘phones, it can suck you right in. Apart from regenerating health, the difficulty has not been toned down much for the mobile audience, and you’ll still be scraping and scrounging for ammo. As in the main games, Necromorphs can only be destroyed by carefully aiming and firing at their limbs, which can be truly panic-inducing when several are bearing down on you. Preserving this mechanic in the mobile version seems ballsy in light of the more difficult aiming associated with the touchscreen, but it works perfectly here.
Dead Space is the gold-standard for a console-to-mobile conversion. Everything has been carefully tailored to the new platform, but nothing has been dropped, streamlined, or simplified in the process. All the depth, gameplay, and scares have survived the translation, and the result feels like a game of few compromises. Not only does Dead Space manage to a worthwhile mobile game, but it’s a must-play entry in the series for any fan.
Is it Hardcore?
A genuinely frightening third-person shooter, Dead Space sets a new high-watermark for console-to-mobile conversion.