Like most of you, I’m sure, I usually do my iPhone gaming whenever and wherever the mood takes me. You know, a quick hit of Angry Birds on the bus or best score beating attempt at Doodle Jump while queuing in Starbucks.
Now, a word to the wise, EA’s latest Dead Space (out now, $6.99/$9.99) really isn’t best suited to this practise. Why, you ask? Well, to paraphrase Alien’s famous tagline: In space, no one can hear you scream – but in the middle of a crowded coffee shop they will. And Dead Space, not only one of the best looking and best made games yet to grace iOS but also the outright scariest, is likely to have you squirming anxiously, jumping like a jack rabbit and indeed shrieking in terror, as developers IronMonkey Studios expertly meld psychological horror with grisly, high-octane action to absolutely nerve-shredding effect.
Ideally played in the comfort of your own home, with the lights out and headphones on, this, an iOS exclusive (Yay!) installment of the acclaimed sci-fi/horror franchise – designed to fill in the blanks between the events of the first game and its newly released sequel – puts you in the oversized space boots of Vandal, a lowly engineer who’s just been duped into sabotaging the Sprawl, the vast space station he works aboard, by shadowy religious organization the Church of Unitology.
Throwing a spanner in the Sprawl’s works results in an outbreak of bloodthirsty Necromorphs (for those of you that have never played a Dead Space game before: think acid-spewing Xenomorph meets particularly revolting and cunning zombie) and, of course, when the viscera hits the fan, the church leaves our poor ol’ anti-hero in the lurch. It’s a thoroughly gripping opening, Vandal is a credibly flawed, vacillating and human protagonist, and as you traverse its labyrinthine network of blood smeared corridors and dingy mine shafts, the game’s stellar plot tackles such lofty themes as revenge and redemption. But if all that sounds a bit heavy, fear not, there’s also plenty of gore, stylish limb-slicing action and kicking freaky tentacle babies in their fugly faces to enjoy.
Now, all the console game-esque eye candy, sharp storytelling and creepy atmospherics in the world would be for nothing if Dead Space controlled like a pig, so I had best put you out of your misery – it doesn’t; on the contrary in fact, for the best part, guiding Vandal around environments and gunning down foes is a remarkably intuitive, hassle-free experience. In a valiant effort to make the most of an iDevice’s modest screen real estate and so as not to compromise their game’s gorgeous cinematic presentation with a ton of virtual buttons, IronMonkey opt for invisible controls for both movement and shooting, the former arranged on the right-hand side and the latter on the left – not dissimilar to the set-up in EA’s recent Battlefield Bad Company 2, but thankfully much better suited to a third-person game – while also transplanting the HUD from its standard position at the corner of the screen and onto your character’s back.
This streamlined system has its advantages and disadvantages. I’ll start with the positives: firstly, it makes swapping between using your various mining tools-cum-weapons and other abilities (such as ‘Stasis’) a commendably fluid affair. Likewise, thanks to a well implemented combination of onscreen prompts and contextual directional arrows, when an enemy pounces on you, slashing them with your serrated blade or shaking them off is easily executed with a quick series of swipes or taps of your finger. On the whole then, combat is tight, and the only real downside to the game control-wise is that the initially bewildering (and occasionally imprecise) tilt/double-tap method used to reload weapons, switch between their primary and secondary functions or change guns during tense battles means some players might have a few teething problems. Still, nothing that can’t be overcome with a bit of practise, I assure you.
As great as all the outlandish weapons, upgradable futuristic spacesuits and hideous creatures are, for me, the single most impressive aspect of Dead Space is its ability to really get under your skin and scare you stiff. Repeatedly and thoroughly. Okay, the one man alone against terrifying odds, desperately trying to conserve his limited supply of ammo, schtick is nothing that the average survival horror aficionado won’t have experienced a dozen times before (the likes of Resident Evil and Silent Hill have been successfully rehashing the formula for years), but Dead Space in channeling the crème de la crème of scary sci-fi films – Alien, The Thing, Event Horizon and, surprisingly, artier, more cerebral affairs like Solaris also – means the game nails that almost unbearable, cloying sense of dread that is too often lacking from horror games and feels fresh and unpredictable for damn near the entirety of its 4-5 hour duration.
A well observed selection of horror game staples (the tortured howls of unseen terrors accompanying the typically pared-back score or dismembered corpses suddenly springing back to life and attacking you) blend well with scare tactics lifted from the console games (nightmarish hallucination sequences, the Sprawl’s automated security system that locks-down areas every time ‘foreign matter’ is detected and traps Vandal inside rooms crawling with Necromorphs) and make for an unrelentingly suspenseful atmosphere punctuated by plenty of jump-out-of-your-seat moments. All amounting to an incredibly immersive, gripping and truly terrifying experience that is utterly unparallelled on iOS.
Understandably the eerie tone established in the initial stages dissipates with every new fiendish weapon you add to your arsenal or upgrade made to your RIG suit, and Dead Space changes tack appropriately, becoming less of a scare-fest and more of an out-and-out actioner for the remainder of its running time. This is by no means a criticism though, because slicing and dicing the game’s inventive array of grotesque mutants is never less than a stomach-churningly thrilling experience.
I’ll wrap up by saying, anyone remotely interested in seeing iOS evolve into a full-blown gaming platform capable of going toe-to-toe with Sony and Nintendo’s handhelds in terms of high quality, big-budget titles needs to let developers know there’s a demand for more games of this standard by adding Dead Space to their app collection quick smart.
iFanzine Verdict: Dead Space’s fusing Triple-A production values with genuinely unnerving atmospherics and stylish, R-rated violence results in a staggeringly brilliant title that stays faithful to the series’ roots while bringing iOS gaming to a whole new level. A masterpiece, a must-have and without a doubt this reviewer’s new favorite game. EA have raised the bar, now let’s hope more big-name developers and publishers follow suit!