Going into EA’s Dead Space Community Day, it was tempting to think of the new sci-fi franchise as little more than a DOOM clone. Science-fiction game set in space? Check. Horror elements? Check. Dark hallways populated by even darker demons? Check. That was our opinion at 9:00 am. By the time we left Electronic Arts at 6:00 pm, having played the (literal) hell out of three massive levels, our opinion changed entirely. Dead Space is anything but a DOOM clone. In fact, based on our time with it, Dead Space is poised to out-DOOM DOOM in every way.
For this first of two hands-on previews, we’ll focus on the environments of Dead Space. The environments are one way EA’s survival-horror game is trying to stand out from id’s seminal sci-fi shooter, and because we expected Dead Space to be a clone, we were skeptical that it would actually deliver. After all, DOOM can scare people silly, but walking down the same basic hallway for the entire length of a game gets tiring. Would Dead Space do more of the same?
“DOOM does the scary thing very well, but it does it over and over,” says Executive Producer Glen Schofield. “We’re trying to mix up the scares. Yeah, you’ll have a guy jump out at you, but it’ll be a different scare each time.”
One of the ways the development team is doing this is by using multiple “tiers” in each environment. For instance, as players walk through any given hallway or room on the USG Ishimura, the supersized ship on which the game takes place, there’s always a separate level that only enemies can use. Filled with ducts, holes and random openings, these areas let AI-controlled enemies evaluate the player’s movement and aggression and determine the most logical way to attack. Running down a hallway? The enemy is probably going to choose a duct far ahead of you from which to lash out. Busy fighting an Infector in a shadowy corner? Chances are, a second enemy will slink out from a duct behind you.
Including these AI-only tiers/levels is a refreshing environmental design decision, as most survival-horror games and shooters rely on scripted events. Dead Space certainly includes scripted events, and we definitely encountered locations where an enemy appeared in the same place each time. But when battles get heated or four enemies strike at once, those AI-only tunnels give enemies more options, keeping the battles fresh and your tactics changing. The tunnels also give enemies a way to escape if necessary, only to strike back later from another entry entirely.
Of course, the scare factor isn’t just enemies popping out of holes; it’s also the environment itself. Appropriately, Art Director Ian took this to heart when deciding to use gothic architecture as the inspiration for the USG Ishimura. No, that doesn’t mean hallways have tattoos, eye liner and black fingernails. It means the ship is inspired by the arched, ribbed, stylized design of cathedrals and old buildings worldwide. On the surface this doesn’t sound like a big decision, but when you consider the all-new game engine EA created for Dead Space, the environmental impact is huge.
EA originally conceived Dead Space as an Unreal Engine game, ultimately choosing to abandon Epic’s engine due to its less-than-ideal handling of complex geometry. Using a custom-built engine, however, the Dead Space art team has been able to create environments whose ribs, arches and environmental details play with the game’s infinite — yes, infinite — light sources, resulting in ominous shadows and some pants-wetting illusions. This adds to the game’s suspense, because players are never quite sure whether that movement down the hall or on the other side of the grating was an enemy or just a fleeting shadow.
Abstracting gothic architecture into a spaceship sounds pretty “high level,” but when the ship’s as big as the USG Ishimura, the decision makes complete sense. An entire colony was living on the Ishimura before players begin the game wondering why there are no known survivors. Like any big city, different environments look slightly different. So, the engineering area still looks much more industrial than, say, the public areas, which look more refined, or the hydroponics floor, which has a functional yet clean appearance. Yet all the while, gothic motifs are echoed throughout.
These diverse areas are another instance in which Dead Space stands out from DOOM, as you seldom encounter areas that look exactly alike. One of gamers’ biggest complaints about DOOM and other first-person shooters is the repetition of certain hallways. In Dead Space, the environments range from industrial areas to surgical floors, from vegetation-filled hydroponics deck to massive hangars. These areas naturally share design traits, but their diversity is about as far as one can get from the “just another hallway” mentality that pervades many sci-fi titles.
The zero-G levels are also a nice change of pace, as the rooms in these areas are specifically designed to accommodate players jumping from one side of the environment to the other. The downfall with these rooms, at least from an architectural standpoint, is that they tend to be a bit more square than other areas of the Ishimura, but that’s more to give players freedom of gravity-free movement than it is a sign of design laziness. Each zero-G area also has a cool audio effect of sounds being muffled/swallowed in the vacuum of space, but that’s less of an environmental design aspect than it is an aspect designed to boost players’ immersion in the game.
And that immersion factor is the primary driver of EA’s level design in Dead Space. Other companies have created survival-horror games, but they’ve generally done so in the known environments of Earth and with some serious fog effects. Other companies have created sci-fi shooters, but they’ve generally done so using barren hallways or twitch-friendly level design. Dead Space is going in a different direction, one that needs to balance the slow pace of a horror film with the fast pace of combat (note we didn’t say “a shooter”). If the story ends up as good as the environmental design, Dead Space could be one of the most satisfyingly intense games of 2008.
— Jonas Allen