Dead Space iOS Review

It’s hard to get scares out of a small screen. A major part of the effectiveness of horror films is the environment in which you view them — in a dark theater with a huge screen, a scary movie is just a lot scarier. So trying to get a horror experience out of an iPhone game can be understandably difficult.

To put it succinctly: Dead Space on the iPhone and iPad nails it. Imminent danger, dark environments, lots of pop-out scares and a buckets of blood atmosphere create a phenomenal horror experience that pretty much stands alone in mobile gaming and wouldn’t be too far out of place as a small console game on Xbox Live or the Playstation Network.


Dead Space (IPhone [Reviewed], XBox360, PS3, PC)
Developer: Electronic Arts
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: January 25, 2011
MSRP: $6.99

Dead Space iOS takes place on the Sprawl, a huge space station orbiting Titan, a moon of Saturn that’s the focus of a mining operation. The location is the setting of Dead Space 2, and the story events of Dead Space iOS occur pretty much right before the start of the console sequel, with the iPhone game covering the events that kick off the release of monsters in both stories.

You play an engineer with a code name of Vandal, executing a secret mission on the Sprawl. I won’t give more details than that (although it doesn’t take long to get into what’s happening), but over the course of the next few hours (my initial run through the game took just over four hours to complete), you’ll battle a whole host of monsters called necromorphs, for those uninitiated into the Dead Space universe. You can still play Dead Space iOS without a great understanding of the Dead Space universe — just know that these monsters used to be people, and they’re vicious and horrible. And the best (and sometimes only) way to kill them is to cut off their limbs.

Iron Monkey has done a great job of transferring the Dead Space experience to the iPhone, but this is a little more than a version of the game you’ve already played. The iPhone game looks and feels a whole lot like Dead Space and Dead Space 2 on consoles, but the touch screen experience opens up the gameplay to be a little more intuitive. A melee weapon activated by swiping gets you out of desperate situations, and other enemies will require you to tap away to pull them off you. Touch screen aiming and movement feels good for the most part when you have a second to be precise, and the game smartly doesn’t include any buttons, only general movements you enact by touching large regions of the screen. You guide Vandal in a third-person view around by sliding your thumb on the left side of the screen — forward starts her running, backing toward the bottom of the screen slows or reverses her.

Aiming and shooting with the game’s four different weapons is done by tapping somewhere on the right side of the screen to ready your weapon, then dragging your thumb around to reposition your firing indicator. You also move the camera by sliding your thumb on the right side of the screen when you’re not firing. It gives you the effect of two analog sticks to guide you around the game, without the intrusion of virtual sticks on the screen. It also allows you to move your thumbs out of the way of the action — something that can be problematic on the iPhone’s smaller screen.

It takes a little getting used to, but after the first 20 minutes or so, the controls begin to feel like second nature — almost. On the whole, they’re a touch on the loose side; pulling up your gun or activating Vandal’s Stasis ability, for example, can be haphazard at times, especially when you’re trying to move fast and do several things at once. Because all the controls are dictated by your thumb placement and touch and they’re all generally in the same place, things can be clunky: you’ll sometimes find yourself accidentally squeezing off shots you didn’t mean to fire or trying to fire Stasis and failing, only to come under attack while you try to figure out what you did wrong. You can’t really strafe at all, and when you fail to kill enemies as they close in on you, you’ll likely just end up running past them, spinning around, and starting the process over again.

So you’ll never really dodge or find yourself in close calls. Instead, you’ll generally take the hit if you have to before sprinting clear of your attacker, then whipping around when you have some room to pull your gun up and take a well-aimed shot. It’s tense because you have a limited time to act, but combat is somewhat marred by the fact that you often have to stand rooted and just blast whatever’s coming your way. The fighting could have been much more dynamic and interesting with just a little more motion.

Still, for the most part, you’re very capable of handling Dead Space’s many, many protracted battles with various kinds of necromorphs. Lots of the game’s encounters are of the one-on-one ambush variety, but when you really get into a fight, it’ll be in a largish room in which you’re locked until you’ve killed all the “foreign material” within it. And these battles require quite a bit of work on the player’s part — enemies come fast and hit hard, even on the Normal difficulty, and you’ll need to act fast to keep your guns reloaded, aim and dismember enemies, stomp the ones that are still crawling after you, and address threats that are coming up behind you. There are no puzzles to speak of, which is kind of a bummer: these “locked in a room” battles are fun, but they’re also the only formula the game has to work with. Killing everything is the only thing barring you from continuing forward.

The guys at Iron Monkey worked closely with Visceral Games, the developer behind the Xbox and Playstation versions of Dead Space and Dead Space 2, and the result is pretty phenomenal for fans. The story works pretty well and the iPhone version very accurately captures the same dread and atmosphere the console games depict. Using console Dead Space’s music helps (a lot), as does strong voice acting and mostly awesome graphics. The game has plenty gory and is packed full of monsters, and even includes some zero-gravity rooms and fighting — exactly what you want out of a mobile version of Dead Space.

The drawback of hitting the Dead Space feel so accurately, unfortunately, is that there’s a real lack of anything new. You’ll get to play with the Core Extractor, a new beam-based weapon, but it’s not substantially different from what you’re used to. The rest of the game pretty accurately mirrors what you get on other platforms. How you play is somewhat distinct, but what you see, hear and experience is not.

Apart from the control issues, an audio glitch sometimes kills chunks of dialogue. It only seems to affect speech, which is a big bummer because the game loses story, which is what Dead Space is really all about. The rest of the audio is pretty great, especially with headphones on, and the sounds of monsters is usually your only clue in the dark as to what is on its way to murder you, and from where. But the dialogue loss is persistent: it doesn’t happen during most dialogue events, but it happened four or so times during my playthrough, and there’s just not a ton of dialogue to begin with.

Despite those problems, stacked against the overall experience, generally great production values, and repeated scares, the issues really don’t amount to much. Dead Space is a mobile game with the quality of a console experience. It runs $6.99 on iTunes, which is a lot for a mobile game, but the price feels equal to the game you receive — especially given the Hard mode you open up after finishing the game, the New Game + mode that lets you change your tactics and amp up your character to earn more achievements, and the unlockables you get in Dead Space 2 for registering the game. It’s one of the stronger experiences on the platform that could be an entry point for hardcore gamers to see what the iPhone is capable of creating — and it’s certainly worth a download.

Pros:

  • A genuinely scary, atmospheric and tense experience
  • Accurately captures all that’s great about Dead Space on consoles
  • Smartly designed touch controls that maximize the platform’s capabilities while remaining familiar
  • Strong story that meshes well with the console games
  • Great graphics, great sound, great voice acting
  • Whole lot of monsters to kill and dark corridors to explore

Cons:

  • Audio glitch can cause dialogue to disappear
  • Controls sometimes feel finicky, especially in tense moments
  • Combat can be weak, especially when you’re not used to the aiming mechanic, because of Vandal’s tank-like movements
  • Boss fights aren’t nearly as tense or fun as regular battles

Final Score: 85/100

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