Dead Space for iOS review: console-quality survival horror on the iPhone and iPad
The game takes you through the last couple of days before the events of Dead Space 2. You take the form of an engineer going by the name of 'Vandal,' guided by the Church of Unitology and a naïve 'friend' on the radio. Your adventure kicks off with a little bit a sabotage, which inevitably ends horribly, setting off a chain of events that leads to you desperately fighting for your life against hordes of ravenous Necromorphs.
Luckily for Vandal, some of the fantastically creative weapons from the Dead Space universe have made the jump to the portable screen. Three Dead Space originals have made the cut, including my personal favorite the Remote Control Disc Ripper, plus two new weapons the Plasma Saw and Core Extractor. Just like the console game, you have to pick and chose the right weapon or ability for the job, otherwise you're going to end up being Necro-food.
ControlsKilling Necromorphs requires a bit more skill than blindly blasting away. Like its small screen brothers, you have to amputate limbs in order to kill that which wants to eat you. Thankfully the control schemes and game mechanics in Dead Space for iOS mean that after a little practice, you can be as good with the touchscreen as you could be with a game pad. There aren't many games on the App Store I've played that have managed that.
You control Vandal's movement by sliding your digits around on the left hand side of the screen, which emulates an analog stick of sorts. Unlike quite a few touchscreen games the virtual stick isn't fixed in position however, and the degree of motion is calculated from a relative position to your first touch. The further forward you slide your finger, the faster Vandal will run. It works well because the movement in Dead Space is pretty labored -- it isn't a fast and flighty FPS.
Touching the right hand side of the screen controls actions such as weapons, opening boxes and doors, and activating panels. Touching the screen once with a weapon equipped puts you into aiming mode, which is less sensitive allowing you to easily target your prey. A quick tap fires your weapon, but if you need an alternative firing mode, like the perpendicular orientation of the Plasma Cutter beam for instance, a quick jerk of the device -- rotating it slightly to the left or the right -- is all you need. Should your weapon run dry, a quick tap on the reload symbol floating above your gun will refresh your ammo; just be careful there's not something charging towards you at the time, because reloading takes real-world time, not the quick flick that most FPS games prefer.
Dead Space for iOS also has pretty intuitive prompts for non-shooting actions. Interacting with items, doors, and panels is a simple case of getting near them and tapping on a small glowing circle that indicates an action can be performed. Likewise, a prompt for downward swipe on the right hand side of the screen indicates when you're close enough to stomp on a Necromorph or a box. When you've got the Plasma Saw equipped, or you're just about to be eaten by a Necromorph, a quick swipe up on the right will slice off a limb with the saw and give you a little breathing space.
Overall the control scheme in Dead Space on the iPad, and miniaturized on the iPhone, works very well. After about 5-10 minutes of playing, you'll feel like you've got the hang of it while its intuitive UI makes it feel quite natural. The only issue you've got now, is the getting over the ergonomics of holding your tablet or smartphone for hours on end, because trust me, it's quite an addictive and intense experience.
Graphics and Sound
The first thing that struck me about Dead Space on an audio-visual front, was just how good the soundscape was. From the moment the game starts with a little introductory cutscene, you're transported into the game with a 'cinematic' score. Unlike several other 'console-quality' App Store titles I've had the pleasure to play, Dead Space truly sounds fantastic through headphones. In fact, I would say that to truly experience Dead Space for all it's worth, you simply must plug in decent pair of headphones.
EA's also done a great job with the graphics on iOS. When I first fired up the game, I thought I could be looking at a direct port from the original Dead Space console game. Visuals are sharp, with decent looking textures. Panels are rendered well with active elements that change in response to player actions. Even the minimal HUD from the original game is displayed in all its glory.
Player health status is marked by a colored tube running up Vandals back, while the amount of 'Stasis' charge is displayed by a 3/4 circle on his right shoulder. Ammunition quantity is displayed on a floating virtual display attached to the top of the guns, which turns into the reload button when your weapon is running low on projectiles. Walking over to an item that you can pick up, pops up a floating display showing you what the item is and its remaining quantity, if it happens to be ammo. It's as out-the-way, yet intuitive as its console brethren and almost works better with the touch-based interface.
There is one permanent HUD feature that's displayed on the screen at all times however, and that's the small D in the top right corner. It enables access to the game's options menus as well as the handy waypoint navigation tool, which was a real time saver in the console version of Dead Space and is just as useful now.
Overall the visual prowess of Dead Space on iOS is particularly impressive. From the gore-splattered walls, and scary prose written in blood, to the character model and environmental textures, everything looks easily as good as a game on the original Xbox or PS2. The only slight let-down is the rather blocky and poorly textured Necromorphs, which look great from far away, but look a little Lego-like when they get up in your face. Still, it does nothing to detract from the overall engagement EA has managed on the portable screen and so it can be forgiven.
GameplayGood graphics and a decent control scheme are a good start, but for a game to really stand out and shine, the gameplay has to match up. Thankfully for the most part, Dead Space on iOS ticks all the boxes. It brings the visceral thrill of a gore-laden world plus the fright and jump moments from its big brothers, and manages to maintain the creep and fight elements that made Dead Space a truly great game on the console. It's a fantastic experience, and whole lot of fun blasting off Necromorph limbs with surprising precision. The game play is fast enough not to bore you, but slow enough to make it possible on a touchscreen. EA has obviously taken the limitations of a touchscreen interface to heart, and made sure the game mechanics don't make it a frustrating or difficult experience. That's not to say the game is easy, far from it. You'll be seeing a lot of the 'you are dead' screens if you don't quite manage to hit the right spot with your final Plasma Cutter blast. But the game comes together as more than the sum of its pretty impressive parts.
Perhaps what anchors the game pieces together is a decent story. This is no pint-sized port -- Dead Space on iOS has its own interesting storyline, where the actions of the protagonist are just as important to the Dead Space saga as Isaac's were in the first installment. There are a few times when it gets a bit repetitive however. Many sections of the game rely on sealing you in a room after a lock-down occurs when 'foreign biological elements' are detected, leaving you to eliminate all the Necromorphs before you can proceed. While it's fun the first couple of times, there are parts of the game where that kind of gameplay device is a bit over used. It's not enough to make the game too boring, but you'll be wishing that you could skip just a few rooms to get on with the story.
VerdictWe've heard lots of people talk about console-quality gaming on smartphones and tablets, but this is the first time I've genuinely thought that moniker is justified. Sure we've seen some impressive titles, especially those using the Unreal Engine, but when it comes down to it, visuals are not enough. Dead Space for iOS is a fantastic example of what's possible on the iPhone and iPad. It's a great game in its own right, with a compelling storyline, decent controls, and good gameplay, but as a tie-in to the existing franchise it's even better. When you can't play Dead Space on your console of choice because you're traveling, then Dead Space on the iPad has the guts to step up and fill the void.
At $9.99 for the iPad version, Dead Space isn't exactly cheap, but compared to the console games it goes up against, it's an absolute steal. Having played both the iPad and iPhone versions of the game, I can say that it's better on the iPad just because of the size of the screen. But if you've only got an iPhone, the smaller-screen version won't disappoint and will save you a few bucks in the process. If you're a fan of the Dead Space universe, then you simply must play Dead Space on iOS; but even if you're not an original fan of the series, if you've got the cash, Dead Space is arguably the best console-quality game available in the App Store to date.
Dead Space for iPhone [iTunes] - $6.99
Dead Space for iPad [iTunes] - $9.99