Now that I’ve exiled Mass Effect 2 from my life I’m back with Dead Space and I forgot how tense it can be.  The whole game is tension and release, with your heart racing near the end of a level and a huge exhale as you board the tram when its time to move on.  It is so tense that I generally can’t play more than a stage at a time, and today when I was done I booted up the Blur beta just to bring myself down from the near-heart attack.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed that seem to contribute to the game that increase the tention to a level where it is almost unplayable:

  • Strobe lights:  The game is dark and almost every stage  has some kind of broken lighting system blaring flashing lights at you
  • Darkness in general.  The game is dark.
  • Limited ammo- You are constantly hunting for more weapons, and constantly scared that you’re going to run out.  The monster design is pretty corny, but when some big tentacled freak is running at you and you just ran out of bullets, watch out.
  • Delayed response. Reloading your weapon, performing a melee attack, switching weapons- all of these things take enough time to crank up the tension.
  • Sound design:  There are sounds coming from the ship at all times.  Collapsing parts, screaming people, etc.  In 5.1 you can hear it all around you, but you’re never quite sure where.
  • Shakey cam- on certain stages the ship is literally shaking apart and the game presents this as a constantly vibrating and shaking camera.  This isn’t the quick whip-around sci-fi of Firefly or Battlestar Galactica but just vibration.  It was so disorienting I was starting to get nauseous.
  • Uncertainty.  While the game is generally really good at telegraphic what exactly you should be doing, a lot of puzzles demand that you make use of the environment in ways that aren’t necessarily expected.  It can take a while to realize just what you’re supposed to be doing.  Of course this could just be me.
  • Live inventory- you don’t pause the game to go through your inventory.  Your character brings it up in front of him in real time, and god help you if you try to do so when there’s an enemy in the room.  Another push and pull between surviving and trying to stay one step ahead of things.
  • Architecture- not only are the hallways and rooms of the Ishimura cramped but they’re filled with detritus.  On top of that the walls themselves have a tiered look that makes them seem even more intrusive than they are.  They all seem to be shooting out at you.
  • This may be the worst one of all, and in a way it is due to the how I play games: The constant question of whether or not I’m making the right choices. When it comes to ammo and armor, purchasing and selling goods at the store, and which weapons I should be taking with me, I’m constantly second guessing myself, and the scarcity of resources makes this a real challenge.

Of course, there’s always the Zen Garden should things go too far.

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