Those who follow the video game business know that it will be a long time before we get another season like Fall 2007. This time last year, gamers were literally buried under best-selling A-list projects, including BioShock, Mass Effect, Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, Rock Band and Portal. By comparison, this year is shaping up to be solid, if unexceptional, with few break-out hits.
The lack of competition may be one reason why one of the most anticipated new games right now is not a sequel, spin-off, brand extension or movie tie-in. It's EA's scary sci-fi shooter, Dead Space. After playing through the 16-plus hour campaign, I can also say it's easily one of the best games of the year.
A slow buzz has been building on this one for a while, and has been intensified by a strong showing at this year's E3 video game trade show. But the reason the game scored so well with critics has little to do with the setting or plot. The game is, to be diplomatic, an homage to many threads of pop-culture influence, from Alien to Doom to Resident Evil to H.P. Lovecraft, and the claustrophobic space station interior-design aesthetic has been done to death in movies and games for decades.
Instead, what makes Dead Space stand out from the crowd is its level of polish. It's shocking that in a multibillion-dollar industry, where big games can gross as much as Hollywood movies, even high-profile titles can be filled with awkward jumps to prerecorded cutscenes, missed dialog cues, wonky controls, tons of tiny bugs and mistakes, and a general lack of attention to detail that would be unacceptable in a direct-to-cable low-budget flick (some recent offenders include Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Saints Row 2, and Alone in the Dark)
Instead, every inch of Dead Space feels like it's been checked and rechecked, from the lighting to the in-game menus to the voiceovers. The controls are easily the best implementation of the third-person over-the-shoulder view we've ever experienced. Poor controls pull you out of the game experience faster than anything else, and it's the ultimate compliment to say that Dead Space's controls just "feel right."
Of course, this violent M-rated action/adventure isn't for everyone (and about halfway through, it really starts padding the plot for running time--I'd rather have a solid six-hour game than a plodding 12-hour one), but we hope it will inspire other game makers to spend more time polishing and finalizing their products--at least on the level of a made-for-TV Sci-Fi Channel movie.