EA Mobile launches its 2011 iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad portfolio with Dead Space, an ambitious game that combines impressive visuals with hard-hitting gameplay. It's a bold start to the new year that signals the changing tides of iOS gaming.
A far cry from the cutesy physics puzzlers and casual word games that have dominated the charts month after month, Dead Space is blockbuster gaming - intense action, cutting-edge graphics, and features built with hardcore gamers specifically in mind.
Developer Iron Monkey Studios, the same group responsible for the excellent Mirror's Edge and Need for Speed: SHIFT, not only have the expectations of franchise fans on their shoulders, but also the added pressure of making a complex survival-horror game work on a touchscreen portable.
The decision against on-rails
It's a tall order for the Australian development studio and producer Jarrad Trudgen admitted via phone ahead of the game's late January release. "We always knew that making survival-horror work on the device would be challenging. Our goal has been to make a fully-featured console-like experience and that's tough to do on the touchscreen."
Chief among the concerns when designing Dead Space for iOS were the controls. "No doubt about it, controls are the biggest challenge with a game like this," Trudgen echoed. In a hands-on preview we published in late December, the controls were highlighted as a potential sticking point - something Trudgen was eager to discuss.
"We prototyped a lot of different control schemes. At one point, we even attempted to automated movement, but it just didn't work." In other words, Dead Space for iPhone was being considered as an on-rails shooter, but the concept was scratched in favour of a full third-person over-the-shoulder action title in line with the console instalments.
Faithfulness to the franchise
"There was also a suggestion to place buttons on the screen, though we eliminated them because they obscured your view," Trudgen explained. "Quite honestly, it was also a matter of consistency. Using virtual buttons would have abandoned the minimal contextual interface for which Dead Space is well known."
Ensuring this iOS iteration felt like a natural extension of the franchise was a high priority for Iron Monkey in so much that they collaborated with Visceral Games, the developer that created the series. "One of the original writers of Dead Space helped us on the project," Trudgen pointed out.
The commitment to authenticity extended further. "There was a real focus on sound design - it's so vital to the horror experience. We accessed the sound library from the original game."
Optimisation for older devices
High quality graphics and audio sound great to hardcore gamers, but it presents a problem for those with older devices. "We spent a lot of time optimising for older devices and I was personally surprised by how much we were able to preserve on older handsets - we didn't have to cut any features." Of course, Trudgen admitted that the visual fidelity differs depending on your device.
Regardless of whether you have an iPhone 4 or ageing iPod touch, Trudgen insisted that the game ought to be treated like a console game. "Like any horror game, it's a matter of getting out of it what you put in. I'd encourage sitting down with it like you would a scary movie or console game to get the most out of it. You're not going to think it's all that intense if you're playing on a bumpy bus."
"We've packed a lot into the game," Trudgen said proudly. "I recommend playing the game to completion because you gain access to a lot of content upon finishing the campaign: new game+, hard mode, concept art, and a bonus for Dead Space 2 if you get the console game."
Thanks to Jarrad for taking the time to answer our questions. Dead Space will be available for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad January 25; no price has yet been announced.