Dead Space iPhone preview: Small-scale scares

EA hopes to tie together the events of the first Dead Space game with those of Dead Space 2, the sequel set to launch in January, and it's looking to accomplish this with ... well, yes, with the poorly received downloadable Dead Space: Ignition. But also with another Dead Space game! Instead of an animated motion comic with minigames, Dead Space on the iPhone is a 3D game with all of the gusto and flair of its console brethren. This thing looks and plays fantastically -- at least, I thought so after a brief demo at a recent downtown San Francisco event.

My demo opened up with Isaac aboard a speeding train in a dim, surprisingly blue tunnel. He's trying to get from Point A to Point B (what is it with this guy and traveling by train?) and, while stuck in the confines of a single train car, is forced to battle back wave after wave of Necromorphs. Immediately, I was at a loss. There was no page detailing controls and with no rep around to help clear my confusion, I just started tapping various things on the screen. Turns out, the controls are pretty intuitive.

Movement is handled via the same virtual analog stick scheme you've seen in other games, but environmental interaction and Isaac's various abilities, including Stasis, are all handled through taps. Want to use Stasis? Tap the meter on Isaac's back. Got that Necromorph lined up just how you want 'em? Tap him and shoot. Need to make a quick escape? Tap Issac twice for a quick turnaround and hoof it out of there. For all of the complexity of what I was seeing on-screen, the controls were fairly basic and highly useful.

Want to use Stasis? Tap the meter on Isaac's back. Got that Necromorph lined up just how you want 'em? Tap him and shoot.

As for moving Isaac around, he felt sluggish -- though that's the byproduct of his tank-like movement and controls and not a problem specific to the iPhone game. Isaac handles just like he did in the console games, for better or worse. While it's easy to turn him around and bolt at the first sign of danger, there's still that nasty blindspot on the left side of the screen to deal most of the time. With my thumbs all over the small, 3.5" screen, it only compounded the difficulty of moving Isaac around effectively. As is common, the iPad version (note: It's not a combo "universal" app) should ameliorate the my-thumbs-are-in-the-way concern.

Still, I held my own and survived the harrowing train ride and arrived at the train station, the precursor to the mines and its network of lifts. I plodded through the first area where the train dropped me off and was immediately locked in a room during quarantine. I started to understand: this type of bottleneck wasn't so much a single event as it was a core game mechanic.

Combat generally occurred in bursts. I never stumbled upon a lone Necromorph nor did I accidentally crash a Necromorph mixer and surprise a bunch of lounging monsters (though that would've been totally awesome). Dead Space on iOS is a scripted series of events; clear a room, pass an invisible line, get attacked again. Rinse, repeat.

While the iPhone game looked (and played) very well relative to its console-born big brother, the excellent pacing was notably missing here. The console game's anxiety-producing moments were replaced with room-by-room bug hunts. With every new lift ride or room I'd enter, I knew it was only a matter of time before I had to fight some Necromorphs. It seemed like a ridiculous amount of combat, certainly more than the console game, and eroded the signature tension and fear of the franchise.

But it's an iPhone game and, considering that, Dead Space was damn impressive. For the bite-sized style of gaming popular on Apple's platforms, the repetitive mechanic may prove more palatable than the combination of combat and environmental puzzles favored by its console counterpart. It looked great, played great and, outside of some minor gameplay problems, the only concern I had walking away was that I wish I had played it on an iPad instead.

Dead Space will launch with separate apps on the iPhone and iPad sometime in January.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.