Scary Good Lighting

From time to time a game comes along that simply radiates unconditional love, technical understanding, and pure commitment towards the craft and the medium in a way that borderlines magic, for the lack of a better word. For me, the first Dead Space by Visceral Games was one of those titles and the sequel Dead Space 2, released three years later, pushes even further the brilliance of the first one, at least technology-wise.

If a survival horror game, which Dead Space games very much are, lives or dies by something, it’s the way it handles the lighting. It was indeed the lighting and the semi-dynamic nature of it that made, for instance, the original Doom so effective at the time. Without it, we wouldn’t reminisce Doom the half we do now, that’s for sure.

So, paradoxically, it takes credible lighting to convey credible darkness. And it’s the inherent fear of the dark in all of us that renders darkness so useful and integral to fear-inducing settings: We need to see our surroundings in order to survive, and we fear more than anything our own demise. It’s as primal as that.

Luckily, of all the cool aspects and details both Dead Space games share, above all is the overall lighting scheme, which is simply put excellent. Yes, Dead Space games don’t include any sophisticated real-time radiosity or ambient occlusion solutions, but the point is Dead Space games do the basic stuff exceedingly well with solid technology and proper art direction.

What strikes me the most about the lighting is the degree at which the player can interact with it, meaning almost every light source that looks moveable is indeed moveable. It really is amazing to pick up, for instance, a light emitting flashlight from the scenery that would be in all probability a static object in some other game. In fact, I barely believed my eyes when I did so at the first time and saw how the flashlight kept illuminating and casting well-defined shadows onto the environment, even if it was only a random prop laying around. It’s exactly this kind of attention to detail and consistency that raise a game above the mediocrity.

Then there are lens flares, especially in Dead Space 2, that make one’s eyes water out of pure visual enjoyment. Lens flares can be a distraction when done wrong, but Dead Space 2 pretty much nails the use of them. There are number of nice little touches everywhere in the game, such as the delicate light-streak on the front of the helmet that is visible only from certain angles. One scene in particular in which the lens flares are employed to “blind” the player is really impressive, which is further enhanced with a subtle, barely noticable depth-of-field effect. Beautiful and effective.

And everything look so effortless for the graphics engine to deal with, which is especially true with Dead Space 2 which comes across as one of the most optimized PC games I’ve seen for some time. It seems to escape many developers that beauty and performance goes hand in hand when dealing with real-time imagery, and optimization is definitely something to not overlook. Visceral Games has proven to not to be one of those developers.