I’ve started playing Dead Space. I’m about 2 hours in. It’s really not my usual genre. I bought Resident Evil 4 for Wii and played maybe 30 minutes of it before deciding it’s not really for me. I also tried the RE5 demo and died on the first encounter and never went back to it. (By the way, throwing you right in the middle of a hard encounter, without giving you any training about how the game should be played – not just in terms of controls, but in encounter management – is really not the best way to showcase your game. I can only speculate that the demo was designed to reassure series fans that yes, it’s still Resident Evil, but for a newcomer, it’s not a friendly welcome at all.)
What I’ve realized with Dead Space is that while the designers of the game want to scare me, they don’t want to frustrate me, and so I can trust that even if monsters are regularly jumping out at me from dark corners, the tools I have at my disposal will be more than adequate to deal with them. Having this trust lets me relax (to some extent) and makes the game at least playable for me, if not exactly fun.
Having save-stations every five minutes or so certainly helps relieve some of the stress of playing. It probably also means I won’t quit the first time I die (no promises). On the other hand, it means that every five minutes the game is offering me an out: asking “Do you really want to keep going?” each time. And I’m finding that quite often my answer is “No, I’ve had enough for now”, and so I end up playing in half-hour chunks, which is quite short for me.
This stands in sharp contrast with Far Cry 2, which, while it employs a similar save system, I would often play in 2 hour or longer stretches. Partly this is because Far Cry forces you to pace yourself – the the (often lengthy) travel times between encounters are a built-in, mandatory respite from active combat – while Dead Space, even in it’s down times, when you’re looting a room, keeps showing you grisly, oppressive scenery (as opposed to the gorgeous expanses of Far Cry), and will even throw in a surprise encounter during the looting cycle on occasion.
Also, when it’s time for combat Far Cry gives you much more power to control the pacing of your experience. Generally, you choose when and how you’re going to engage enemies, whereas Dead Space will throw them in your space when it wants, and force you to deal with them immediately and on its terms.
But even given these obvious pacing differences, I believe that much of the difference in play-session length comes from the subtle differences in the save systems. Far Cry will offer a save-opportunity whenever an objective is complete (which is infrequent, and as often in the middle or start of a major encounter as at the end) and makes you seek out save-stations the rest of the time. Dead Space plops save-stations in front of you between encounters, (as well as between chapters). This means Dead Space is consistently offering you the chance to quit right when you’re most likely to take it – in the downtime between encounters when you’ve come down from your success in the most recent one, and are just starting to get concerned about the next one. To make matters worse, a lot of these happen at down-points in the story, while you’re in transit from one objective to the next, and so there’s little feeling of urgency to press onward in the narrative.
So all in all, I suspect that if Dead Space auto-saved aggressively (perhaps as often as the start of every room with a combat encounter), and offered manual saves less frequently (perhaps only in hub-rooms, instead of in corridors between objectives) I would play it in longer stretches. Granted, this breaks some of the survival-horror aspects. In particular, it would (unlike most games) have to implement a good archive of auto-saves to prevent players from getting irrecoverably into an un-winnable situation.