Some insight into Dead Space control problems

— 10:58 AM on December 15, 2008

My last post on mouse and control issues in Dead Space brought in lots of advice, including encouragement to try things (like disabling vsync) that had helped some folks improve the mouse control on their systems. I did, in fact, try most of the common remedies discussed online early on in troubleshooting the problem, before coming to the conclusion that the game's mouse-and-keyboard control scheme is fundamentally broken. After spending some more time with the problem, I still believe the game's controls are broken, but I do have some insights about how they're broken—and some possible workarounds that might help.

We should begin by classifying the several Dead Space control pathologies, since they are related but somewhat separate.

  • In the game's menus, mouse pointer movement is strangely imprecise and feels "floaty," as many folks have described it. Just setting up options and starting the game can be a chore.

  • In the game itself, mouse control is both imprecise and also slow. Cranking up the game's mouse sensitivity slider to the highest setting may help somewhat, and using a high-DPI mouse may help, too. But you may still find yourself "rowing" the mouse across the desk multiple times in order to turn around.

  • Worse yet, mouse movement becomes even slower if you are pressing a W/A/S/D movement key or if you have your character in "aim mode" in the game. The gap between regular sensitivity and movement/aim-mode sensitivity seems to vary inconsistently while playing and makes predictable movement almost impossible.

For me, the final problem was really the last straw, since I realized that none of the various troubleshooting measures recommended online were any help for this particular problem. I tried all sorts of things—disabling vsync, forcing on triple-buffering, setting the Nvidia graphics drivers to allow the GPU to render more than three frames ahead, dropping to a lower screen resolution, and using a very fast mouse—in various combinations, but none of them resolved this disconnect. In fact, they might have made it worse.

I did listen to those of you who said the game worked well for you, though, including my friend Andy, who had played through the whole game on his own PC without issue after disabling vsync and forcing on triple-buffering. Curious to see the game working well, I tried it out on his system, and sure enough, it worked much better than it did on my GPU test rig. His system is pretty nice, with a Radeon HD 4870 X2 and a 65nm Core 2 processor, but it's not quite as fast as my Core i7-965 Extreme-based GPU test rig with dual GeForce GTX 260s. Yet his PC ran the game pretty well, with very little difference between aim-mode and regular mouse sensitivity.

This discovery launched another round of troubleshooting. I came home and fired up my second test rig, with a Radeon HD 4870 X2 and a Core i7-965 Extreme, to see if using a different video card was somehow the key to the control problems. At first, the Radeon-based system seemed to be a night-and-day improvement. Controls were fluid and responsive with only vsync disabled, even without forcing on triple-buffering. However, as I played through the game, I realized that the responsiveness of the controls and the disconnect between aim-mode and regular controls both seemed to vary depending on the situation. Enter a large room and scan for baddies, and control seems great. Walk into a small bathroom on the ship or turn and face a corner, and the controls would slow considerably.

Slowly but surely, a little light bulb icon pulsed to life above my head. Could it be that the problem was worse when the video card was doing less work, when it was rendering the game too quickly?

I fired up FRAPS to get a frame-rate counter and tested my theory. Right away, I noticed that frame rates in the problem areas were approaching 180 frames per second, while open areas with smoother controls ran closer to 120 FPS or less. This was at 1920x1200 resolution on the Radeon test rig. Switching up to 2560x1600 slowed frame rates a little, and control improved as a result.

To further confirm the problem, I ran FRAPS on the GeForce-based test system and gave it a shot. Sure enough, at 1680x1050, frate rates were ranging well beyond 200 FPS, and again, the controls were most pathological where the FPS counter was highest. Solving the problem with the GTX 260s was tough, however. I tried going to 2560x1600 resolution and forcing on 16X anisotropic filtering and 16X AA in the Nvidia control panel, but the AA settings didn't seem to work.  Even aniso and high res didn't prevent FPS spikes into the 180-200 FPS range. Finally, I disabled SLI, effectively dropping back to a single GeForce GTX 260, and BAM—fixed. Frame rates settled into 60-90 FPS territory, and the game's controls worked effectively.

Let me explain what I mean by that. Even when using my older, lower-DPI mouse, the sensitivity and responsiveness were excellent. I could turn my character around with the flick of a wrist when needed. On top of that, the controls didn't become any slower when I pressed a movement key. The mouse sensitivity in aim mode may have been a little bit slower, but not by much. The difference wasn't so great I couldn't adjust easily, and heck, it might be as the game designers intended to enhance precision. Suddenly, the game wasn't just playable but earnestly enjoyable, and I found myself playing through level one in a single sitting.

So the worst problems, it seems, happen when your PC is actually too fast. Crazy.

Of course, the game's developers likely didn't run into this problem on any of the consoles. And yes, I was more likely than most to encounter this problem in a really nasty way, given the sort of hardware I was packing. But none of this changes the fact that the game's controls are basically broken on the PC platform. The easiest workaround is to make sure you use sufficiently demanding graphical settings to keep frame rates from getting too high. However, this fix is only partial, because frame rates will vary as you play the game. Every once in a while, you'll enter an elevator or other tight space, the FPS counter will spike, and the mouse response will slow down.

Still, this is the most effective fix I've found, and it has rescued an almost terminally ill PC port for me.

Another avenue for addressing this problem, strangely enough, is to enable vsync in the game itself. Doing this will lock frame rates at 30 FPS, according to FRAPS, and it will unfortunately make mouse control in the game's initial menus incredibly over-sensitive and "floaty." However, this fix makes the in-game mouse control work well, with enough sensitivity that you may want to turn down the slider some, even with an older mouse. And controls are very consistent with this vsync frame-rate cap in place. The obvious drawback here is the locked 30 FPS refresh rate, which looks slow and not especially smooth to my eye. Still, this may be the only consistently effective fix, especially for those folks with a faster graphics card and a relatively low monitor resolution like 1680x1050.

Seems to me like EA could issue a patch that caps Dead Space's frame rate at something like 60-70 FPS and save us all a lot of grief. Hasn't happened yet, though. If you're having problems with the controls in the game, you might try one of my remedies for slowing things down.  Your PC might just be too fast for its own good.

Update:  Voila!  As a couple of commenters have noted, enabling vsync in the Nvidia drivers appears to lock frame rates at 60 FPS, which is pretty much a best-of-all-worlds fix.  The menus and the game controls both work nicely.  With vsync forced on through the Nvidia drivers, it doesn't appear to matter what the vsync setting in the game is; I'm seeing 60 FPS either way.   Even SLI works perfectly.

Apparently, you end up with that 30 FPS cap, sluggishness, and imprecise mouse control in menus if you have vsync set to follow the application setting in the drivers (or perhaps forced off) and then have vsync enabled in the game.

Frustratingly, forcing on vsync in the AMD drivers appears to have no effect, so this fix won't work for half of us.

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