The Apex of Survival Horror
Ever since Dead Space was demoed at EA’s E3 2008 presentation, I was very excited to see how the final product was going to turn out. Well folks, I am happy to report that it is a polished, cinematic experience that will rival just a handful of other titles for 2008’s game of the year.
Dead Space is an incredibly atmospheric title. It is the kind of game that transcends the medium, lending clout to claims that video games, like film, are more than just entertainment. The artists at EA Redwood Shores have put together a title that expertly combines visual complexity, aural excellence, and an intense, visceral gameplay experience that simply should not be missed. Do yourself a favor this Halloween: pick up a copy of Dead Space, call up some friends, pop some corn, and hold on for dear life.
Dead Space follows the exploits of Engineer Isaac Clarke and a couple key crew members of the USG Killion. The Killion and her crew were called in to help with routine repairs of the USG Ishimura, the largest and most successful “Planet Cracker” (deep space mining vessel) in the Concordance Extraction Corporation’s (C.E.C.) fleet. However, there is more to this repair run than initially suspected. It turns out the Comms System and mechanicals aren’t the only problems the Ishimura is experiencing. A relic found on the surface of Aegis 7, the planet being mined, has wreaked havoc among the transient human colony and, subsequently, the Ishimura crew. In fact, the entire operation has been destroyed by an alien, viral-like life form that has transformed the humans into Necromorphs (horribly disfigured drones that serve only to feed dead flesh to a larger sentient being).
This is the background that sets the stage for Isaac’s mission. After crash-landing onto the Ishimura, it is up to Isaac, as well as the Killion’s Captain and the first mate, to get the Ishimura back to working order and destroy the Necromorphic taint – a lofty goal that will be nearly impossible to attain. You’re their only hope; try to keep your nerves in check and your aim true.
The story in Dead Space was thoroughly enjoyable. It didn’t buck with horror film conventions, but it certainly lives up to the most engaging films of that genre. In fact, the game feels like a mix between Ridley Scott’s Alien and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. In order to reinforce that feeling, the team at EA Redwood Shores spent a lot of time perfecting the visuals and audio experience. The environments of Dead Space are truly frightening.
The visuals in Dead Space are second to none. There is nary a glitch to be found, the use of shadows and lighting is the best I’ve ever seen, and the detailed environments make it feel as if you were marooned on a real spacecraft. The game runs extremely smoothly; there are never any framerate hiccups to foul the cinematic experience. The use of different kinds of lighting as well as shadows keeps players on the edge of their seats. Upon entering a room, often Necromorph shadows can be spotted around a distant corner or in a vent, hinting at the danger to come. However, enemies can come from anywhere, and, ultimately, shadows can be misleading; a feint for a flanking attack. Environments like the medical deck, the exterior of the ship’s breached hull, the dangerous, tight passageways that communicate one room to the next, and the window-laden atrium are all breathtaking and will have you looking for a change of underwear. The only modest complaint I could make about the visuals is the rather lackluster initial in-engine cinematic; the characters look quite stiff and artificial. But this lasts only a minute or two, and I’m mentioning it only to bring up some kind of counterpoint.
Combine the pristine visuals with the best music, ambient sounds, and voice over work around and you’ve got the definitive scare. Truly, this is the scariest game I’ve ever heard. The music heightens the experience with screeching violins and a brooding air. Ambient sounds such as distant screams, the strident clang of an unseen falling pipe, blood-filled gurgling from nasty beasties, and the satisfying rapport of mining-tools-turned-to-armament bring players right into the game. The audio presentation is nearly perfect, but it does mildly suffer from the occasional distortion of conversations. I’m not talking about the intentional use of interference by the developers across Comms equipment, but rather distortion that can occur when turning or moving away from a character. It seems as though the technical mechanic used to convey distance through sound is in need of a patch. Otherwise, the sound in Dead Space is amazing, and the voice actors did a great job of portraying their roles.
Gameplay consists of travelling to various zones of the ship where your engineering skills are needed, clearing out a ton of very scary Necromorphs, and completing a series of requisite objectives and their sub-objectives. Along the way, players will find weapon, suit, and item schematics that can be downloaded to the ATM-like virtual stores that allow players to buy essential goods with the credits found in footlockers and, inexplicably, on the corpses of dismembered Necromorphs.
I say dismembered because that is the only way to bring down the enemies. A simple shot to the chest or even the severing of a head is not enough. Indeed, the Necromorphs may be initially slowed by the loss of their legs, but they will find a way to chase you with just their arms. That means you’ll have to systematically shave off the majority of their limbs so they quickly bleed out; later on, that’s not even enough. Thankfully, Isaac has a host of weapons and powers that can get the job done.
Weapons in Dead Space are supposedly, for the most part, makeshift armaments from everyday engineering tools. However, they are quite adept at stopping Necromorphs in their tracks. Isaac has access to seven weapons and two powers in all. Some of the weapons include the Plasma Cutter (your all-purpose limb-lopping pistol-like bolt cutter), the Ripper (a flesh-hungry circular saw), and the Force Gun (a cone of sonic death that works even better on humanoids than it does on granitic silicates), plus four others that are equally lethal.
All weapons also have a secondary function. For example, the Line Gun will not only send out a wide beam of appendage-severing plasma; it also doubles as a timed mine launcher that does radial damage to your foes. In all, combat controls in Dead Space are exactly what you’d expect from a third-person shooter; they are instinctive and accurate. The only missing function I longed for was a 180 degree quick-turn. Often, baddies will easily be able to get blows in behind you, and a quick-turn button would have been ideal.
In addition to these weapons, Isaac Clarke has access to stasis and kinesis powers, which are controlled by his rig (suit). Stasis powers allow players to slow down both objects and enemies, making it easier to advance. Similarly, kinesis powers allow players to move both objects and enemies by encompassing the target in a force field. Both these powers are used throughout the game to solve many minor puzzles and help you wade through the onslaught of Necromorphs.
Also, your rig will shield you from the elements by providing a limited supply of oxygen to breathe whilst in the vacuum of space and magnetized boots for walking in zero-G environments. The game is full of short sequences that take advantage of these environmental scenarios. Thankfully, they never become cumbersome because of their brevity and interspersed, story-driven inclusion. These elements could have spoiled gameplay if they were used too frequently, but instead they really help to enhance it.
Furthermore, weapons, rigs, and powers can all be enhanced through work benches scattered throughout the various zones. By adding power nodes to their equipment, players will be able to augment the Nano-circuitry, thus increasing capacity, damage, reload times, hit points, air supply, etc. This adds a mild RPG-like character enhancement mechanic that was quite enjoyable.
I also really enjoyed the menu organization and interface. This game is extremely player-friendly. Dead Space does away with a traditional menu HUD in favor of a more cinematic approach. Isaac’s health and stasis meters are clearly visible on the back of his rig, and the detailed, Metroid Prime-like 3D maps and personal inventory pop up in front of him as if he was accessing a computer; players can still progress through the game while using these menus. Also, progressing in Dead Space is a breeze thanks to the mapping tool. At any time, players can make a glowing path show up; this is tied to the selected objective, and it will illuminate the way. That means there’s no wasted time hunting for the path, which allows players to concentrate on the engrossing gameplay and story. Obtaining information of all sorts in Dead Space is both organic and intuitive.
Dead Space is a masterful title that is sure to scare the crap out of you. Plus, there are three modes of difficulty, so this is an experience that casual and hardcore gamers alike simply cannot miss. This is a highly polished and well-crafted title that transcends standard video gaming. Simply put, it is one of the best games I’ve ever played.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.9 Graphics
Absolutely superb! The initial in-engine cinematic was the only blemish. 4.4 Control
Exactly what you would expect from third-person shooter mechanic. However, a quick-turn function is sorely missing. 4.9 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The best audio presentation I’ve ever heard. The infrequent distortion of sound during conversations is the only thing holding it back from a perfect score. 4.8 Play Value
If you can handle the fright-fest, this is a gaming experience you simply can’t miss! 4.7 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.