Name: Dead Space
Genre: Survival Horror
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC (Reviewed for PlayStation 3)
Watch the video review.
Dead Space is a bold game, through and through. It launched against high-profile sequels in an already busy holiday season, and prides itself on frights, even though the Survival Horror genre has grown tired over the years. It would be an understatement to say that it would be a task within itself to compete successfully this holiday season, and it had a lot of proving to do, as well as a genre to save. Luckily, the game’s polish and production values are definitely deserving of acclaim, and it offers enough frights to justify a purchase for anyone remotely interested.
Dead Space tells the story of Isaac Clarke, a space engineer who travels with a crew to the USG Ishimura, a “Planet Cracker” class ship that extracts valuable materials by literally cracking planets apart. Upon arriving, Isaac’s ship is struck by debris and crashes into the Ishimura, to reveal that the vessel has been taken over by an alien race known as the Necromorphs. It isn’t long before it is revealed that Isaac has ulterior motives for accepting this mission, as his girlfriend, Nicole, was on board. The story is told without cut scenes, through voice communications as well as audio, video, and text logs found throughout the game. Players rarely lose control of Clarke, and the game’s story is told effectively, with plenty of twists and turns.
As said by just about every preview for the game, it is a true survival horror experience. Unlike Resident Evil 4, which exchanged its frights for fights, Dead Space is a truly frightening game. It still has its share of corpses coming to life and creatures crashing through windows, but manages to stay fresh despite these clichés. Ammunition and health are scarce, and rationing supplies is the only ways to survive. It isn’t uncommon to be limping through the halls, down to your last few rounds and praying that there is a crate of supplies nearby. Automated stores populate several rooms of the Ishimura, allowing players to purchase items and weapons, as well as buying enhanced suits. Workbenches are usually not too far away, and give Isaac a chance to upgrade his weapons and abilities with Power Nodes found throughout the ship. There’s a huge amount of customization and plenty of different ways to play through the game depending on how you spend your money and Nodes.
Even though you can buy different weapons, none of them are completely necessary, and the game could be played through effectively with just the Plasma Cutter, Isaac’s default weapon. There are plenty of puzzles during the game that use the different abilities picked up early on, like a Stasis Module, which can be used to slow rotating fan blades and freeze defective doors open, and his Kinesis Module, which can move objects around like the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2. These are used in many ways in the game, but mostly in the zero-gravity portions, which are intrinsically disorienting, but executed exceptionally.
He also comes equipped with a navigational device, which can be activated with the right stick, and draws a line on the ground in the direction of the next objective. This helps prevent the player from ever becoming lost, even when backtracking is required. That said, I found myself using it after nearly every battle, to the point where I was hoping to find a way to leave it permanently activated. The ship’s layout is large and confusing, and the possibility of running into a room full of enemies and wasting precious supplies became something I couldn’t risk later in the game.
That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its share of combat. In fact, Dead Space is completely filled with it, but it’s presented differently than most survival horror titles. The fear in the large scale battles comes from the enemies themselves, the Necromorphs, which are twisted, disgusting, and different than most other creatures in gaming. Removing their head does little to slow them down, and it requires precise strikes to maim them, cutting off their limbs until they are completely incapacitated. Early in the game it is a game within itself to discover their individual weaknesses, but battles become fairly rhythmic by the end of the game. Depending on the amount of enemies you’re facing, which oftentimes can become overwhelming, you might retreat a bit, take off a few legs, slow some using your Stasis ability, or throw some explosive tanks at them using your telekinetic module. That’s not to say it isn’t fun, but once the Necromorphs are “figured out” they are much less frightening, and more variation would have helped. One part of the game that was a little bothersome was that enemies drop items when they die. This fits the story, in a way, because the Necromorphs can infect human bodies, but it is a “tell” as to when the enemy is dead. They are so strange looking one of the best parts is the mystery in their anatomy and mortality, but once they drop a health pack they are dead, so the mystery is removed entirely.
Dead Space’s presentation might be its high point. From beginning to end, every aspect of the game is as polished as I’ve ever seen in a title. Visually, the game reaches to heights mostly untouched. The framerate stays solid even during the most chaotic portions, and there are relatively few graphical pops or glitches. Enemies are rendered exceptionally well, and Isaac himself looks simply stunning. Textures are universally phenomenal, and the game’s graphics are some of the best in gaming. The environments are brilliant and surprisingly varied, so no section of the Ishimura looks too much like another.
Sound is also approaching perfection, and EA has created an immersion experience to rival BioShock. Enemy’s roars can send chills up your spine, and the music is dynamic and changes depending on the situation to further enhance the mood. The game is without a heads up display (HUD), and it helps create an even better sense of immersion. The inventory screen and map are projected in front of Isaac on holographic screens, as is objective information. Remaining ammo is shown on the weapon itself and Isaac’s Health Meter is built into his suit, as well as your remaining Stasis charge. Never before has so much effort been put into creating an interface-less experience and it was executed flawlessly.
Dead Space is genuinely frightening, and should keep most gamers on the edge of their seat for at least eight to ten hours of gameplay time. After completing the game, a New Game + option is unlocked, allowing players to restart the game with all of their upgrades and equipment. This feature could be extremely fun, but the option to change the difficulty setting is absent, which makes it a little too easy, and misses the point of New Game +. If they wanted to lock out Trophies on the second play through that would be fine, but allowing players to replay on a higher difficulty with a full inventory would have been a great addition to the game. More than anything, the game’s ending should be applauded for being a conclusive finale that should satisfy gamers while leaving the door wide open for a sequel. EA has not only built themselves one of the scariest and prettiest games of the year, but created a thrilling and wonderful start to a new series. Dead Space might not be the masterpiece that BioShock was, but it definitely sets a bar for immersion and presentation that might not be hurdled for some years to come.