What would you get if you created a game out of an amalgamation of some of the most revered science-fiction titles, of various media, from the past 20 years? As it turns out, it looks and plays something like EA Redwood Shore's latest survival-horror game, Dead Space. With an Alien-esque storyline, Flood-like enemies, Rapture-style environment, Marcus-Fenix-would-be-proud gore, and a speck of Jedi thrown in for good measure, Dead Space takes a near dead horse and gives it a little bit of a pick-me-up. Though the game's premise may not be anything novel, and its twists and scripted sequences fall fairly short of surprising, it's in the execution and overall gameplay where Dead Space is an enthralling sci-fi game—one that packs some oops-I-crapped-my-pants moments.
A couple of hundred years in the future the human race is mining for precious minerals on faraway planets, using giant ships called 'planet crackers.' As it so happens, one of these planet crackers, the USG Ishimura, is extracting some-such precious minerals when there is a total communications blackout. Alas, Dead Space is a horror game, so from your character's point of view, there's no revelation that this isn't a simple technical problem. In fact, as luck would have it, your repair team's shuttle crashes into the Ishimura, leaving everyone but two other team members, along with yourself, as survivors of an ambush by mutated Ishimura inhabitants.
EA Redwood Shores' story follows that familiar exposition of routine-mission-gone-wrong, where your new objective as C.E.C engineer Isaak Clarke is to survive a spawning infection that has taken over the ship, known as the Necromorphs, and to 'get the hell of there.' Screw fixing any communications array, you're on the Ishimura to survive—well, Isaak does have a personal mission to find a former love who was stationed on the ship, but, in the end, the storyline is more ancillary than anything. Through the 13-chapter single-player experience, you go through the usual sci-fi horror moments of uncovering what happened to the crew through artifacts (audio, video and texts) strewn throughout the ship; find materials to fix trams, shuttles, shields and the like; fight giant alien monstrosities; and, ultimately, 'escape'—or do you...
Really, the story is nothing new to the horror genre; even most of the plot twists you'll see from a mile away. What's surprising, however, is no matter how expected or recycled some of the suspense and action moments may be, everything fits together and is complimented by moments of shivers and yelps when you catch silhouettes and shadowy figures out of the corner of your eye or off in the distance. There are some story elements that get lost in the overall theme of survival—most of the 'big' moments come in big, gluttonous revelations, rather than gradually—but they're hardly disappointing. You come away from your first round with the game wanting to replay it not only because you unlock backstory texts and other goodies, which enrich the universe if only by a little, but because the gameplay makes Dead Space entertaining and different to an extent.
It wouldn't be a survival-horror game if there weren't some tweak on combat: be it a limited amount of ammunition, big show-off weapons, or special powers—luckily, Dead Space caters to all of the above. Movement is classically slow, but walking around the ship allows you opportunity to find all-important schematics, which are used to build weapons, items and armor at on-board shops, as well as nodes, which are used to upgrade your Rig (armor/spacesuit), weapons and accessories. The selection of weapons themselves fit well into the genre as they are a great mix of the familiar (flamethrower, assault rifle, etc.) and futuristic ingenuity (a radial saw-spitting mining tool, a high-powered concussion gun and others).
While ammunition for any of the four out of seven weapons you can carry at one time may not be too scarce on the default difficulty—it doesn't make much sense why the human mutants are carrying ammo, health packs and money with them—there is definitely an incentive to replay the game at its hardest setting, with only the pistol derivative. Playing through a second time also allows you a chance to play more with your Kinesis and Stasis gadgetry, which play strategic roles not only in navigating the levels, but defeating your enemies.
Early on in the game you are given the aforementioned tools which are used to pick up large and heavy objects with a beam of magnetic-like energy—similar to something like the force in the Star Wars universe—or slow things down, respectively. While both are handy in fixing easy puzzles on the Ishimura, they're more fun and useful in dispatching enemies—literally. EA Redwood Shores has instituted what they call 'strategic dismemberment.' Basically, instead of simply shooting your supernatural foe in the head or blanketing them with powerful weapons, you'll need to pick off their limbs to take them down—again, literally. By using a combination of the stasis device to slow down a mutated worker, and the kinesis tool to pick up a fan blade to use as a projectile, you can have more fun chopping off limbs than you could with some of the weapons at your disposal. Body parts may not explode like Epic titles, but targeting limbs for a purpose is satisfyingly gruesome here.
Essentially, aside from a somewhat underdeveloped story, nonsensical loot drops, and predictable moments, there's not much holding Dead Space back from being an intense thriller, especially when the lights are turned off and the sound is cranked up. Item management is a bit of a pain, and there's no efficient way of healing yourself, but those are circumstance to the in-game focus. When Dead Space was announced, there was speculation and confusion as the developers revealed that there wouldn't be a way to pause the game—which turns out to be only partially true. Everything from upgrading your inventory, to using and dropping items, to buying equipment and checking on your objectives are all handled in real time with either holographic heads-up displays projected from your suit or workstations. Having to do everything in real time only adds to the suspense and creates moments of desperation as you handle nearly everything on-the-fly. If things get too crazy, however, you can always hit the Start button and take a breather.
What does help differentiate Dead Space a bit are it's zero-gravity elements. Instead of keeping you in the ship with ample oxygen and orientation in your favor, you'll be treated to parts where you have to go outside of your artificial environment and into Space. When you enter a vacuum, it's obvious: a sound of decompression will accompany a timer that pops up just off of your shoulder, counting down how much time you can spend without having to find more oxygen. Space-walks stay fairly true to the physics of vacuums where bits of appendages and scrap will float lifelessly, sounds are little more than muddled thuds and concussions, and the kinetic energy of your flamethrower is useless. Things get more interesting when you have to jump through Space in zero-G portions, either to restart an important part of the ship, or when playing a zero-G basketball mini-game. Zero-G jumps comprise only a small amount of gameplay, but they work well and look natural.
In reality, Dead Space's story won't win any awards—it's one which we've seen, played or even read about before and for awhile now. A less-than-novel story, however, does very little to distract from the overall experience; it basically provides a context for well-executed gameplay elements. Creepy, disturbing screams, songs and random noises complement a suspenseful soundtrack, outshining decent voice-acting. But things are just as good, if not better, on the visual side of game. There isn't much difference amongst the character models, and you'll see the same kinds of enemies over and over again, but loads of satisfying gore, detailed textures, and varied level design make up for seeing the same alien babies every couple of rooms.
While it's not perfect—item management, and control issues with trying to aim asteroid-destroying cannons, are just a few nitpicks—Dead Space is certainly one of the most solid, satisfying games of the year. Entertaining and scary elements make up a game that is familiar in its theme and within its genre, but it's also a title that has destructive weaponry, a necessity for skilled gunplay, and zero-G believability.
Sawying off alien legs, independently, with a projectable saw-blade...'nuff said
Blowing off alien legs, independently, with high-powered concussive energy...'nuff said
Picking off alien legs, independently, with charged-up energy released in a powerful burst...'nuff said
...oh, and the game looks great, sounds scary, and Space is believable
Oh, hell no:
Annoying shoot-those-asteroids-with-poorly-manipulated-cannons sections
Too many 'Ah-ha' story moments, not enough, 'oooohhhh, I get it' ones