EA has decided to buck the trend this year; a company so used to spewing out sequels is now concentrating on starting new franchises, and EA Redwood Shores latest, Dead Space, has all the ingredients to become another big hit. With an animated comic book and animated movie already released, the markers have been firmly set; now itís time for the game to deliver. So far, itís on the right track. So few survival horror games throw you into space to fight aliens, thatís normally action territory; and while Dead Space is probably more action than horror, it effectively combines the two together to create something astonishing.
You take on the role of Isaac Clarke, an engineer sent out with his crew to answer a distress call from the massive deep space mining ship, the USG Ishimura. They think theyíre being sent to fix a routine mechanical failure, but itís never that simple. Upon arriving they find the crew dead with the majority turned into alien life forms known as Necromorphs. Dead Space takes a lot of influences from classic horror movies such as John Carpenterís The Thing, Event Horizon and Alien, and this is none more obvious than with the Necromorphs. They still maintain some of their human features, but theyíre vile creatures that manage to get even more grotesque as the game goes on. The designs are outlandish and highly inventive which just makes it a lot more enjoyable to blow them up. They come in all shapes and sizes and youíll need to adapt different strategies to defeat each one. It manages to keep you on your toes as you never know what kind of foe youíll be dealing with next.
The Necromorphs are also a lot harder to kill than your average enemy. They cannot be killed by conventional methods, so headshots are out of the question; instead youíll need to resort to using Strategic Dismemberment. This is the process of incapacitating enemies by shooting off their limbs or alien tentacles. Each enemy has a different area to attack so youíll need to differentiate your methods for each fight. The starting enemies can be taken down by shooting off their legs to drop them to the floor, and then finishing them off from there; whilst others will require a lot more thought, but I wonít spoil that here.
No space for the old ways.Dead Space lacks a traditional heads up display. Instead, every vital detail is located on and around Isaacís suit. Across his spine we can see his health bar, whilst ammo appears on each weapon. Even the inventory is presented as a hologram, along with video and audio feeds from other characters. Strategic Dismemberment is what separates Dead Space from other shooters and gives it an identity of its own. Itís an excellent gameplay mechanic that changes the way youíre used to playing, especially in regards to the usual headshot dynamic weíve become accustomed to over the years with survival horrors.
Of course itís difficult for Isaac to get his hands on conventional weaponry anyway. Being an engineer as part of a deep space mining operation he has access to many powerful mining tools; these can cut through solid rock, so using them on flesh would be the logical thing to do. There are plenty to chose from, each coming with a secondary fire option. Youíll spend most of your time with the default weapon, but itís perhaps the most effective. The secondary fire lets you switch between vertical and horizontal shooting, and using the two is essential for most of the enemies.
To pack a much bigger punch you can also upgrade your weapons at one of the many work benchís spread around the Ishimura. Youíll find power nodes around the ship and then the work bench lets you apply it to different categories such as damage, capacity and reload speed. You can also upgrade your suit and stasis and kinesis modules. Stasis lets you slowdown objects and enemies for a short amount of time, proving handy when dealing with foes or environmental puzzles and kinesis is very similar, allowing you to pick up objects instead.
Youíll want to upgrade your suit to take less damage, but also to give Isaac more air time. There are many points in Dead Space where youíll need to venture out onto the hull of the ship, giving Isaac a short amount of time before he suffocates. These section speed up the game, and can get pretty frantic when dealing with enemies and floating debris, although it doesnít quite compare to the excellent zero gravity sections. Here youíll need to jump around the environment to reach your goal, whilst the Necromorph will also float after you. It shakes the usual gameplay up a bit, and itís amazing to look at. Youíll see drops of blood floating in the atmosphere along with decapitated heads and other human limbs. Just trying to figure out a path up along the ceiling and walls is a puzzle within itself.
Dead Space is a stunning game to look at, the lighting and shadow effects are phenomenal, adding to the creepy and tense atmosphere aboard the ship. There are some aliasing issues with shadows on Isaacís suit, but itís not noticeable enough to detract from the experience, and the rest of the ship is superbly lit with ominous shadows that will keep you guessing whatís up ahead. Some sections of the Ishimura - especially those with views out into space - are simply awe inspiring, and it really catches that sense of claustrophobia even though itĎs huge. Dead Space may not get the recognition it deserves because of the vast amount of top quality games being released at the moment, but itís definitely one of the best looking games ever seen.
Saying that, the audio manages to surpass even the stunning visuals. Necromorphs will move around the ship via vents and the sound does a brilliant job of freaking you out as you hear them rustling all around, never knowing where theyíre going to pop out; theyíre shrieking cries adding to the freight. However, the stand out moments comes when youíre outside the ship, as sound becomes muffled as if you were under water. Isaacís yells echo within his suit, and enemies are almost inaudible. It adds a new dimension as you can barely hear whatís around you until itís right behind you ready to rip its claws into your back; now we know what Alien was on about.
Keep Isaac quiet?Much like Gordon Freeman, Isaac Clarke is left silent throughout the game. The only difference is that it works in Half-Life 2 because of the first person view. Here, we can see that Isaac doesnít react to the story around him, he just stares blankly as though he doesnít care. With such a good story, perhaps the most important part of it falls flat simply because we cannot connect with a silent protagonist.Put simply, Dead Space has production values out of this world. Everything comes together to create a cohesive experience that can match up to any of the best survival horrors of recent years.
It does, however, have its bad points. Theyíre few and far between, but they are there. One of the main gripes is with the amount of backtracking youíre forced to do. It makes sense in the context of the story, but with a ship as big as the Ishimura you would expect to visit brand new locations on every mission. It doesnít hinder the experience too much, especially when thereís a handy navigation tool to help you out, but it can get a little tiresome. And the same can be said for the combat. Itís a great system, but after a while it does get a little repetitive. New enemies keep things fresh but there arenít too many of those either. But of course it is the beginning of a new franchise, so we can expect more and more of this universe to be explored in the future.
And Dead Space isnít a bad way to start a new IP. It creates a creepy, disturbing atmosphere that is often unnerving, and combines that with a deep and engaging combat system that is simply one of a kind. Dead Space may have floated under your radar, but it should be in plain sight by now; itís one of the best survival horrors in years and looks set to become a prominent figure in video gaming in the years to come.
Nine out of ten
- Strategic Dismemberment adds originality to what would otherwise be a bland combat experience.
- Stunning production values with some of the best visuals and sound design in the business.
- An engaging story filled with plenty of twists and turns.
- Needless backtracking.
- Repetition can start to set in.
- Itís hard to feel emotion for what happens to Isaac within the narrative.