Dead Space Review

Posted: April 5, 2009 in Review
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Dead Space

You’re trapped on an old ship stranded in space. There’s no way off. The power is down across the ship. You know that there are over one thousand corpses on board. There’s a vicious alien life form stalking you. And you have no gun.

That’s the intro in-game cinematic to Dead Space, a master class in isolation, both virtual and psychological. Within ten minutes you know the situation, the enemy, the problems you face and the challenges that lay ahead. If the opening proves anything, it’s that EA Redwood is one of the few Western developers that totally understand horror.

The game’s strength lies in its ability to constantly deceive the player. The Necromorph enemies are smarter and far more mobile that you; if you see one across the room, it’ll dive into the nearest air vent and attack you from behind. Corpses tip-toed past several times in empty corridors can suddenly become a major hazard if they aren’t immediately stomped into pieces first time through. Necromorphs will shrug off direct hits to the chest or head. Make no mistake, this is a game truly designed to terrify from the off. In fact, it feels like an even darker version of Resident Evil 4 in space – high praise indeed.

The cinematic influences are felt throughout the game. Obvious nods to Alien and its sequel are the most obvious, with traces of The Thing, Night of the Living Dead and even Event Horizon getting a nod. The game plays as though the greatest, scariest parts of the best horror films have been ripped out, boiled down to the basics and shoved into a pitch-black ship with no exit. Yes, there are scares and set pieces designed purely to make the player jump, but these are lovingly crafted, rarely repeated (the ace tentacle-dragging moment is worth playing the three times it occurs) and never feel out of place, hinged on the shock of sudden action lunging out of the ever-present dread.

The atmosphere that Dead Space seems to bathe in leaks out of every pore – it delights in forcing you to walk down a long, dark passage, armed only with a measly pistol, passing dozens of air vents that could crash open and reveal a Necromorph at any moment. Adding to the atmosphere is a series of top-notch design choices by EA Redwood – Isaac, the protagonist, is armed with a torch throughout. However, by choosing to spread light in the gloom, you sacrifice the option to run. Also, in a potentially disastrous move, there is no quick-turn option, turning every battle into an outstandingly gory intense run-and-stop-to-shoot brawl.

And this is a violent game, make no mistake. Enemies’ limbs are their weakest points, forcing you to cripple arms, legs, necks, leaving a writhing torso dripping with gore, waiting to be stomped into the ship’s deck.
Another brilliant design decision is the addition of zero gravity areas, where both you and the Necromorphs have the ability to jump to almost every surface accessible – walls, ceilings, the sides of pillars – creating a wonderful feeling of paranoia to offset the dread.

The story is totally engrossing and deftly handled. While it is almost exactly like Aliens, it is riveting and engaging enough to keep dragging you back. The two side characters, Kendra and Hammond, are very well written, with not a single stereotype between them. Borrowing from Valve, EA Redwood have made the wise decision to not allow Isaac to have a single line of dialogue in the game. This simple idea instantly makes Isaac a standout protagonist who doesn’t become irritating at any point.

However, there are problems with the game. Whilst the atmosphere forces breathless intensity, the various puzzles often pull you back out of the lovingly-crafted world. Each of the twelve chapters features one major set piece puzzle that get harder to solve as the game progresses. Unfortunately, the penalty for failure seems to be fixed on ‘instant kill’. Fail to time a jump onto a meteor correctly and you’ll be sliced in two, or sent drifting out into space. The excellent navigation system (a small line pointing to your objective, available at the touch of a button) sometimes appears to have logic issues, wanting you to walk back two feet, turn around, and continue where you were headed. Also, the camera has a habit of getting confused in zero gravity, which leads to enemies attacking you from off-screen. It can also become very repetitive – after just a few chapters, you’ll become familiar with the way the game works. Every button pressed plunges the room into total darkness and sends a swarm of horrors towards you. By the end of the game, you’ll be prepared for them before they happen, the exact opposite of the spirit of fear. Similarly, there’s very little variation in the enemies. The monsters met at the game’s opening simply become faster and tougher by the closing.

Upsetting all the great design decisions lovingly placed in Dead Space is the use of text. Like all good horror games, backstory and extra information can be gleamed from finding and reading various text logs scattered around. Unfortunately, the text used is so small, only a 52-inch plasma screen will be able to see it clearly, meaning anyone playing on a normal TV will have to choose between squinting or ignoring text logs completely.

The game’s biggest problem, however, is in the weapon selection. By choosing to upgrade from a mere pistol to one of several other sci-fi inspired weapons, ranging from flame-throwers to saw blade launchers, you unwittingly make the game easier. Enemies can be killed almost as soon as they appear in one hit with no thought, while ammo can be purchased with little fuss.

Problems aside, it’s an engrossing, incredibly well designed horror game with enough scares and suspense to last it at least a handful of replays. Play it in a darkened room and pray for daylight: Dead Space is the new king of this generation’s horror.

87%

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