October 16, 2008
Deep inside most of us there's a little masochist that loves to be terrified mercilessly. It's the impulse that makes us watch all those Nightmare on Elm Street movies, or play Condemned 2 at midnight with the lights off. There's power in confronting that fear and making it through, which keeps us coming back, again and again. This quest for fear finds its purest expression in survival-horror video games, which require players to interact with and triumph over fear in a way movies or novels can't match. Now in October, the official month of fear if there ever was one, EA gives us Dead Space, which takes us out of the present, and launches our inner masochist off to space to confront a new breed of horror.
Set in the distant future, Dead Space tells the story of engineer Isaac Clarke and his team. Receiving orders to repair and reestablish contact with the USG Ishimura, Clarke and company quickly find themselves shipwrecked aboard the giant planet-cracking vessel, and under attack from hostile alien life-forms. To stay alive, Isaac must cut his way through swarms of Necromorphs and complete essential repairs to the Ishimura, while investigating the fate of the crew and the cause of the alien infestation. Dead Space does an excellent job of telling its story without ever breaking you out of the immersion of the experience. Story progression comes through dialogue sequences similar to Half-life 2, where you're free to roam around while events transpire, or through radio messages, video messages, and collectible audio logs, similar to Bioshock. The writers did a great job with the story's pacing, which flows like the best horror movies, with an ever-increasing sense of fear, panic, isolation, and desperation that will keep you interested and on the edge of your seat.
The lack of a HUD further works to keep the immersion persistent. Everything you need to know about Isaac's condition can be deciphered simply by looking at his suit; health appears as a strip of lights up his spine, while his stasis-attack meter is a crescent-moon dial right next to it, and holograms on the weapons show their current ammo. Weapon selection has been mapped to the D-pad, allowing players to quickly swap through weapons on the fly, which is enormously helpful in the heat of battle. Resident Evil 4's system of having to pause combat, enter an inventory screen, and then swap weapons has thankfully gone the way of the dinosaurs. Even your map, inventory, and mission objective screens are represented in real time as holographic projections in front of Isaac. This means that unless you explicitly press the pause button, you are never totally safe. Don't be surprised if a Nercomorph jumps you while you're poking around in the inventory or mission log screens; they can and will attack you while you use the store if you haven't properly cleared the area first. While this system could have caused woes similar to Alone in the Dark, where enemies have free reign to pummel you while you're looking for a health pack, EA wisely made it possible to use health packs at any time by pressing the X button, so there's no need to go to an inventory screen during combat.
When it comes time to do battle with the alien menace, traditional tactics that have served you well in many, many shooters will be utterly useless here. In Dead Space, head shots are not only a waste of ammo, but will only increase your enemy's desire to eviscerate you; likewise, aiming for the center of mass is just as effective as if you launched all your guns out an airlock. To be successful, it's essential to make use of the game's "strategic dismemberment" system. Necromorphs can only be killed by amputating their limbs, and what you remove from them will have a noticeable effect on how well they fight. Legs can be amputated to slow enemies to a crawl (literally), while hacking off arms prevents Nercromorph's from attacking. Each enemy has its own weaknesses, and trying to aim precisely and decide what appendages need removal while under attack from numerous monstrosities is an awesomely tense and exhilarating experience.
Thankfully, all the weapons have been specifically designed to be ruthlessly efficient at unwanted appendage removal. Dead Space features seven weapons, each of which sport both a primary and secondary attack mode, allowing for diverse combat strategies. All of these weapons, as well as your armor and special attacks, can be upgraded at special work benches scattered throughout the Ishimura by using power nodes purchased from the item store or found as you progress through the game, giving the weapons extra damage, extra clip capacity, faster firing speeds, or faster reload times. Since it's impossible to fully upgrade every weapon in a single playthrough, it's important to focus on only upgrading the weapons that work best for you. Each weapon has its own strengths and weaknesses and making a well-rounded arsenal of four weapons is essential to success.
Isaac has other means of slaughtering Necromorphs and getting around in the environment besides his guns. He has a stasis attack that can slow down an enemy tremendously, making formerly fast opponents sitting ducks for some aggressive battlefield surgery. This stasis attack can be recharged using disposable stasis packs found throughout the Ishimura, or at special recharge stations. Freezing enemies with stasis is an extremely effective way of killing the foe, but Isaac's very limited supply of energy for it makes it an ability best used for multiple foes, or desperate situations. Creative players can also use Isaac's kinesis ability, which works much like Half-life 2's gravity gun, to hurl boxes or explosive containers at approaching Necromorphs.
True to survival-horror tradition, resource management plays a large part in shaping the experience. Slain enemies will often leave behind ammo, med-kits, or credits that can be used to purchase items from the store, and these essential items can also be found scattered across the ship. However, your supplies will be far from infinite, as Isaac has a limited amount of space for items, but can have his carrying capacity upgraded with his armor as the game progresses. Extra items can be dropped, sold to the store for credits to buy something else, or deposited into a vault in the store for later retrieval and use. Getting the items and weapons you want isn't always a matter of having the credits to buy them. Some weapons and items only become available in the store after you've found a schematic for them somewhere in the game and brought that schematic to a store, further emphasizing the importance of exploration for success. This system successfully takes all of the good ideas pioneered by the Resident Evil franchise and discards all the annoyances, making it very easy and straightforward to stock Isaac up with exactly the items you want.
Although it's an incredibly intense and immersive experience, Dead Space is not without a few minor irritations. The map screen that Isaac can project before himself is very hard to control. Because the map pops up while the game is progressing, you can't navigate it with the analog sticks, which still control Isaac. To see what you want to see on the map, you have to juggle controls involving the D-pad to rotate the map and the X and Y buttons to zoom in and out, which feels awkward. Even worse, the map shows multiple floors at the same time, making it occasionally tough to see your current floor, and the center of focus is always on Isaac, making it impossible to look at a distant area of the map. If you've forgotten where the nearest stasis recharge station, save point, or store is and need to consult the map to look, prepare to be annoyed. Thankfully, there is an ingenious waypoint system, which alleviates most of the need to ever consult the bad map. By clicking down on the right stick, a blue holographic line will appear, pointing the way to the next objective, which makes it easy to keep moving on without getting lost, rediscover the path after a bit of exploring, and generally not use the actual map more than necessary.
There's also issues with picking items up off the ground. If multiple items are piled up near each other, it's extremely difficult to choose which to pick up and which to leave on the ground. Most of the time, this won't matter, but if Isaac's inventory is nearly full, it's annoying to pick up an unwanted item when you're trying to pick up something else. There were a few instances where I had to pick up unwanted items, move away several feet, and them drop them so the system would let me pick up what I'd wanted in the first place. Also, the third-person camera is relatively closely focused on Isaac which, while usually not a problem, reduces peripheral vision, making it easy to get attacked by enemies you never saw coming. Continually moving around and carefully watching your back seems to be the best way to counter this.
I also felt that there's just a little too much backtracking during the game. While it all makes sense in terms of the story, it seemed like Isaac is being asked to retread previously cleared zones a bit too often. There's also a few moments in the game where Isaac must take control of a mass-driver turret in order to shoot things down and complete objectives. While I appreciate the attempt at mixing things up a little, these scenes didn't feel natural to me, making the attempt at variety feel forced. Lastly, the jumping system to get from place to place in zero-g environments can be a bit picky at times, and won't let you jump at a surface or at an angle you think you should be able to do.
Complaining is the last thing I plan on doing for Dead Space's graphics, which are among the finest on the Xbox 360. This game is simply stunning, with incredibly detailed character models, and Necromorphs that look disgusting in the best possible way. Combat is an incredibly bloody spectacle, with alien blood and limbs flying if you're successful, or Isaac's graphically severed head or shredded body if you're not. Lighting and shadows are used to excellent effect to create suspense, as are the particle effects of the weapons and miscellaneous space debris. The Ishimura's environments are brilliantly designed, with posters on the walls, writings from dead crew members, and a general disarray of equipment and bodies that all work together to create a captivating location that is a treat for the eyes.
Dead Space's audio is even more impressive than its graphics. The Necromorphs possess absolutely blood-chilling screams, and it's a pleasure to shut them up with a satisfying crack from one of your weapons. Sound effects remain superb throughout, and the shift from pressurized ship interiors to the hard vacuum of space is particularly impressive. The whole sound scheme shifts in vacuum, with weapon reports becoming greatly muffled, and enemies make no sound as they approach, making these encounters particularly tense. Voice acting is consistently well done, while the music seems to know exactly when to be intense and in-your-face, and when to fade off into silence, capping off Dead Space's flawless audio.
Most of the achievements in Dead Space come from completing the game, the individual chapters of the game, killing enemies with a certain weapon, or severing a set number of appendages. The vast majority of the points will come just for playing the game, but some, such as beating the game on the hardest difficulty, or maxing out all the weapons and armor, require multiple playthroughs. There's nothing spectacular in this list, which I'd estimate to take 35-45 hours to complete, but it's enough to provide motivation for subsequent plays, and the achievements are quite satisfying to earn. Not being able to transfer an upgraded Isaac from one difficulty to another is disappointing, but I guess that was done to keep the high difficulties from becoming too easy.
Overall, Dead Space does a fantastic job of taking existing survival-horror game conventions and improving them to create an adrenaline-filled, immersive experience. The "strategic dismemberment" system forces players to think a little more critically and aim more carefully in their shooting, which is a welcome addition to the genre. With phenomenal graphics and audio, tight controls, and an engaging science fiction horror story, and a haunting atmosphere, Dead Space is a game that simply must be experienced. This game lives up to the hype, and is hopefully only the beginning chapter of what will continue to be a successful survival-horror franchise. Gamers in Germany, Japan, and China should be pitied if this excellent title remains banned in their countries.
Here's a game that truly knows when to be loud and when to be silent. Music and sound effects have been used to maximum effect to create suspense. The voice acting is top notch, the Necromorphs sound terrifying, and the weapon sound effects are dead on. Someone mail the audio designer a cake that is both delicious and moist.
The environments are well designed, and the use of lighting and shadow to create tension is brilliant. Dead Space features amazingly detailed character and alien models, while weapon and particle effects are similarly spectacular. This game has some of the best visuals on the Xbox 360.
If you've played Resident Evil 4 or Gears of War, you'll have a handle on these controls very quickly. The controls are smooth as silk, with only a bad menu map and a periodic lack of peripheral vision hindering playability.
While it all makes sense to the game's story, I felt there was a little more backtracking than necessary, and the mass-driver mini-games didn't work for me as a way to mix things up. These are my only complaints against otherwise stellar presentation.
While there's nothing spectacular about this list, it's nice that most of them come naturally as you play, with a few more challenging achievements requiring multiple playthroughs. Overall, Dead Space's points feel quite satisfying to earn.
Dead Space represents the current pinnacle of evolution in the survival-horror genre, taking everything that has worked, and nothing else. The great combat system is paired up with tight controls, while superb graphics, audio, and storytelling will keep players rapt from beginning to end. Horror fans will have a blast with this game.