Reviewed by Mr. Dark
Available for the Xbox 360 (reviewed here), PC, and the Playstation 3
Distributed by EA Games
An animated series of online shorts at the No Known Survivors website.
A separate comic book miniseries.
An animated prequel DVD release, Dead Space: Downfall (review).
All these things point to bad juju when it comes to video games. When a company works a little too hard to promote a release, you have to wonder if they’re hedging their bets with a new title to try and get enough launch day sales to make up for the eventual bad word of mouth.
Dead Space had all of the above … but I’m extremely happy to say that this one bucks the trend. It’s worthy of all of the extra promotion and then some. For once, all the media I refer to above is actually a bonus for those who play the game, not a cynical promotional machine.
Dead Space is the best original horror title since Bioshock, and leaving out that one shining moment, the best in years. It lives up to the hype. It’s a traditional survival horror game with enough fresh gameplay mechanics and unique story elements to launch it well above the rest of the genre.
Let’s go back to the basics. In Dead Space, you’re Isaac Clarke, a repair engineer sent to resolve a communications breakdown on the largest mining ship in Earth’s fleet. The USG Ishimura was in the process of ‘cracking’ a small planet on the outskirts of known space to mine its ore, when all communications failed and Isaac’s small ship was dispatched to respond to a distress signal coming from the ship.
It’s no spoiler to say that things go sideways very, very quickly, within the first moments of the game. Isaac and the survivors of his crew are thrown directly into the fire, skipping the frying pan completely. As it happens, the Ishimura wasn’t just there to mine ore. In a surprisingly complex and currently relevant plot, we find out that a powerful religion is involved in recovering an artifact of incredible power … a power much darker than they expected, which swallows the entire population of the ship and the colony below. (A certain pseudo-religion that starts with ‘S’ takes a beating here.)
That’s what really puts Dead Space in a very high category of interactive entertainment. The plot is better than most films or even novels you’ll run into, something usually impossible to find in action-oriented titles. It succeeds completely on the story level while also delivering gameplay strong enough to stand on its own.
Let’s get into that play, shall we? What we have is an over-the-shoulder third person action title buried underneath thick, grue-covered layers of pure horror. The first title that comes to mind by way of comparison is Resident Evil 4, but that comparison doesn’t hold for long. This engine is vastly more responsive and entertaining than even RE4‘s revamping of the survival horror genre.
Isaac, our silent protagonist, only takes up the left third of the screen. This game is built for HD, and uses the widescreen format better than any title I’ve seen yet. It has an interface without a HUD; all the important information you need can be seen on Isaac and his tools, or in pop-up holographic dialogs. This leaves a ton of real estate on the screen used strictly to scare the hell out of you.
The selection of weapons and tools at your disposal to dispatch the ‘necromorphs’ populating the ship is where the design really shines. You won’t find your usual pistol, shotgun, machine gun, rocket launcher, BFG array you find in almost every other title. (Even the perfect Bioshock falls into that pattern with its ballistic weapons.) You can use the initial weapon given you for the entire game and still succeed (and collect an achievement if you do). Every weapon and piece of equipment can be upgraded using power nodes found throughout the game or purchased from in-game vending machines.
Even the plasma cutter, the first weapon, is incredibly powerful if you commit enough power nodes to upgrade it completely. By lifting this mechanic from the RPG world, they give you incredible flexibility in how you play the game. I didn’t like two of the more powerful weapons in the game … they just didn’t fit my style. So, I sold them and used the money to beef up my three preferred weapons … and never looked back. You’re even given the ability to define what those upgrades do: each piece of equipment has a ‘skill tree’ just like most RPG’s use for your character. The closest comparison I can make is to Final Fantasy‘s “Materia” system … and the fact that I can make that comparison in a survival horror game should make you giddy.
The combat, from smallest critter to biggest boss (and you’ve never fought bigger…trust me on this one) is almost perfectly balanced. As you may have heard, you have to dismember the necromorphs. You -can- usually kill a critter by just dumping ammo into it, but they’ll probably get their teeth … or whatever they have that resembles teeth … into you before you do, and you’ll have no ammo for the next seven beasties. No, the game reinforces early on that dismemberment is the only way to go.
In fact, some of the enemies directly punish an attempt to just blow them to kingdom come. One large, bulbous creature contains dozens of tiny parasites that will swarm you and do massive amounts of damage if released … and if you hit him anywhere in the torso, they’re coming out to play. You actually have to kill them doing the minimum amount of damage possible, using carefully place shots to the tiny limbs and avoiding the mass of the creature. This greatly increases the stress and tension, as these guys don’t exactly hang out alone … they’ll show up alongside two fast moving necros that require a lot of direct damage to slow them down. You wind up doing something akin to high explosive surgery, all while running for your life.
And that’s where the title shines. Every single second of this game is designed to disturb you, frighten you, or fill you with dread. Things go from bad to worse to pure nightmare over the course of the title, each horror surpassed by the next. This game goes places you do not think it’s going to go. Spent much time shooting newborn babies who sprout projectile-shooting tentacles? Well, get used to it. This is a dark, cruel game, set in a place that makes hell look like Club Med. It has more outright suffering and atrocity than every Hellraiser story combined. The plot has enough dark twists to top any thriller, and frequently proves that man has the ability to be more evil than even the most horrific alien lifeform.
So what’s wrong with it? Is it perfect? No, it isn’t perfect. There’s a mini-game that shows up near the halfway point of the game that is frustratingly difficult and does absolutely nothing to add to the overall experience, other than a Star Wars homage. The game is also a little on the short side. Even stopping to smell the roses, I completed it the first time in around ten hours. There are some motivations offered to replay, but you’ll get the same story with the same ending, so unless you’re really into upping the difficulty and going for some missed achievements, you’ll be sated after once through.
That said, even I wound up playing halfway through again. I went in to catch a few achievements I’d missed and wound up deep into Chapter six (of twelve) before I knew it. Even knowing where the scripted scares will come from, the game is just — fun.
Fun and scary? EA is spoiling us.
A sequel is already in the works, and while it doesn’t quite reach the perfection of Bioshock, Dead Space is an absolute must-play for any horror fan. Turn the lights down and the sound up, and make sure you take a leak before you begin. Otherwise, you may be steam cleaning your sofa before you hit Chapter Three.
4 1/2 out of 5
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