System: PC, PS3, Xbox 360 :: Rating: Mature :: Players: 1
Genre: Survival Horror :: Released: 14 October 2008
By Aaron Robinson
22 January 2009 — I've mentioned before that when it comes to horror in video games, it doesn't take a whole lot to scare me. I'm the kind of gamer who'll enter every room with my gun raised, glancing around every corner, making sure to scope the room out for places I can run to in case an ambush happens. So when I first popped in Dead Space, I was kind of surprised to find myself coasting through it with nary a worry. Sure, the game offers a few good "boo" moments, but I never really felt concerned about my survival, nor was I ever discomforted by the happenings around me. And yet, despite the lack of scares, I still feel like Dead Space is one of the best horror titles I've played in ages. The mechanics are so solid, and the atmosphere is so great, that I found myself overlooking its flaws.
First off, the bad stuff. The game just isn't that scary, mostly because it's hard not to see the strings being pulled. Partway through, I had already figured out I was going to be attacked whenever I completed a certain step of a puzzle, and I could almost always tell if a room I entered was going to be ambushed at some point. Whilst new tricks are used every now and again to keep you on your toes, the game has a habit of repeating those tricks as you progress. It just isn't as scary when you've seen the same idea played out multiple times. The fact that you have to do a fair amount of backtracking doesn't help ease the feeling that the game is a little too drawn-out for its length — roughly 12 hours. A bit of trimming could have made the experience far better.
The story is partially to blame, too. It starts off interesting, if perhaps a little familiar, and eventually nosedives when the "shocking" twists start occurring. In Dead Space you're in control of hapless mute systems engineer Isaac Clark. He's been summoned along with a crew of experts to repair the mining ship Ishimura. Isaac also has a personal interest in the ship, since his girlfriend just so happens to be stationed there. Her last message to Isaac wasn't exactly uplifting, and Isaac is a little anxious to find out if she's okay. When they're unable to make contact with the Ishimura, the group decides to board the ship. Naturally things go all wrong when the team start exploring; a group of what appears to be undead Ishimura crewmembers tear through the team, separating Isaac and forcing him to fend for himself. With only the occasional message from the remaining teammates to keep him company, Isaac heads deeper into the ship, doing what he can to survive.
The biggest problem with the plot is how eager it is to explain everything that happens in detail. For a horror game, very little is left up to the imagination. That wouldn't be much of a problem if there was some solid writing to back everything up, but that just isn't the case. It's cheesy and unoriginal, and the pseudoscience used to explain what's happening can be downright awkward. And a lack of subtlety isn't the only problem; the whole experience feels like it's been cobbled together from other games and movies. As hard as I tried, I could never shake the sense of déjà vu the story constantly gave me. And the inclusion of Isaac's girlfriend feels kind of tacked on. It's hard to feel for someone when so little is known about them. The game stresses that Isaac loves her, but he's a silent protagonist and she isn't on screen enough for the player to get to know her, which doesn't leave you much to work with.
It might sound strange to say, considering how little the game managed to scare me, but I still found myself really wrapped up in the atmosphere. The music is a big part of it, consisting largely of long orchestral notes, drowned out by the constant creaks and clanks the ship makes as you move from area to area. It's only once enemies appear that violins start to screech and the pace becomes frantic. But the best sound design comes from the handful of vacuum areas you'll have to traverse. For those brief periods, the music falls silent, with Isaac's labored breathing and high-pitched heart monitor becoming more prominent in its place. The only other noise you'll hear will come from the dull clanks that rattle through your suit with each step you take. It's the one part of the game where you aren't given any audio cues to alert you when enemies are coming, and with the combined worry of your depleting air supply, it makes things incredibly tense.
The level of detail put into the visuals of Dead Space is also amazing. Every now and again, I found myself stopping to look at the destruction spread across the ship, or swinging the camera around to watch Isaac's idle animations. The enemies look genuinely disgusting, with dislodged mouths and body parts warped to create new limbs. But even with the impressive scenery, it's a shame the environments in Dead Space aren't more varied. You'll be spending most of your journey moving around on the same steel-wrought, blood-soaked ship. It can get a little monotonous, especially when you have to revisit the same areas repeatedly. Even during the brief segments that take place outside of the Ishimura, the environments don't feel that much different.
Strangely enough, the interface also adds a lot to the atmosphere. Rather than going for a typical HUD with menus embedded on-screen, every menu (with the exception of the pause screen) is shown in-game. Stores, save points and machinery have projectors to show important data, while receiving messages, checking logs and accessing your inventory is done via a projector located on Isaac's arm. Any relevant information for Isaac's suit and weapons are shown with LED lights and screens that face the camera. It's all purely aesthetic, but it really helped to pull me into the experience.
Much like the plot, a lot of the gameplay feels like it's been borrowed from other horror games. But in this case I don't consider it a bad thing. Sure, the camera positioning and controls feel markedly similar to those in Resident Evil 4, but they worked excellently in that game and work just as well here. The same can be said for all the audio, video and text logs scattered throughout each stage. In System Shock 2 (and later BioShock) the audio logs you could find added to the tension and helped fill in the backstory, and the logs here are just as effective. Even Isaac's kinesis ability, which works almost exactly like the gravity gun from Half-Life 2, makes for some fun puzzle and combat ideas. And whilst the stasis is essentially a modified bullet time ability, there's enough difference to make the ability somewhat unique.
But it wouldn't be fair to say Dead Space plays completely to tried-and-true conventions. The much hyped "strategic dismemberment" is quite fun to play around with. Head shots aren't the death knell you might expect them to be, and aiming for the torso may take more bullets than you'd like to spare. Instead, necromorphs (the twisted beasts that haunt the ship) can be bought down quickly by blasting off a few limbs. Luckily, with Isaac being an engineer, he's more than equipped to do so; most of the weapons you'll pick up aren't actually weapons, but tools designed for cutting, burning and blasting. Sometimes it's just cosmetic (the standard plasma cutter really isn't that much different from a handgun), but weapons like the line cutter and ripper feel distinctive enough to make up for that.
There's a nice variety of enemies in Dead Space, each requiring a different strategy in order to kill them off quickly. Some will just run up and attack you, others will attack from a distance and some are capable of producing even more enemies if they aren't properly dealt with. Single enemies are rarely a challenge, instead the game tries its hardest to throw as many different variations of necromorphs at you as it can. New necromorphs are introduced every few chapters, which helps to add a bit more variety when things start to get stale. It's nice that even rooms with save points and stores aren't necessarily safe. Necromorphs can follow you from room to room using the ventilation system, so even otherwise empty offices can become a deathtrap if you're not careful. And while the inventory screen is fairly quick and easy to navigate, you can make Isaac use the most appropriate healing item instantly with just the tap of a button.
Any ammo you pick up along the way will be geared towards weapons you are currently holding, so it's rare you'll find yourself storing useless items. Because of your limited inventory space, it's generally a good idea to limit the number of weapons you have, lest you find yourself constantly switching between guns. Luckily, stores are numerous and on top of offering items for sale, will also store any items you need for future use. There's plenty of customization to be had, as Isaac's suit, weapons and abilities can all be upgraded by using the power nodes that can be found in each level.
And on top of all the slayings and customization, there's even the odd puzzle and minigame to deal with. The puzzles are generally simple, and are mainly built around using Isaac's kinesis ability to move objects from one area to another. Whilst there's not much to them, they help to break up the gameplay and add a bit of variety, and it's always fun to mess around with Isaac's abilities. The minigames are another story, however. The optional ones are fun little distractions, but the one necessary minigame is easily one of the weakest parts of Dead Space. It's hard, feels out of place and just isn't that much fun. Had it been optional, it would have been fine, but it's a pointless addition to the game that took me out of the experience.
Whether or not Dead Space entertains or bores you will probably come down to how well versed you are at survival horror. It's a game that borrows so heavily from other horror games and movies that it ultimately struggles to find an identity of its own. If you're looking for something completely new and find cheesy stories hard to digest, Dead Space is a tough sell. But if you're just after a fun ride, big guns, gruesome monsters and a great atmosphere, Dead Space is perfect. Just try not to think too much about the plot.
Final Grade: 8.5/10