lectronic Arts' dark-horse release Dead Space did a mighty fine job of catching me by surprise. In a time when news of Fallout 3 and Gears of War 2 had the gaming world buzzing with anticipation, Dead Space kept fairly quiet. I hadn't even heard of it until a brief mention brought it to my attention barely a month before it was due to be released. As I started to delve into the available information I saw my curiosity quickly give way to interest, which in turn became definite excitement. All the key elements were here: an intriguing backstory, dark and intricate environments and the kind of close-quarters combat that rarely fails to thrill. EA was promising a lot, but could they deliver? Strap on your Mag Boots and walk with me. I want to show you a thing or two.
Dead Space opens, as these things often do, with a very simple premise. Your crew has been dispatched to repair a communications problem on the USG Ishimura. Within two minutes of actual investigation onboard, it quickly becomes apparent that the really pressing issue is the fact that there's no one left alive to communicate with. Enter the Necromorph, dropping from the ceiling to dispatch Expendable Crewmate #1 amidst wild firing, erratic lighting, lots of screaming and elevated pulses. With no means of defense you are forced to flee for your life and soon find yourself separated, lost and very much outnumbered. So ends the first five minutes of the next 13 hours of your time on the Ishimura. Rest assured, the situation has no intention of improving any time soon.
Time spent sans enemies becomes
time spent in nerve-wracking
anticipation of the
next chance encounter.Like any good survival-horror story the environment, and the tone that it creates, plays the most important role. Striking a balance between intrigue and fear is absolutely essential and in Dead Space, EA nails it right to the wall. Intrigue is easily handled by the twisted and winding storyline, revealed piece by treacherous piece in the form of audio and text logs collected along the way. Each step towards escaping the Ishimura also uncovers new information about what happened to the previous crew and the source of the horrible things now stalking you and your partners. While the desire to learn more draws you forward, fear is pushing you from behind. Enemy encounters are spaced out a fair distance. It's possible to go a good five minutes or so without coming across a new group of Necromorphs.
Such a large amount of downtime may seem to offer respite from worry, but that is not the case. Thanks to the terrifically managed atmosphere around you, time spent sans enemies becomes time spent in nerve-wracking anticipation of the next chance encounter. At all times, you are surrounded by evidence of horrors and carnage. Bodies and body parts litter the hallways. Blood spatters make gruesome designs on the walls and delicate sculptures in zero gravity. Dramatic use of lighting or the lack thereof heightens the intensity. Long hallways may be lit with nothing but the strobe of a failing bulb. Enormous rooms bathed in the cold light of the stars themselves. Tight corners where only the glow of your targeting laser shows you the way. Throughout it all, the ship is filled with the constant, subtle sounds of malicious occupation, all of which serve to continually remind you that you have to step quickly to keep your fragile pink self out of harm's way.
The foreboding realism of the world around you is well-matched by the control and interface scheme provided by EA. Guiding your character through the bowels of the Ishimura and out into the null-gravity vacuum of the void has an appropriately sluggish feel to it. Every motion carries with it the full weight of the EVA suit, with each step plodding and deliberate, and each swing of your weapon full of effort and determination. Here is not a genetically or mechanically augmented super soldier, leaping and running and ducking for cover. Here instead is a man encumbered, caught in the confines of his own protective gear and forced to make a stand in the open. Movement constantly maintained this authentic feel, which did much to support the immersive effect of the game. This effect was furthered by the now-standard omission of the traditional heads-up display.
Rather than clutter the screen with health bars and statistics, all necessary information is given a logical home in the game setting. Your suit itself displays damage indicators and power levels, while every weapon tracks ammunition count with a simple holographic interface. Menus, maps and inventory management are all accessed seamlessly through holograms projected by your suit and helmet, without pausing the action around you. This effect was possibly my favorite feature in the game and, with apologies to the Pip-Boy 3000, the most innovative management scheme I've ever seen.
Here is a man encumbered, caught
in the confines of his own
protective gear.Combat in Dead Space stays true to a universe grounded in stark utility. Most weapons are modified hand tools or scavenged military supplies and offer all of your standard fare. Pulse rifle? Check. Flamethrower? Check. Though all are well done none felt to be as true to the game mechanic as the first weapon acquired in game: the plasma cutter. A simple hand tool, the cutter is the precision instrument of choice when engaging in Dead Space's definitive combat scenarios. Any approaching creature can be reduced to individual components with a few well-placed shots.
The development team refers to this concept as "strategic dismemberment" and touts it as the most innovative form of combat to date. While I agree that it does add a degree of consideration to the typical run-and-gun fare offered by most other shooters, any sense of innovation dies after the hundredth creature is dispatched with the same universal strategy. Repetition is the enemy here, reducing a solid concept to standard practice fairly quickly. Still, for players looking for that extra challenge, using the cutter the entire game is an excellent way to add intensity to their experience.
In the end, Dead Space was exactly the sort of visceral thrill I expected. A well-conceived and written storyline was beautifully rendered into a wholly convincing universe. My only disappointment in the game was the ending itself, which I felt was just a little too typical for my tastes. The replay factor is slightly higher than most, though the experience depends quite a bit on the unknown. Much of the mystery, and thus the intensity, is lost the second time around. That being said, there remains enough material in the backstory and the conclusion to make for a decent franchise, should EA decide to do so. Bravo, Electronic Arts, on a unique benchmark in survival-horror! Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to turn on all the lights in my house and sit with my back to the wall for a while.