Game Review: Dead Space
A game about scary lighting, scary sounds, cutting off limbs, and when Scientology Goes Wild.
The cold draft of space silences the sounds of torment. The broken lights flicker and flash against the blood stained floor. The patter of inhuman feet strikes against the metal floor one step ahead of you around every dark corner. The lights suddenly fail and scraping blood curdling howls resonate through the bulkhead walls. Alone and afraid, you clench your weapon tightly watching as your ammunition counter approaches ‘0’ huddled in a corner. It is not safe. Welcome to the USG Ishimura. Welcome to Dead Space.
Dead Space is the ambitious break out title by Electronic Arts Redwood studio, aptly released before Halloween of 2008. The game hopes to reset the bar for the zombie overflow of third person survival horror genre, with a truly atmospheric romp through a space ship at the edge of humanity. Players will not only face off against the creatures in the game but also face the fear of being completely isolated. For the most part, the game succeeds.
The player takes on the role of Isaac Clarke (a cleverly conscribed combination of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke), an engineer sent aboard the ‘Planet Cracker’ space ship, the USG Ishimura with a repair team to fix the ship’s failed communication system. On route, Isaac watches the broken transmission sent before the Ishimura blacked out by his lost girlfriend Nicole who was stationed on the ship. She’s crying, apologizing for something, hinting at a horrible event from her location. Isaac sits quietly as he turns off his radio to see the Ishimura. The ship floats softly, hanging outside the atmosphere of the mysterious Aegis planet cradling a payload of recently extracted earth to be broken down for its base elements and processed. Upon approach, Isaac’s ship is struck by debris and is forced into a crash landing in the Ishimura’s oddly empty and quiet docking bay. Entering the ship, signs of a losing battle scatter across the floor, walls and ceiling. There is no one around, the ship is in shambles in need of serious repair, and you are not alone.
Suddenly, out of an air vent, a broken shadow of a human form slips behind your comrades. Long talons extending from what used to be its hands, its head sinks low with its jaw broken and reshaped into mandibles, one of many signs of the body tearing itself apart and reassigning its body parts into new forms. Another creature breaks through the vent in front of you, and you have no choice but to run. In a locked closet, Isaac is separated from the survivors of his team. They are trapped elsewhere and need Isaac to get the ship functional again to save them. You find a mining tool and the cryptic message scribbled in blood “Cut off their Limbs.” You still have a job to do, you know how to survive, time to get moving. Isaac, make us whole again.
Just before the Ishimura harvested the chunk of rock from the planet, an archaeological discovery called “the Marker” is brought on board the ship, praised by the crew whose population are members of the church of Unitology, a religious foundation which believes in life through afterlife, and see the marker to be the source of all life and proof of their religion. However, within this artifact lies a mysterious aura, which induces rapid mental degradation and hallucinations by people in contact with it. The madness spreads, as more the crew of the ship cave in to homicidal tendencies, where the murderous acts and grisly suicides create a tense panic on board. At the same time, a xeno-biological (alien) outbreak begins to take shape as the dead bodies begin to transform into hideous creatures and spread from the planet to the ship, called the Necro-morphs. Altman be praised.
This sums up some of the back-story of the game until the ‘press start’ beginning. As Isaac, the player does not witness the entirety of the events that unfolded until his arrival. Instead all of this information is told through audio and video records left behind by the last remaining survivors (or rather the ones who died last) that are scattered across the ship in the various locations of these survivors’ work or unseen quest across to the other portions of the ship as they themselves sought out a way of survival. As Isaac stands alone, it is clear that they failed, and where you must succeed.
As Isaac is an engineer, it is his job and the player’s mission to stabilize the Ishimura and survive the Necro-morph contamination by escaping from the derelict ship. Out of the shadows Isaac hears another voice, Nicole. Telling you to help her, and save yourself. Isaac has one more thing to do, better get to it.
“It’s like Bioshock with Scissors”
Despite the grotesque coat of paint, Dead Space still retains the fundamentals of a zombie survival horror game such as Resident Evil, but balances out its scare-factor with an atmospheric element that made the Silent Hill series so successful. Personally, the game blends both elements into what I personally called "John Carpenter's The Thing meets Bioshock." Instead of concentrating on making the monsters look even scarier to the player, the game lets the Ishimura do it for them. From first entering the ship, the scenery constantly degrades into darkness: the scattered and unkempt conditions in vital areas such as the bridge and engineering deck, give away to the medical bay and its blood soaked floors, to the overall haunting sensation of absolute silence and the expectation of something deadly around every corner, the Ishimura sets the tone of where the game is going. You never know what to expect unless you’ve played the game twice to know where each cue begins. Regardless, the game still finds ways to scare you, and the game succeeds in setting the tone. From moments of locked in action/terror of fending off Necro-morphs while waiting for a time lock to disengage, or that last second “It’s not over yet” spook at the completion of each level.
“Gun, Check. Health items, Check. NASA grade Waste disposal pouch, Double Check.”
The key word for describing Dead Space’s combat mechanic is “Strategic Dismemberment,” the phrase crafted by the game’s lead developers. Although I may have stated that the game is like a typical zombie shooter, in the third person “Over the shoulder” fashion, the game tries to break out of the normal theory of taking down each monster. Strategic Dismemberment is exactly as it sounds like: dismembering Necro-morphs. By cutting off their limbs, the player slows down their onslaught until the creature cannot move any more and it appears to ‘die.’ Because how can one say they killed something that was already dead, right? Moving on, the theory works in a number of ways, from shooting out a leg to knock it onto its stomach will slow the creature down, and consequently trip up anything following it which slows them down as well. Shooting off its head will not kill it, but instead make it more erratic in its assault, causing it to flail its talons around blindly.
Since the Ishimura is a mining ship, the weapons in the game are really tools of the trade. Over the course of the game, the collected mining tools (found in key locations or purchased) are repurposed into limb severing surgical weapons that provide hours of fun and combinations of fighting back against the imposing odds. Each tool has a two firing modes, one for direct action and a secondary mode for more destructive results. The game’s signature weapon called the Plasma cutter has only the ability to change its cutting direction, making it the most precise weapon in the game (and a specialty item for gaining an X-box 360 achievement, or Playstation 3 trophy). Continuing the Survival horror tradition of short sheeting the player, ammunition gathering becomes essential as munitions become limited.
Two additional abilities are granted to the player as a means of solving the game’s puzzles, called Stasis and Kinesis. Stasis allows the player to trap an item in a time slowing bubble, allowing Isaac to either get through a death trap or slow down an opposing force to gain a better perspective and offensive advantage. Kinesis works as a way of grabbing items, snatching items placed farther out of the player’s reach, and arranging puzzle elements into their corresponding order. Kinesis has some offensive advantages such as using a severed Necro-morph talon as a physics thrown weapon against another.
When all else fails however, each weapon can serve as a blunt object, and can be swung around with a good punch to fend off anything that gets in too close. Or firepower doesn’t kill it, a swift stomp to the body will. For those close encounter moments where a Necro-morph breaks past Isaac and begin attacking him physically, the game enters a brief “quick time event” where the player must rapidly tap a single button on the controller to break the hold. In fighting larger creatures, it will weaken them and knock them away, while it will kill some of the smaller Necro-morphs (and reward players with one of the best achievements ever).
“In Space, No GPS can hear you scream”
The game’s navigation display is a unique format without a real time heads up display (HUD) hanging from the screen behind Isaac. Instead all of the game’s display information is shown in real time ON Isaac. On his back are a series of lights, a dial on his shoulder to gauge his Stasis function, and a long line down his spine for his health. When taking aim with a weapon, another set of lights come to life on the weapon: a numerical counter for ammunition, and a targeting laser that lines up over whatever the player is aiming for. When accessing Isaac’s inventory or message logs, a real time holographic display fills the screen in front of Isaac. Accessing it while turning Isaac around towards the screen (facing out towards the player) will result with the image coming up backwards because it remains locked to Isaac’s point of view.
There are two other HUD views which are dependent on the game environment. The first is a warning light that flashes on Isaac’s weapons when navigating through Zero Gravity. Throughout the game, Isaac must travel between sections of the Ishimura that are set without artificial gravity, and to navigate these areas Isaac has to jump from floor to wall to ceiling and back. Thanks to magnetic boots, Isaac can rebound by jumping through the air space. If a surface cannot be jumped to, this warning light flashes on the player’s weapon until Isaac finds a secure landing point. The second HUD element is important to Dead Space’s second area of play, the vacuum. While much of the game has the player traveling through the primary locations on board the Ishimura, some areas have brief periods that take Isaac outside the ship and into a true space environment. Although the magnetic boots keep Isaac planted firmly to the hull, there is no sound outside the ship save for the audible vibrations coming through Isaac’s space suit. As the player tromps across the hull, a light appears over Isaac’s shoulder with a numerical counter showing how much air he has left before he suffocates. While the player’s air supply can be replenished at strategically placed refill-stations, the situation is dramatized with Isaac’s breathing, the closer the air runs out, the more desperate his breathing becomes.
The overall atmospheric design of the game is haunting. Sometimes reaching that point where players (this reviewer included) will play with the sound turned down low, and lead the player to fill in the noise with some background audio of their own. Me, I chose to insert witty dialogue. The scare factor of not only seeing something occur but hearing it indirectly affect Isaac, is a surprising and enjoyable factor of the game. While the typical horror game is the outright “Boo, here comes the monster” moments, the setting of deep space amplifies the effect. There are a number of turmoil moments, such as the random creature jumping out at the player, or dragging Isaac down a hall way until its violent conclusion. All of which successfully highlight the game’s intention of immersing the player in the moment. Other areas often force the player on narrowly escaping rather than going after a kill record.
“Lost in Space”
No question but I really liked this game. As someone who does not usually go after grotesque horror games, but as a fan of sci-fi games, liked this game. It is not something for the feint of heart, but for those that can overcome a cheap scare that will actually scare you. Remember, this game is Rated “M” for Mature FOR A REASON.
The game is available for PC, Microsoft X-Box 360, and Sony Playstation 3. For this review it was played on the X-box 360.
“Achievement Unlocked: Dead Space Reviewed 100G”
At a couple of points I talk about something called an achievement, which is the X-Box 360 ‘game reward’ system for performing a given task in a game that awards players with a quote and a point value for completion. Dead Space features a number that are dedicated to the story’s progression, but also some that are for things that the player can do. Two of which that I elude to: “One Gun” for playing the game only with the Plasma Cutter and “Kickin’ It” for accomplishing the quick-time event for fending off a particular Necro-morph. These same achievements are translated as “trophies” for the Sony Playstation 3 console.
One more additional note, Dead Space's launch was paralleled by its direct to DVD prequel called "Dead Space: Downfall." As an animated film, Downfall chronicles the events leading to the beginning of the game from the perspective of a security team onboard the Ishimura. While it does a good job of graphically displaying the ship's descent into ruin, it offsets the sense of time. Where the game feels like it took weeks to maybe months, Downfall plays up the Ishimura's contamination after a matter of hours. Despite the difference in time lapse, Downfall is an enjoyable bonus purchase to an already excellent game.
|Posted 23 February, 2009 - 11:44 by Gunpla Rob|