Every now and then, the horror genre needs a good jolt. Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, for instance, forced horror films to explore new ideals and techniques. In the video game realm, Silent Hill and Resident Evil have ruled the survival-horror roost for so long that it seems most newcomers fail before they even hit retail. Condemned: Criminal Origins, a fantastic yet underrated Xbox 360 launch game, was the lone exception. Until now. Dead Space, a new franchise and a new genre for EA, is downright incredible. The sci-fi game flirts with two genres, action and survival horror, and injects some much-needed intrigue to both. We’ve frankly grown tired of the “same old, same old,” and Dead Space is anything but stale. Dead Space follows the horrific journey of Isaac Clarke, an everyday engineer sent to repair a city-sized mining ship called the USG Ishimura, which lost contact with the outside world after cracking open a planet and coming into contact with a mysterious alien/religious artifact. Religious extremism makes for an interesting plotline in the story, and mixing religion with aliens is a scary proposition that almost certainly results in death, right? Sure enough, what Isaac finds is nothing short of a deep space morgue — only the things on board the Ishimura are anything but dead. Suddenly Isaac’s mission is not one of recovery, but survival, as he struggles throughout the game’s 15 hours to repel the aliens long enough to try to get the ship’s systems back online and help him and his two surviving comrades flee to safety.
In many respects, Dead Space sounds (and in fact even looks at times) like DOOM, but making that comparison would be a disservice to Dead Space. DOOM is a mindless hallway shooter with cheap scares, a formula that’s been compelling enough to warrant great sales but has frankly grown old. Dead Space, on the other hand, boils the survival horror genre down to its core tenets — survival and horror — and builds a game around them that’s so pure and well-executed that you’ll find yourself thanking the development team for being such die-hard fans of the genre. From gameplay and story to audio and video elements, Dead Space delivers what could quite possibly be the best survival-horror game of 2008, and maybe even 2009. And yes, that’s counting Silent Hill and Resident Evil.
The gameplay in Dead Space revolves around the very notion of horror, a concept that only succeeds if the viewer/player is consumed by fear. How do you make gamers scared? By knocking their basic gameplay notions on their ear. Quite simply, if you play Dead Space like a shooter, Isaac will die. If you play it like an action game, Isaac will die. If you play it like anything but a fight for survival, Isaac will die. Dead Space puts gamers in situations in which disfigured “aliens” come at Isaac from all directions, in the dark, with poison projectiles and decapitating limbs — and Isaac may have less than a dozen bullets. That kicks in serious survival instincts, as the very fact that ammunition is so rare past the fourth mission is a scary prospect, since we’re all used to Master Chief-like buckets of ammo. As frighteningly intense as the situations are, however, it’s important to keep a level head, because victory can only be achieved by remembering one important phrase: strategic dismemberment.
In Dead Space, filling an enemy with lead (or lasers, or saw blades) has virtually no effect. Instead, that precious ammunition must be used to take out the most-pressing threats on each enemy, whether that be a projectile-spewing appendage, a spear-like arm or the legs that make it track-down Isaac so quickly. Defeating foes, in fact, is never a matter of decreasing their hit points to a certain level, but of removing them from their limbs one at a time. Hack off its legs, and an alien will use its arms to drag itself to our trembling hero. Shoot off its arms, and its goal will suddenly become running at Isaac to bite or slam him to death. But shoot off all its appendages, and the scourge of space will subside.
If Isaac runs out of ammo, or if players want to conserve it, Isaac has unlimited use of telekinesis, which lets players pick up objects in the environment, including individual hacked-off limbs, and toss them at enemies. Depending on the object, tossing it can be a mere distraction to buy time (a torso, for instance) or a damage-inducing weapon (an exploding barrel). Isaac also has a regenerative power called stasis, which is the game’s equivalent to bullet time. Rather than a universal effect, however, stasis can only be used on individual items or enemies (it’s “shot” like Force Lightning from Isaac’s hands), and it’s extremely limited in scope. Using stasis on a few enemies in a group can be quite helpful, as it will slow the most-threatening of them down enough to remove their limbs or buy Isaac a few seconds while the player gets a handle on the rest of the horde. Stasis can also be used to solve some of the game’s puzzles, such as slowing a fast-moving platform so Isaac can jump on it, or slowing a malfunctioning door just long enough for Isaac to pass through.
Stasis, like all of Isaac’s weapons and his space suit, can be upgraded at the various work benches in each level. Upgrades are achieved using power nodes, which players can either buy for 10,000 credits or find for free in storage crates and corpses on board the Ishimura. Whereas weapons can be improved in such categories as damage, reload time and capacity, stasis can be upgraded in its duration with each use and in the amount of energy each use removes from Isaac’s stasis meter. Upgrades aren’t just mindless button presses, though; the upgrade “paths” look like schematic drawings, so players need to decide where they want to place each power node along in order to efficiently reach the desired upgrade. In some cases, getting that Level Three damage rating may require “wasting” a power node on an empty slot. Sure, it’s “strategy lite,” but it’s a nice cerebral touch in a game that otherwise plays with basic fears.
We covered the environments and levels in our Dead Space Environment Feature, so we refer you to that article for details about the game’s multi-tiered levels and the intricate tunnel system in which enemies travel. Suffice it to say, although Dead Space takes place on a single space ship, the fact that the Ishimura is the size of a city let the development team create cohesive but distinct levels, with different lighting, obstacles and architecture in each. The level design lets players tackle any of the objectives for each mission in an order they wish, but the basic game progression is still pretty linear. Fortunately, the linearity is never tedious or boring, as it often can be in DOOM or Silent Hill, because of the variety of enemies Dead Space throws at players and the need to find creative ways to kill foes.
What can be tedious at times is the use of a central “hub” for each mission. In theory this is nice because it provides both a respite and the opportunity to hit the in-game store for ammo, weapons and/or to store items in inventory. In actuality, it makes gamers endure some backtracking in each level. It’s not backtracking to the degree of Halo’s Library level, but it’s definitely there, and it probably adds an unnecessary 90 minutes or so to the game’s length. The overall length is also boosted by a few sequences that seem ridiculously hard, resulting in a few checkpoint restarts. Some of these are the result of the Zero-G gameplay, which is fun but can be disorienting and lead to Isaac’s demise as players struggle with a camera swinging to which-way-is-up-again? angles. Other instances are the result of the game design itself, such as two mini-games in which players mount a Millennium Falcon-like turret and blast asteroids that are bombarding the USG Ishimura. Although these sections add some variety, they don’t seem nearly as polished as the core gameplay, and they actually seem designed to make gamers fail several times before the asteroid AI adjusts and lets gamers pass. What could have been a fun diversion ends up being more of a pain.
EA created a proprietary game engine for Dead Space, the results of which are nothing short of spectacular. From graphics that display natively in 1080p to lighting and shadow effects that really deliver the horror, Dead Space has the visuals to back up any and all of its “next-gen” claims. The shadows cast by Isaac can be wildly pixelized, but considering you almost never see them (because the game is dark, not because he doesn’t cast them), that’s a minor quibble. Generally speaking, whether discussing the distinct level architecture in each mission or the Ishimura’s cohesive color palette, EA pulled out all the graphical stops. The new engine also supports surprisingly varied enemy design, as players can easily tell from down a corridor “great, not another one of those guys again…” and plan their dismemberment/ammo strategy accordingly.
The biggest multimedia accomplishment, though, is by far the game’s audio. The best horror films and thrillers have fantastic audio tracks, and the same can be said about video games. With its mix of aliens and religious extremism, Dead Space has plenty of ambient cues that something’s amiss on the USG Ishimura. Voices quietly mumbling in a corridor (or is it in Isaac’s mind?). Creaking metal throughout the dying ship. A heart beating quickly “somewhere” nearby. Isaac’s steps echoing down the hall. Dynamic music that reflects the tone of the level and on-screen action. Truly, Dead Space is an audiophile gamer’s dream, as it’s both high quality and highly responsible for completing the horror package that is this game.
Dead Space is both a new franchise and a new genre for EA, a bold move that’s easily justified by the excellent product now borne from the development team’s passion. The game is neither a shooter nor an action game, and people who play it as either type will surely fail. Dead Space is a survival-horror game through and through, a game that’s so purely focused on survival and horror as gameplay elements that it delivers a much-needed jolt to the genre. Look out, Silent Hill and Resident Evil, Dead Space is here, and it’s here to stay.
Overall Score: 9.5/10