Dead Space - Darkness Is Waiting

October 22, 2008

Atmosphere can go a long way. Without the sub throbbing at just the right time or some freaky shriek coming from the satellite speakers, games don’t make the same impact. The ones that do are some of the most affecting out there. Dead Space is one of those games. Set adrift on a mining station in the darkest reaches of space, it’s a room-by-room struggle to survive.
You are Isaac, a mining ship engineer responding to a distress signal from one of your planet-pillaging fleet. On-site, things have gotten ugly--the ship is over-run by ghastly creatures and the crew has left cryptic messages. Isaac is quickly separated from his crew, and a claustrophobic, lonesome trip down blood-streaked ship corridors begins. The feeling of isolation is akin to Metroid Prime. Communication comes in on-the-fly messages, and the story is spilled out in an organic way. Cutscenes are minimal, leaving you immersed in the oppressive atmosphere. Voice acting is essential in cases like this, and it certainly carries the day. It can be some powerful stuff, but those looking for a lot of exposition will undoubtedly get fidgety. It’s more about the ambiance than prose, so gauge accordingly.

Dead Space is a corridor shooter. Like many games in the genre, it’s a room-by-room hunt. Clean one up, and the door to the next is unlocked. It’s impossible to get lost or off the beaten path because you can always click the right analog stick and the way is shown. There’s the occasional branching path, and save points are used strategically to ensure the challenge remains intact. A la Resident Evil, inventory management and ammo both become issues at times, but at least there are stores to buy new weapons or restock on ammo or health.

Instead of machine guns, grenade launchers, and sniper rifles, Isaac takes up the tools of his mining trade. The weapons are inventive and plentiful, and each comes with an alternate firing method. There are saws, beams, and rock-pummeling bolt guns. You can also upgrade Isaac’s suit or weapons using benches scattered around the ship. When you’re you’ve got armaments normally used to chip at the crust of a planet digging into flesh, you can guess the results.

The enemies will flat-out scare the crap out of you. They’re so hideous and intimidating that you’ll loathe turning each corner. We just wish there were more of them, as you fight the same enemy types constantly. The best way to take them down is through dismemberment, and we feel like it could have been explored a bit more with a wider variety of creatures. Boss fights are relatively rare, but amazing nonetheless, and a sprinkling of interactive cutscenes gives it an aura of unpredictability.

There is no cooperative play, no online or offline multiplayer modes, and we can only hope for downloadable content, but the single-player alone spans across 12 chapters with each taking about an hour to complete. It’s more than enough time to bite your nails to the quick.

At its core, Dead Space plays like most third-person shooters. There’s no cover system, and movement is handled with the left analog stick and your view and aiming is controlled with the right. It’s the small details that really set it apart.

For starters, there is no heads-up display. Instead, all the important information you need is incorporated into the game’s visuals. Isaac’s health is displayed with a blue neon tube up his spine, and the menu system for using health or other items does not pause the game. It certainly ratchets up the intensity as you attempt to run away from enemies and find a hiding spot to use it, but customizable hot keys for items would have definitely helped. On the upside, having no HUD, you’re never pulled out of the desolate atmosphere.

Shooting is the majority of the gameplay equation, but there’s a lot more to wrap your head around. The stasis ability lets you slow down objects or enemies, and must be used strategically for both puzzles and combat. Isaac also has kinesis that allows him to move objects remotely. Both are woven into the fabric of the game quite well, and can be used for more than just the obvious.

You also get to mix things up a bit behind a turret, and there are several instances where you must brave the cold reaches of space. These sections are some of the more challenging in the game as it’s easy to become disoriented and lose your direction. It’s helped a bit by Isaac’s gravity boots that will attach him to surfaces, but oxygen is also a concern, and enemies are much better in zero gravity than you are.

Speaking of which, the creatures aren’t geniuses, but they’re smart enough to navigate the entirety of the ship. They basically lock onto Isaac and keep coming until defeated. The quickest way to defeat them is through dismemberment, and that doesn’t mean going for the head, either. If you do that, enemies will often morph into alternate forms that are even more deadly. The weapons are designed with this in mind, with one alternate fire simply changing slicing blows from horizontal to vertical. It’s an interesting mechanic that makes you look at enemy encounters in an entirely new way. We love it.

The final piece of the gameplay puzzle is close quarters combat. Just pray you never have to use it. Not only is it far too weak to be effective, just targeting an item box on the ground to stomp open can be hilariously difficult.

Dead Space can feel a little clunky at times, but ironically, it only adds to the tension. Scrambling to sort through the in-game item list trying to find the right health pack with aliens breathing down your neck gets the heart racing, and the strategic dismemberment mechanic is a lot more than just marketing jargon.

Dead Space looks and sounds great. There are so many subtle touches to the visuals that it manages to keep what could be a monotonous gray can of a spaceship from being so. The zero gravity sections are especially impressive as body parts slowly float about and droplets of blood jiggle just as a suspended liquid should. We’ve never seen anything like it in a video game. There are no frame rate issues whatsoever, and while the enemy models have some rough edges, the art manages to be unique despite obvious influences. The animation is what really sells it, making these other-worldly monstrosities seem plausible.

The audio also impresses with a nice 5.1 mix of shrill screams, guttural monster roars, and the creaks of the ship. This is one game that’s five times more effective with the lights off and the surround sound cranked up, so go for it. We promise that it’s worth whatever complaints you might get from the neighbors.

Normally games that borrow a lot of elements from others end up being less than the sum of their parts, but for everything Dead Space borrows it gives something back. The atmosphere is Metroid Prime, and the structure is Resident Evil, but everything else is all its own. The strategic dismemberment, mixture of weapons and supernatural abilities, and relentless intensity make for a game that you’ll be scared to keep playing, but won’t want to stop.