Inside Pulse 12

Review: Dead Space (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Dead Space
Genre: Survival Horror
Developer: Electronic Arts – Redwood Shores
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 10/13/08

Dead Space is a surprisingly highly anticipated title; originally started as little more than a project some developers in EA wanted to work on, it’s become one of the most anticipated titles of this year, largely because it looks incredibly awesome. The actual game, surprisingly, actually lives up to most of its hype; presented as an odd cross-breed of The Thing and Aliens, with gameplay and concept elements from Resident Evil 4 and Silent Hill thrown in for good measure, Dead Space is a visceral, violent experience that, at first glance, looks to be a strong contender for a whole ton of awards this year. That said, any game can wow you at first glance; pretty graphics and solid special effects are only one part of the package, but if a game doesn’t have all of its parts in place appropriately, all of the pretty effects and graphics in the world won’t make it worth playing. Dead Space, thankfully, manages to get a lot of what it’s trying to do right, but does it get enough right to be one of the best games this year? Let’s take a look.

The story of Dead Space revolves entirely around Isaac Clarke, a faceless engineer under the employ of the Concordance Extraction Corporation. He and his team head out to answer a distress call sent from the USG Ishimura, a mining craft also under the employ of the CEC, only to find upon arrival that things are far worse than they had initially believed. It seems that the ship has somehow picked up some hostile alien invaders, called Necromorphs, who have either killed or converted the entire crew into roving monstrosities. As Isaac and his teammates are now stuck on the Ishimura, thanks to a rough landing that wrecked their ship, it’s essentially up to Isaac to save the crew, and himself… though there’s far more going on behind the scenes than one might initially expect. Now, the story of Dead Space is surprisingly solid, to a point, but it’s a bit flawed in a couple of respects. The atmosphere, characterization, and concepts present in the game are surprisingly solid, and all of the various twists and turns the plot makes (through government conspiracies and religious cults and beyond) were handled surprisingly well, all in all. On the other hand, Isaac is essentially something of a cipher; silent protagonists are perfectly fine, don’t get me wrong, but in a game of this sort, some random banter from your character might have actually given him something of a personality beyond “dude who’s looking for his girlfriend”. Also, the story seems to be heavily derivative of Aliens, The Thing, and Event Horizon, and while that’s not necessarily a BAD thing, it makes the story a bit less impressive than it might have otherwise been. Still, the delivery and writing are solid, and the story carries the game nicely from start to finish, complete with a solid payoff to most of the significant plot points at the end, so if nothing else, the story is certainly satisfying.

Visually, Dead Space is absolutely fantastic. Isaac and the monsters he encounters are all rendered exceptionally well, complete with excellent animations across the board (especially so when you blow the limb off a monster and it still continues to come after you, by dragging itself along the ground if necessary), and the spaceship environments are well designed and look exceptionally appropriate. The game also makes use of some outstanding special effects, from the fantastic fire and lighting effects to the grotesque gore sprays from enemies, all of which make the experience that much more immersive and enjoyable. The same goes for the sound design; the in-game music is atmospheric and switches up neatly from somber, depressing dirges to anticipation-heightening frightening tracks as the situation dictates, as one would expect from a good horror film, and the sound effects, be they the screaming of monsters directly in front of you, the sound of your own weapons tearing into a foe, or the distant sounds of people and enemies crying out, are well done and heighten the tension of the game nicely. The voice acting is also done well, as each voice actor provides the right amount of emotion (be it raw terror, insane rambling, smug satisfaction, or whatever else) in their tone of voice to really carry their character from “reading a line” into “really believing what they’re saying” territory, which is a wonderful thing in a game that is very much invested in selling its atmosphere to the player.

Of course, a game is only as good as its controls (mostly), so it’s good to note that Dead Space plays very well, and if you’re a fan of Resident Evil 4, you’ll be able to slip into the game immediately, as the two share very similar control schemes, though there are some significant differences. By default, your character follows closely behind Isaac, the left stick moves, and the right stick turns the camera around as needed. Combat is set to the “left trigger aims, right trigger fires” style of play, though in this case, the right trigger and bumper act as attacks whether you’re aiming or not; while aiming, they engage your chosen weapon’s primary and secondary attacks, respectively, while when not aiming they allow Isaac to punch and stomp, also respectively. Swinging and stomping not only allow you to melee attack enemies large and small, they also allow you to break open crates and such which may contain items to use, be they ammo, healing packs, credits for purchasing things, and other novelties. Enemies may also drop these things, as well, to make your adventures easier. If all of this sounds a little familiar, well, as mentioned above, a lot of the gameplay elements in this game will seem VERY familiar to Resident Evil 4 fans. There are shops to buy goods and weaponry from. The third-person combat mechanics feel, if not exactly the same, reminiscent of that game. You’re able to upgrade your gear in various forms and fashions to make yourself more damage-resistant or your weapons reload faster, deal more damage, and so on. Fans of the prior title will find many of the things that Dead Space does to be welcoming, like seeing a friend you haven’t seen in years, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your preferences.

If the game was a strict carbon copy, however, there would be little to praise, and indeed, it’s the things that Dead Space adds to the concept that makes the game interesting. For one thing, the game is mostly designed to be played without a visible user interface; that is to say, everything you see on-screen to indicate information is a part of the main character rather than a menu or a display on the screen, which is meant to make the game feel less like a game and more immersive, which it’s largely successful at doing. Isaac’s health is displayed by a bar on the back of his rig (body suit), and the ammo for whatever weapon he’s equipped with is displayed on the back of the weapon itself, which you will immediately see when he brings it to the ready. Bringing up data logs and inventory screens is done by way of a hologram display that appears in front of Isaac, which, aside from looking really cool, also allows the game to continue playing in real-time as you listen to logs or look through your inventory. In theory, this could certainly heighten tension as you fumble through your inventory for a needed item, but in practice, your weapons (of which you can carry four at a time) are mapped to the D-pad, and reloading your weapons and using health packs can be done at the press of a button outside of the menu, leaving you to only have to go the inventory in battle in the event of an emergency. As such, the game does a very good job of being both user friendly and immersive, and successfully manages to make sure its interface doesn’t ruin the experience for the player.

As the game takes place in space, it also makes perfect sense that a significant amount of the gameplay takes place in environments that are zero gravity, airless vacuums, or both, and while this helps to add to the experience, the mechanics involved in these environmental changes are also very interesting. Zero gravity environments are interesting, partially because of the fact that things that are not tethered to the “ground” in some form or fashion will float around, be they boxes, items, or the bodies of the dead; and partially because Isaac can maneuver through these locations both by walking and by floating. Isaac’s magnetic boots keep him stuck to the floor beneath you as needed, but by aiming your target at another solid location and pressing a button, you can launch yourself across the distance and land where you targeted, which is an incredibly neat mechanic (and, as such, is used in more than a few puzzles). Moving through vacuum space, on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like: you need to accomplish whatever needs to be accomplished in as short an amount of time as possible, because there is no air in these sections. Isaac DOES have an internal air tank to help keep him alive, thankfully, and you can upgrade this air tank and purchase refills to fill up your air meter as needed, but these sections tend to be a bit more tense than other sections simply because there’s one more thing trying to kill you besides the monsters.

Speaking of the monsters, AKA Necromorphs, combat with these monsters is also interesting in its implementation, largely because fighting Necromorphs isn’t simply a matter of shooting whatever you see. In Dead Space, the simplest way to kill monsters isn’t to shoot them, but rather to dismember them. Cutting off a few limbs or tendrils from a monster will often kill a monster far quicker than shooting a few rounds into their chests, which often makes battles a lot more interesting than one might expect; combat quickly becomes more about precision and less about blind firing, making most battles far more strategic than one might expect, which also makes the experience a good bit more interesting than one might first expect. There are several different weapons you’ll come across through the game, from the expected (energy machine guns and flamethrowers) to the outlandish (The Ripper, a device that fires hovering circular saws), and all of the weapons are pretty damn awesome and useful across the board. Isaac also has the ability to use a Kinetic device that allows him to pick things up and move them around (which is useful for a number of purposes, many of them puzzle-based) and Stasis shots that can slow down enemies and environmental objects (which, again, sees plenty of use for puzzles and other purposes). Add to this the odd humongous boss monsters you’ll face, and you’ll quickly come to appreciate the fact that Dead Space is largely its own game beyond what it imitates.

The game is separated into twelve chapters, most of which occur in different areas in and around the ship, and the core game should take about eight to ten hours to complete. There are a good amount of items and weapons to collect and upgrade, logs of ship activity (in audio, video and text forms) and various other things to find and use, and multiple difficulties to play through for those who are interested. The game also features the old “New Game Plus” option that allows you to start the game from the beginning with all of your inventory intact, in case you want to use your badass upgraded gear to hack through the game a second or third time. With various other frames (body suits) to use, either by unlocking them in the game or downloading them from Xbox Live, you’ll have plenty of toys to play around with should you want to come back to the game at any point, and there are a few mini-games to play around with inside the ship (including zero gravity basketball and a shooting gallery) that give the game some interesting charm beyond playing through the core campaign.

Unfortunately, Dead Space has one significant flaw that, if you’ve been reading along, you should be able to pick up on easily enough: it’s IMMENSLY derivative. Now, okay, if you either haven’t played or seen the things the game is derivative of, or you don’t care about this sort of thing, that won’t matter to you, but if it does matter, well, you’ll find the game to be a little too familiar most of the time. Now, the following statement is not going to make a lot of sense to most people out there, but for the few people who have played these two games, this will explain a lot to you: Dead Space effectively combines the plot and concept elements of Run Like Hell with the gameplay of Resident Evil 4 and some smatterings of Half-Life 2 for good measure. It’s not that the elements of the game have appeared in other places so much as it is that the elements have been seen EXACTLY as presented in other games that’s annoying here. Destroyed spaceship filled with fleshy mass and overrun by aliens? Run Like Hell. Humans converted into ropey aliens with hanging tendrils? The Thing. Text and audio logs recalling the various last moments of the crew members? System Shock, Doom 3, Bioshock and about half a dozen more games by now. The combat, shops and upgradeable gear elements are pretty much point-by-point taken from Resident Evil 4 and left virtually unchanged from that game. You get the point.

Beyond that, though, there’s also the matter of the game not quite properly emulating the games it’s trying to be/be better than. Isaac seems more like an inter-stellar Mister Fix-It than a hero, as he spends almost the entire game doing everything everyone tells him to do, running errands across the spaceship like a flunkie instead of doing anything, well, heroic. Protagonists generally do heroic and daring things; Isaac tends to be more of a lackey to, well, everyone who contacts him, doing whatever he’s told, from repairing communications arrays to retrieving necessary components for repairing ship systems to cleaning up life support and beyond. Direction is generally a good thing in any video game, but in this case, the direction feels less important and more, well, menial. Further, while it’s nice that there are unlockable items and difficulties available when one completes the game, there’s not really much of a reason to really bother playing the game through again, as all of the available weapons in the game are unlocked in the first, oh, four chapters or so, and by the end of the game you’ll most likely have upgraded the few weapons you like significantly enough that you won’t need to do anything in a second playthrough. Oh, and on a personal note, the two turret shooting sections? HORRIBLY annoying compared to the rest of the game, and an option to, say, skip them after a certain amount of failures would have been nice; as it is, they broke up the pace of the game considerably, and made the remainder of the game feel like a cakewalk in comparison.

The bottom line is that Dead Space is a generally well designed, well conceived survival-horror game that would be more readily recommendable if it weren’t incredibly derivative and uninteresting beyond the first playthrough. The story is solid, the visuals are fantastic, the audio is fabulous, and the gameplay is very tight. There are a good, solid amount of weapons and items to fool around with, the campaign is of a decent length, and there’s enough new concepts to the game that it’s worth playing at least once to see the things that are generally new and novel in the game. However, the game is incredibly familiar because it borrows from so many sources, from Run Like Hell to Aliens to Resident Evil 4 to The Thing to Half-Life 2 and beyond, that the interesting and novel things the game DOES do are often obscured by the things the game borrows from other sources. Beyond that, the game doesn’t give you enough of a reason to play through it more than once, makes the missions feel less like an adventure and more like menial labor, and makes some frustrating mini-games mandatory to completing the main story of the game, all of which hurt the experience in the long run. Dead Space is absolutely a game that should be experienced in some form or fashion, simply because it does what it does very well; however, it’s not a game that necessarily needs to be PURCHASED, simply because you can see all of the cool things the game does in the first go-round, and you’ll never need to play it again afterward.

The Scores:
Graphics: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: POOR
Originality: BAD
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: ABOVE AVERAGE
Final Score: ENJOYABLE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Dead Space is the videogame equivalent of a summer blockbuster film: it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience, even though it feels an awful lot like a bunch of other summer blockbusters you’ve already seen, but after you’ve seen it once, you don’t need to see it again. It looks, sounds, and plays great, absolutely, and the story is solid enough to keep you interested in it in-between shearing the limbs off of deformed alien monstrosities, thus making it worth a playthrough, at least. However, the game is essentially a bunch of great concepts from other products mashed together into a unique product of its own that, with a few exceptions, feels entirely derivative every step of the way. Further, the reasons to replay the game are almost entirely cosmetic, and there are a few moments in the game that are significant letdowns in comparison to the rest of the experience. As a rental or an acquisition at a lower price, Dead Space is certainly fulfilling, but after one playthrough, you’ll have seen everything the game has to offer… and if you’re a fan of the genre, chances are good you already have, in other games.