Platform(s): PS3, Xbox360 and PC
Allow me to commence this review by saying this: I wish I absolutely adored “Dead Space” and I absolutely wish this game was a massive landmark in the survival horror/SF thriller niche such as “Alien” which this game initially promised to be. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of the series, I dig the character of Isaac Clarke and the developers have their bloody, oozing hearts in the right place. Ultimately though, when you strip away its one flawless grace- its atmosphere- all it is is another actioner horror that just happens to have icky mutants who are dying to make your life a living Hell. Let me elaborate.
When the super-expensive and super-populated USG Ishimura, a mining space vessel, sends out a distress signal to the Concordance Extraction Corporation (CEC) during a mining operation on the planet Aegis VII. The CEC dispatches the USG Kellion to investigate. After a guidance system malfunction crashes the Kellion into the Ishimura dock, the crew tries to seek other means of traversal. As they explore the seemingly abandoned ship (like that ever ends well), they are attacked by grotesque nightmares (Necromorphs), killing off all but ship systems engineer Isaac Clarke (Gunner Wright), Commander Zach Hammond (Peter Mesnah), and IT boffin Kendra Daniels (Tonantzin Carmelo). Hammond notices that many of the ship’s systems are failing; he and Kendra direct and assist Isaac in fixing them, so as to keep them all alive for rescue but doing so will never be easy.
What you have just read is pretty much “Dead Space” in a nutshell. It’s a very simple story, one we have all seen or read before and save for several key elements that are made apparent throughout the game it is all same-old territory. Every level consists of the almost mute Clarke taking a tram from station to station upon the ship, getting some things to fix some other thing, encountering numerous blood-thirsty enemies and getting the heck out of dodge, rinse and repeat. To say Dead Space isn’t original would be like bashing a brick with a pail of rock hard porridge and saying the sky is blue. Everything you see in this game is a convention that has certainly been done somewhere else to a variant effect. As mentioned before, the only thing that is blameless about the game is the tone and mood it sets, you’ve seen it before, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t appreciate good tension building when you see and experience it firsthand. However, that only lasts for perhaps the first hour or so of the game before that sense of unfamiliar intensity wears off to some sort of pragmatic acceptance. That shouldn’t suggest the game doesn’t change things up every so often to keep you on your toes, it does, but upon completing the entire thing, I personally didn’t find myself fearing for my life every moment upon that accursed ship because by then every enemy, every boss fight had an air of predictability. On top of that, while it does fit in to the narrative, Isaac is bestowed with such a generous amount of super-effective offensive and defensive instruments that it almost seems unfair to your mutated extra-terrestrial buddies. Almost. A truly effective survival horror game’s replay value comes from the gift of unpredictability, frugal resource management and never making any situation too comfortable. I know that sounds unfair, but considering pre-release “Dead Space” was being sold as a ‘bite your fingers to the bone’ type chiller thriller I was expecting precisely that. A game just isn’t scary when fugly freaks with mean attitudes jump out to show themselves fully in the first few minutes, regardless of how impressive they appear. The crucible of suspense, which is a branch of horror and vice versa is show but not show all and tell, but not all at once.
Now after having shredded through that beef like a shameless Stalker, here is what I enjoyed:
- Isaac Clarke. Although Clarke is more or less the non-verbal avatar of the player, I did find myself quite attached to him as he struggled to get the Ishimura back up into running order. One of the best things about him is that he is not some battle-ready warrior who knows kung-fu, flays around with machine guns and bears a token rough neck attitude. He is a blue-collar worker who specialises in repairing and making machinery not the business of murder. As a result, quite a few of his weapons are products of what he finds on board the ship, be it a construction tool or a drilling device that he can alter to suit his purpose. Granted, to be a deep space engineer takes massive amounts of intelligence, but Clarke is just some poor guy who gets throw into a situation he was absolutely not prepared for. All he wants to do is do his job take his ball and go home… and worry about trying to find his missing girlfriend. Although he doesn’t speak much, he is still a solid presence in the game and I felt I wanted to protect him at all times. By the way that suit he gallivants around in? SO awesome.
- The mythos. Again, while the notion of some sort of supernatural power/virus has already been exploited in gallons of media before it, I have to hand it to “Dead Space” for not insulting the player’s intelligence with the backstory behind the Necromorphs and just about everything shitty going on aboard the Ishimura. If I do say so, this elusive “Marker” has strong ties to H.P. Lovecraft’s Old Ones that are not merely coincidental. As you fair AA fans have already seen I love my Lovecraft and when I see something reference H.P.’s universe I can’t resist it. Cthulhu and co is my candy and I could never say no to candy.
- The atmosphere. There really is nothing else that needs to be said. Anybody who is a first-time player will automatically get the willies while walking down a darkened hallway illuminated by barely functional halogen lights. Even if nothing decides to pop out and give Isaac a kiss the player is conditioned to think of it as a possibility. Not only that, while Isaac travels deeper into the belly of the beast, he witnesses the disturbing behaviour of surviving crew members who too have been affected by the Marker as well as coming across written testimonies (often smeared ominously with blood) and several recordings from staff aboard the Ishimura before, during and after the catastrophe.
- The controls. Although I am not a specialist in terms of dissecting in-game mechanics, the tank controls of “Dead Space” does indeed work in its favour despite other drawbacks. Given the tight quarters of most environments on the ship, it’s not too hard to imagine that combat within a small hallway or a room filled with bent out of shape machinery demands the player to keep a level head. Although I have heard several arguments pertaining to Isaac’s ‘Kinesis’ and ‘Stasis’ modules (one moves things, the other effectively freezes time and objects within a localised area), I have no problem with them. Given it is the distant future, who knows how far our technology will reach? You can’t exactly say it can’t happen at present. Truth be told, they were incredibly useful throughout the game and weren’t merely a one-time usage type of affair.
- Necromorphs. While over time you don’t so much feel afraid of them, rather a sense of “Oh, YOU again”, I would be hard pressed to deny they aren’t some of the ugliest enemies in a videogame. Taking a loving cue from John Carpenter’s “The Thing” those buggers don’t have any limit when it comes to assuming disgusting yet compelling forms. I daresay there is a touchy sense of controversy with one particular variant known as Lurkers, an infected infant- yep, mutant babies. These things are as transgressive as they come and in my opinion, that is exactly how they should be.
- The vacuum sequences are perhaps my personal favourite moments. Isaac will have to step outside of the ship in order to get from one area to another and it is a timed affair. While these moments may have some Necromorphs to have fun with, when it was just Isaac’s breathing in an otherwise silent space vacuum environment, the hairs on my arms were on end. Space is a beautiful place yet completely dangerous and frightening and that fear of running out of air with the risk of floating silently into the great beyond still remains a personal high point for me. So many close calls can be had when you realise that you only have three-quarters of O2 left and Isaac isn’t even half way through a field of space junk. That feeling of panic is what horror is all about and in those particular stages I felt it to my bones.
In closing, although I harangued the game quite mercilessly to begin with, “Dead Space” does endure quite a few play throughs on Bea’s PS3 because it’s fun. I know it like the back of my hand but a lot of the reply value comes from the fact the game is fun. Very, very fun. Is it frightening? To a green thumb player, for sure, but overall? No, and while nothing is bound to shock the seasoned player, the game still delivers a good dose of “Break out your plasma cutter” that is bound to sate that desire for slaying the ugly bastard who tried to steal your doughnut. Uh, what did I just say?
Fun Factor: 7 – Although the game’s initial intensity wears off quite quickly as you escort Isaac through this crazy ship, there is still enough moments of “Crap, what do I do?!” when faced with a particularly gruesome and hard to beat enemy. Personally? I get a kick every time Isaac stomps on a downed Necromorph with that signature smoker’s grunt.
Graphics: 8 – Pretty darn good and pretty darn dark. Although some areas may require you to adjust the brightness of your screen, the textures and detail are among some of the most respectable in a game such as this.
Sound: 8 – The soundtrack and voice acting actually strongly compliments the visual factor of the game. Special props must be given to Mesnah and Carmelo for contrasting between each other and giving a sense of interpersonal tension.
Control: 7.5 – Nice movement, easy to master combat and firearm controls benefit the game overall but some clunkiness from the tank technology can be expected. What I like is how some of the puzzle solutions are not immediately apparent and you need to work through them via trial and error, so there isn’t really anything wrong or awkward here.
Lasting Appeal: 8
77% – OK