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TVG screams at EA’s new nightmarish vision of sci-fi horror – but no-one can hear us...
- Awesome audio builds a tense atmosphere.
- Decent blend of sci-fi horror.
- Mostly engaging storyline.
- Lulls last for too long.
- Sometimes quite unoriginal.
- Levels get re-visited a lot.
Mixing space with horror has always proved to be a recipe for success. For decades in cinema, we’ve travelled to the darkest depths of interstellar space and come face to face with deadly extraterrestrial nightmares thanks to the likes of Alien and Event Horizon, and even experienced them closer to home in The Thing. Of course, it's not unheard of in videogaming, with id Software's Doom pitting players against the hordes of hell on the moons of Mars nearly 15 years ago.
Already expanding beyond the realms of videogames, with a graphic novel and prequel animation already either available or in production, it’s clear that the Dead Space brand is one that EA sees as highly significant. But does this first instalment (no doubt a franchise is planned) deliver on the scares, the tension, and the cold-blooded atmosphere that has defined sci-fi horror in cinema? Is it even showing Capcom that there’s a new survival-horror circus in town? TVG took a shuttle to the ‘Planet Cracker Class’ starship USG Ishimura to discover more…
The Final Frontier.
Set a few hundred years in the future, Dead Space plants players into the third-person role of Issac Clarke, an engineer sent to the Ishimura after picking up a distress beacon and blanket loss of communications. Joined by two other colleagues from the Concordance Extraction Corporation (CEC), a business seemingly set from the same mould as 'The Company' from the Alien movies, Clarke's job turns into a gory, slice 'n' dice fest early into the game thanks to the introduction of the Necromorphs. Alien sludge that hideously morphs the remains of the dead into twisted forms of teeth and claws, the beings are a nightmarish cross between Carpenter's The Thing and a H.R. Giger sketch...and guns don't do much to take them down either.
Oh, and there are lots of them to deal with throughout the course of the dozen chapters too. A multitude of variants clamber from air shafts, burst through walls, or just stick to the walls like fleshy chewing gum (but with deadly tendrils and the ability to spawn more Necromorphs at will), all of which means that for significant proportions of the game you're nearly always expecting them to emerge from every corner.
Thankfully for Issac, his skills as an engineer and his familiarity with such tools over the length of his career means that he can deftly remove the threat of the creatures – by blasting their bodies into nothing more than a set of separated limbs. Wanton dismemberment is core to combat, and it (luckily) turns out that engineering tools like 'plasma cutters' and 'line guns' can achieve that with relative ease. Phew. Clarke's ability to use telekinesis technology to move objects (such as explosives and even already severed limbs) also acts as some form of attack in extreme cases too, along with a time-bending stasis skill that can slow down the actions of enemies and rapidly moving objects.
Adapting to the creatures as their strength and variations grow is key to surviving the debut instalment of Dead Space. Whilst many will die after losing a couple of limbs, there are others that are quite literally content to continue the hunt with just a head and single claw on their cadaver. Some don't even have heads and barely a limb to dismember, and can reanimate the dead crew into demons before Issac's eyes, whilst others will pop face-hugger like creatures from their 'pregnant' swollen bellies if shot in the wrong place. But it's not even the threat of succumbing which turns the dial on the tension – it's the limited ammo that Clarke finds on board ship. Sure, there are crates that unlock throughout his journey, topping up ammo or credits to buy more ammo or upgrades at the ship's many shop terminals, but for a significant proportion of the campaign, it's a an exercise in conserving shots – so discovering the correct system of dismemberment is important.
More Hot Air Than Dead Space?
Besides shredding through the barrage of flesh-tearing hordes, Dead Space is splattered with various puzzles across the story, taking Clarke and the player into the depths of the Ishimura, into zero-g on the hull, and down to the remnants of the cracked planet, Aegis-7. Some, like rearranging the nodes of the communications dish or disconnecting an asteroid from the Ishimura's tractor beam, offer a decent stop-gap from the action, even though the occasional encounter with the Necromorphs manages to mix things up. Others however feel much more generic and less involved with the heart of the story – shifting electrical boxes from one area to another is a prime example of this.
There are also a couple of sections where players have to man the Ishimura's gun turrets to take out a series of dangerous asteroids threatening to collide with the ship, or shoot down a giant Necromorph, which also gives a short respite against the tension and atmosphere generated elsewhere in the game. There are even times when a Necromorph tentacle reaches out from a wall and drags Issac to its lair, but with the camera suddenly detached at a more cinematic angle, the sequences look more like cut-scenes – catching us out the first time it happened. Dead Space, in typical shooter fashion, also includes set piece boss battles that get thrown into the mix at several stages of the game, all of which feel pretty epic – which is certainly saying something compared to recent trends.
Whatever you're dealt with during Dead Space, it's hard to deny that the game is a slick affair, with the sort of cinematic quality that we're becoming quite accustomed to from EA these days.
As with nearly everything produced by this revitalised Electronic Arts, the production values are high, and matched by the quality of the overall experience as a videogame. Atmosphere is everything in horror, and Dead Space has plenty of it, dropping players into a gameworld filled with flickering lights, electrical discharges, and an ambient soundtrack of clunks, bangs, and knocks that puts players on edge from the start.
This is where Dead Space truly succeeds in achieving, with the minimalist sounds of the dead starship elevating the tension, and sudden shots of 'music' lifting the tension even further. Sequences which sees the player shift into a room filled by the vacuum of space, where the sound is deadened to Issac's footsteps and breathing, are especially memorable, and stand out as being claustrophobic.
Removing any sign of a traditional interface has also allowed the development team at EA Redwood Shores to give Dead Space an increased level of immersion, sucking players into Clarke's hellish experience on board ship. That's not to say you'll be wandering around the Ishimura without any idea of Issac's health or ammo levels; instead, the studio has cleverly interwoven these into Clarke's protective space suit and 'holographic projections'. The same goes for his inventory, map, and communications devices, which pop up just in front of the character. The maze of corridors, rooms, and chambers that make up the Ishimura would be a frustrating mess of generic levels if it wasn't for the 'inbuilt' guidance system that points Issac – and the player – in the correct direction. Some may think the feature dilutes the gameplay, that it makes the experience more of a walkthrough, but it's actually pretty essential and neat nugget to have if (and more likely, when) required.
Not Particularly Rapturous.
Dead Space is far from the perfect game, however. For instance, it doesn’t take long for players to stomp around in already trodden areas of the Ishimura. Early missions include passing through the well-trodden medical bay and the bridge, re-visiting areas already strewn with the limbs of defeated foes, and the generic tram stations that transport Issac across the mammoth starship.
For all the tension that's weaved through the campaign, it does lag from time to time. There are points where the action drops to zero and Issac is left walking around an area by himself for far too long. Perhaps it's an attempt to build up the atmosphere once more, but in reality it feels more like an uncomfortable silence during a conversation.
Resident Evil of course drove the genre right to the forefront in the late 90s, joining predecessor Alone in the Dark and rival Silent Hill in delivering scares in the ’32-bit’ generation, but with Dead Space and Bioshock both diverting the direction of survival-horror at the end of the ‘naughties’, gamers can once again prepare to scare themselves silly on the current crop of consoles.
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