||Dead Space is, surprisingly enough, a new game from a new franchise, backed up by Electronic Arts. The EA guys aren’t exactly known for trying to create new games, which makes the release of this survival horror even more surprising. It’s not a bad title, and it’s also not some “niche filling product”, invented by the marketing department.
However, the game may be new, but the genre isn’t. Dead Space is designed from the ground up to scare you, like any proper survival-horror game should, in a Science Fiction background extremely similar from a conceptual point of view to that of Event Horizon. Long story short, a huge “planet cracker” spaceship, harvesting raw materials for Earth, suddenly goes “dark” (as in, no communications), and the search, repair and rescue team you’re part of runs into a decent amount of trouble once the ship is (re)discovered.
The creatures now populating the Ishimura (the missing ship) are “assembled” from what used to be the crew, and your job, from the first to the last chapter, will be to dispense these monstrosities. Which aren’t exactly intelligent, but hard enough to kill in order to present a challenge.
The story isn’t very interesting, but the way it details the insanity which had affected the crew, and the reasons why everyone went nuts, are nicely detailed, in a pretty smart combination of “religion meets government conspiracy”.
The movie is called Downfall and it’s pretty decent. It made me wish that the producers had found a way to somehow integrate in the game, as it completes the story rather nicely. Still, it’s ok that you don’t need it to understand the storyline, but with its help, the entire game universe becomes more interesting. On the other hand, if the movie didn’t exist, the game would have been good regardless, so its existence as a “bonus” is appreciated.
The creatures swarming the Ishimura present new gameplay elements. It’s pretty obvious that Dead Space got its inspiration from the genre classics, but this part is new: the player will have to forget the fact that the most efficient way to take an enemy down is with a headshot.
The monsters need to be “strategically dismembered” in order to finally kill them, in such a manner that you need to tear off their legs first, then their hands, and finally, if it’s still necessary, the head. For this purpose, the arsenal at your disposal doesn’t consist of classical guns, but SciFi engineering tools designed to cut, weld and burn, retrofitted for battle.
The weapons are designed in such a way that each one of them is needed for a certain type of situation, which is nice, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that a large number of them are useless. They’re either not efficient enough, or they’re just too hard to handle.
If Gordon Freeman was “cool” in his silence, I would appreciate if this “characteristic” would remain, in the future, only in Valve’s games. I’m not identifying myself to the character at a psychopathic level so that I’m bothered when he speaks. On the contrary, give the man a voice. The amount of abuse he endured during the game must have warranted a few things to say.
Still, Isaac is quite “talkative” when it comes to acting during a lot of “tense” situations, and slaps the Halo series over the forehead at the end (you’ll see why), which by the way is extremely well made. It’s a rare thing for a game to have a really good ending.
The sound design helps a lot, too. Skimming over the spatial positioning and other technical nonsense, the sound grabs you by the brain and bites deep in the “uneasy” part of it. I fell for the intensifying music “gag” several times, only to discover that nothing is going to happen. And when it did happen, it caught me completely by surprise. The screeching of the ship, the sounds made by invisible monsters, the children songs, the weird incantations reminded me of The Suffering and filled my headphones with uneasiness.
The result is that Dead Space is pretty damn scary at times, thanks to the sound design more than anything else. At some point during the campaign I had to walk through a vacuum area of the ship. I got jumped by a monster, fired my weapon and… heard nothing. Just a short “bump” in the headphones, and the accelerated breathing of Isaac, backed by the alarming tick of the Oxygen meter.
The lack of any form of HUD also helps in creating a believable atmosphere. There’s just you, your gun, and the creatures. If you need to see how many bullets are left in the clip, you look at the gun. You need to access the inventory, a holographic projection is displayed “in the helmet”. The info provided by the main characters are shown in the same manner, as holographic projections displayed in front of you. The shops where you can buy guns, ammo or new armor suits work the same. Same story for the upgrade benches.
It’s an impressive system, and it works really well. And it feels as something really thought out by the designers. Attention to detail, coolness, everything.
Another thing worthy of mention is the upgrade system, which helps you modify your weapons and armor. It gives you something extra to do, and it encourages you to explore.
The single-player isn’t exactly short, which surprisingly enough doesn’t help at all. I’d usually slap myself for saying something like this, but as Portal has already shown, a short and concentrated campaign is better than a long and diluted one.
Dead Space has this problem. Out of the 12 chapters composing the story mode, a few of them aren’t as good as the others. They’re a bit boring, the objectives seem forced, and the general atmosphere suffers from that. It’s a shame, but entire chapters are just weak, from a “Scare factor” point of view, from a level design point of view… you name it.
Oh, and remember: in Dead Space, if something can go wrong, it will most definitely go wrong. With a precision and steadiness worthy of a better cause. Damn story line…