Will the Dead Hear You Scream?
The survival horror genre has been one of the most loved and most loathed genres around. EA Redwood is now entering this genre in a big way with their game called Dead Space, and sufficient to say that Dead Space is one of the best survival horror games to be released these past few years.
You step in the shoes of Isaac Clark, a Space Engineer who's sent out to investigate a distress call on the planet cracker Ishimura, and like all horror movies the ship is a death trap filled with mutated humans called Necromorphs. Ironically, unlike most other survival horror games, the main motivation for the story is purely survival. You are not looking for what has happened; you are not looking for the president's daughter. You are simply finding the fastest way off this ship alive, after you and your crew are trapped upon it. The story is actually surprisingly good and has a lot of depth to it, as you uncover audio and video logs of the former crew and text documents containing pre and post discussions and gossip about the status of the ship and its crew. Some have dialog about the speculation around what has happened, or is happening in the ship, and some are eerily disturbing and sad at the same time. This tactic like Bioshock and System Shock before it, makes the environment feel more devastated or gives you a more better insight as the magnitude of what has happened to the ship, and as derivative as it seems, it does work in making you care more about what has happened. As you may already know, Dead Space has a lot of other media outlets that talk about the story of the game, whether it is in an animated comic or in a movie, but the actual game itself sets up a lot and closes enough for the ending of the story be satisfying, but leaves a lot of questions that at the discretion of the viewer to explore in the various other mediums that this story exists in. Some questions are left unanswered; however these are questions that are better left unanswered as they are much better purposed for discussing with others, and the meaning of the questions through the whole story. Overall Dead Space does a good job in making a well motivated and tight story experience for the user, but at the same time develops this universe that you could easily dig more into.
Dead Space's gameplay will probably make a lot of traditional Japanese horror developer's cringe, as it is very westernized. The game plays in a third person perspective and Movement, aiming, and shooting are extremely comfortable as the layout of the buttons are very much similar to other third person shooters like Gears of War. You can move while shooting, you can strafe side to side, you can even run backwards and side to side. These controls may seem like the sharp contrast to the cumbersome controls typical horror games have come to serve for the reason of adding tension. While Dead Space adds these very sharp controls, the game still manages to instill fear and loathing through every corner. A good chunk of this comes from the games graphical astetics and sound design, but it also comes from the way combat works in this game. To defeat enemies, you have to put use of a strategy EA calls strategic dismemberment.. The enemies you are facing are no mindless and slow zombies, necromorphs come charging at you at, (for a survival horror game,) blistering speed. Where Strategic dismemberment comes into play, is the fact that these enemies do not go down by body or even head shots, in fact head shots tend to give this unfavorable effect of making necromorphs come at you with sharp claws swinging frantically. How you take these monsters down for good is you shoot the limbs of the enemy. For a seasoned shooter gamer this job can actually seem more difficult than it sounds, as in literally all other games the limb is never really the main target when shooting an enemy, coupled this by the fact that you have to do some fine aiming to actually sever the limb, certainly makes the game more tense, as you are trying to do something precise during a dangerous situation.
The weapons you use are not actually made up of conventional weapons. Most of the weapons you encounter are futuristic mining tools used to chip away rock and metal, and the results on flesh and bone are pretty much what you assume. These weapons really what gives Dead Space its brutality. Some weapons like the Ripper use a remote saw that you can drag along cutting up all the limbs of a creature just by pointing at them. The great things about the “weapons” are that you can upgrade them, and none of the weapons become completely useless by the end of the game, with or even without upgrades. There is also the fact that none of the ammo is hard coded into the game, so if you are carrying only a ripper, you will mostly receive ripper ammo, which leaves a lot of the frustration or irritation of other survival horror games where say, you have a lot of shotgun ammo but no shotgun. Two other combat tools are also the kinesis which allows you to throw objects similar to a Half Life 2 at no cost, and a stasis module which slows down objects and enemies. Kinesis allows for some more strategic options which gamers may or may not choose to use. It can be used to conserve ammo as it's totally free, making it a viable strategic option. Personally I found my use of kinesis to be minimal other than some puzzle solving; however other players could find kinesis a viable tactic when Ammo is scarce. Stasis on the other hand is useful both for puzzle solving and combat. In combat you can use stasis to freeze an enemy momentarily to dismember their limbs with minimal waste of ammo, if upgraded the duration enough, it can also be used to freeze enemies and then you can melee an enemy safely because they are frozen, resulting in absolutely no use of weapon ammo. However this module requires its own ammo source and the value of this can vary depending on your tactics. Ammo is actually scarce enough to make you worry and tense about every missed shot, but also plentiful enough that you will rarely every find yourself in a case where you don't have ammo of any kind, which is nice, also if at any point you feel that you don't have enough of a particular ammo, you can always stop by the computerized shops to cash in for not only upgrade parts, but also ammunition.
Inventory management which has been a common pain in most survival horror games is actually very streamlined in Dead Space. Mission items that are required to progress through the game are kept separate from the main inventory. The inventory is pre organized in a way that it's set up in blocks. A certain amount of ammo takes up 1 block of your inventory, and better suits results in more inventory space, you can also go to the shop which also has a safe, where you can keep ammo or health, or even weapons for later use. It's a good way of setting up the inventory that does not result in playing Tetris to make your items fit and reduces the number of times where you are required to drop ammo or health for a particular object, and the inventory space is sufficient enough to carry a reasonable amount of ammunition and health, while not enough to feel comfortable about how much ammo you are carrying, which heightens the tension during those times where it seem like ages till the next shop where you can restock.
The games missions on paper may seem very dull as it revolves around a bunch of fetch quests of getting this power generator or circuit board, and place it somewhere. But the game certainly does justice to the saying “it's about the journey and not the destination.” The most important events that happen are in between where you are faced with strange, tense, and scary encounters along the way. The mission's structure also never has any down time. There is never exactly a point where it seems like it's a proper time to stop and leave Dead Space for another day, so the play sessions can go up to 4 hours without you really wanting to stop. It's one of the many aspects which makes Dead Space as immersive as it is, as you are constantly being fed objective information of what you are supposed to do, and clicking the left analog stick also shows a blue line in the game telling you where to go, so there is no confusion of where you are exactly supposed to go either.
The presentation of Dead Space is fantastic, both from a technical visual design perspective and from an artistic design perspective. Technically the game has extremely good lighting which is key for any survival horror game, and the derelict space ship setting allows a lot of chances to show off the lighting with flickering lights, broken lights, and different tones of lighting. Texture work also looks amazing like any modern game these days, and character details such as the flesh, blood, and body parts stick out really well. The faces look a bit weird as they look very pristine and clean, but since other than the beginning of the level, most of the time you view faces from a monitor colored in blue with a filter that helps mask this flaw. However one of the best aspects from a visual design perspective is possibly the biggest reason why Dead Space is as immersive as it is. It's the fact that you do not have a traditional HUD on screen, all important information are projected or displayed on your suit and on your gun. Other games like Chronicles of Riddick have done this before, and it is a gimmick, but it's a gimmick that does help the game a lot. The feeling that the game will not pause for anything helps increase the tension and the feeling of vulnerability in the game as you know that you can be attacked at all times. Videos, audio logs, ammo, and health are all displayed in front of you, it also above all keeps you immersed in the world. Aesthetically in the world, you also go outside of the ship to view the deep riches of space, and there is something beautiful about asteroids moving pass the screen as you’re walking out the doors. Inside the space ship, you expect to see a very sort of Aliens feel from it, steaming vents, broken lighting, steel floor gates, and it does convey that really well, but it also introduces many biological settings which give this slimy uneasy feeling that everything around you is alive.
Possibly the best aspect of Dead Space is the sound design. It's the best for basically any game to date. The sounds of the ship creaking, to the distinctive insane screams of a necromorph hiding somewhere, it's worth buying good quality headphones for, and if you have 5.1 surround sound, crank it up and your in for a ride. You can basically ignore every aspect about the graphics and the actual monsters themselves giving you the sense of dread and discomfort, the bump in the night will make you turn every corner, and draw your gun at every door opening. The hellish fact that you know something is there but don't know exactly where it is with the sound, makes you look at every ceiling and run to the nearest corner when you think there is danger. The music also plays a much better role than in other survival horrors, where it is dynamic, but it's not dynamic in the sense that other games tend to do, that which they turn on a different tone of music when there is danger near, for Dead Space it changes when you actually see the enemy, giving that initial sense of “oh god!” when you discover a necromorph is 5 feet in front of you. If the battle rages on, you get this distinct build up of high pitched minor keys similar to the Jaws theme. The peripheral audio also is amazing, you can hear the sound of Issac's grunts through the suit like it came from an actual suit, as it has that distinct echo to it. In the far reaches of space, everything goes deft except for the breathing in your suit, and several muzzled gunfire sounds. It's really amazing what they pulled off, and the level of detail that went into the sound. It's arguably better than any aspect of the game.
Are there any flaws with Dead Space though? There is actually no real flaw of Dead Space, it's an incredibly tight and well constructed experience, what some things people may call flaws of Dead Space though, are more things that it doesn't do, and more things that I wished to be in the game. I wish there were more weapons even though the ones they give your are extremely distinctive in their own right, I wish the missions were more engaging, I wish there was more replay value than a little new game plus and a harder difficulty level. These are just things that you can only ask for more about the game, nothing in the actual game itself has anything wrong about it. However there is one issue, that may stick out that may make you not enjoy Dead Space all together, and that is Dead Space's greatest strength which is the immersion factor of the world. It is done so well, that it ends up being a double-edged sword, in that you may not actually enjoy the game because of it. Sometimes the feeling of helplessness and desperation can get to you, to the point where you simply want the game to end, which can make the 10-15 hours this game last feel like twice the amount of it. This one issue can actually be the lynch pin of whether you would like to play Dead Space or not. If you feel uncomfortable playing survival horror games, this game maybe not for you. But if you are one to love the feeling of adrenaline and desperation of being immersed in the world, without the cumbersome control trappings of many other survival horror games, as well as a fan of the story of such sci-fi horror games and films such as Aliens, System Shock, and Event Horizon, Then Dead Space well deserves to be in your collection.