A conventional shooter with an unconventional atmosphere.
EA’s Dead Space can be immediately perceived as a collaborative meshing of styles and gameplay concepts. The setting and atmosphere are more than reminiscent of Doom 3, while the third-person camera placement and over-the-shoulder combat practically radiate Resident Evil 4 and Gears of War’s influence of the third-person shooter genre. The comparisons drawn between these games are certainly valid, and what results is something that transcends the games from which these concepts are derived.
Dead Space places you in the shoes of Isaac Clarke, an engineer placed in a small crew sent to locate and repair the communication systems on the USG Ishimura after communications with the colossal spaceship are cut off. Things go sour quite quickly, and the Isaac is tossed into a nightmare filled with hellish mutants and malfunctioning electronics.
The overall plot isn’t really all that great, but at least remains involved enough to keep the game moving, and sprinkled with enough intrigue to keep the player interested. Isaac is your typical mute hero with zero personality, though his plight is worthy of some sympathy. Besides venturing to the Ishimura to repair the ship, Isaac also hopes to reunite with his ex-girlfriend and high-ranking crew member Nicole, adding a personal stake to his mission and survival.
A video communication system installed on Isaac’s bio-suit plays host to most of the character interaction during the game. Most of the ten-hour duration features Isaac soldiering through the Ishimura lone-wolf style, utilizing the game’s supporting cast as an excuse to receive dangerous objectives that take the player deeper into the forsaken spacecraft. There’s very little contact with the cast in-person, giving those few encounters a surreal feel that reminded me of BioShock.
The exceptional visuals in Dead Space work together well with the audio, creating the sort of atmospheric tension that one would expect to find in a game touting itself as survival horror. The USG Ishimura is riddled with corridors that are fully realized by the game’s fantastic lighting effects.
As well as forcing tension, the dark atmosphere of the game pushes the experience forward through use of various interactive displays that are placed in key points of the ship. As they can oftentimes be seen as the only source of light in the rooms in which they reside, the game treats them as beacons, drawing you further and further into the game’s narration.
Though the atmosphere in survival horror is extremely important, it amounts to squat if there’s nothing to survive against. Thankfully, Dead Space incorporates plenty of enemies with which to engage in said survival activities. The creatures are referred to as necromorphs, and the same basic necromorphs inhabit most of the environments, accompanied by sporadic appearances by more deadly enemies that become more frequent during the latter portions of the game.
Combat takes a familiar form, using the over-the-shoulder laser-sight targeting that was first seen in the fourth entry in the Resident Evil series. Unlike the protagonist in that particular game however, Isaac is capable of performing slow, basic movements while aiming is weapon. Moving while lining up a shot is fairly fluid, and though it won’t usually save you from melee attacks, it’s fairly effective when dealing with projectiles. The move-and-shoot function seems primarily in place to help with the positioning of Isaac rather than his defense.
Some flavor is added to the shooting mechanic by making necromorphs susceptible to increased damage when their limbs are removed, practically forcing quick dispatching of mutant limbs to conserve ammunition to any reasonable degree. This aspect essentially removes all purpose in targeting an enemy’s torso, as shots fixated on those areas are quite ineffective.
Dead Space is also features a wide arsenal of weapons, most of which can be acquired through the Store terminals located in various (mostly) safe zones. Despite there being quite a few options to choose from when selecting your equipment, it’s generally a good idea to equip only one or two weapons. As item containers and enemies produce ammunition based on the weapons at the player’s disposal, I often found myself running low on ammo when I carried too many due to the variety being given.
Along with his weapon assortment, Isaac is also presented with two special powers: Telekinesis and a Statsis Module. Both are essential to the game’s puzzle solving, but also serve well in combat. Stasis can be used to slow enemies to a crawl, while Kinesis can be used to throw everything from footlockers to explosive barrels to body parts as weapons.
The puzzles in on the Ishimura generally have to do with malfunctioning pieces of electronic equipment, of which there are many. This comes as no surprise given the overall condition of the ship, but come on!. None of the puzzles are exceptionally challenging, most of them requiring the use of Kinesis or Stasis in order to bypass an obstacle. It’s all really basic in both concept and execution.
Dead Space stays remotely safe by sticking close to the relatively new conventions of third-person shooters, but not at the expense of the tension and horror that it was built to instill. Though not doing anything drastically different from what has been seen before it, Dead Space is solid both as a survival horror experience and as a fast-paced, intense action game. I’d be lying if I said that this game was worth any less than the price of entry.