Not a revolution, but a perfection in survival horror.
Distress call from a mining ship in the deep recesses of space. Everything goes haywire upon arriving. Silent protagonist.
With these clichés, Dead Space seems to be on the track of mediocrity and will be summarily forgotten, right? Well, thankfully, no, because Dead Space does enough on its own part for it to be set apart from almost every game of 2008 as one of the best games of the year, horror or not.
Playing as Isaac Clarke, a silent engineer, the player will traverse the varied environments of the technical marvel that is the USG Ishimura, fighting aliens known as Necromorphs all along the way. This could sound like an 80's B-movie, but the execution of the game makes it much more than that.
Perhaps Dead Space's finest aspect, the action is a culmination of all great action games of the past few years in a package that knows what to fix and what to leave alone. Played from behind the back, third person view, the game takes a lot of cues from Gears of War and Resident Evil 4 such as an over the shoulder aiming system and a laser sight. However, unlike the recent Resident Evil games, Dead Space allows the player to move and shoot at the same time, allowing for a better, more playable experience but still retaining its thrills. Who knew?!
The firearms and "mining tools" that the player uses to defend him/herself are very satisfying to use as well. The default weapon, the Plasma Cutter, is probably the best weapon in the entire game, with plentiful ammunition and brutal effectiveness if upgraded to its maximum levels. The other weapons are no slouch, either. The Line Gun shoots a wide-spread projectile that easily amputates legs and limbs off the hapless enemies. A secondary fire allows for mines to be shot. Other weapons such as the Pulse Rifle and Force Gun are a blast to use, even if ammo is scarcer for these. The Flamethrower should be ignored, as its ammo runs out for too quickly and the shooting mechanic is too archaic for proper use. Nonetheless, Dead Space is very original in its weapon design and really enjoyed shooting the gun, an aspect many games surprisingly leave out these days.
Added to the weapons is a persistent, satisfying upgrade system. By using power nodes, an item found in certain containers and high level enemies, players can commit these pieces to each weapon's circuit board, upgrading firepower, reload time, capacity, etc. Strategy is required when upgrading, because once a node is placed, it cannot be removed and the player will have to think in the future as to which route will be the best in the long run. Isaac's suit (which can be also upgraded with money through different "level" suits) can also be improved upon with power nodes, increasing hit points as well as air capacity.
Speaking of "air capacity," this game features a plentiful amount of zero-gravity and/or vacuum sections. This is truly original in an action game of this sort because players will be running against the clock as well as running along walls, navigating damaged sections of the ship as well as the true exterior itself. Once again, the controls are always spot-on, and if I died, I knew it was my fault and not the controls.
One aspect I have delved far into detail yet is the "strategic dismemberment" options this game oh-so touts. In order to kill enemies effectively and conserve ammo, the player will aim for body parts, mainly the legs and arms, to slow down and ultimately kill each disfigured Necromorph. The action is obviously very bloody, and, of course, very satisfying. I never felt as if this was a gimmick to set it apart, and all throughout the game I was dismembering aliens, which got progressively harder and harder to do.
I have not spoken much of the story yet, and I will not go into detail because I found the twists and turns it presented along the way to be very genuine and nerve-wracking. It is not up to par as an epic like Grand Theft Auto IV or Metal Gear Solid 4, but it is enough to make the game interesting and then some. In fact, there is no reason to shortchange it because, with a mix of scripted moments, audio, video and text logs, and discussions with fellow people on the ship, it was very, very successful.
In addition, the horror aspect of this game may change for different players. I, personally, found the game to be very thrilling, if not scary. Seriously, that is okay. I am usually frightened by games like Silent Hill 2 and the Condemned series. Resident Evil 4 freaked me out in the beginning, but I got over it. So, with its similarities to RE4, Dead Space may be more of that game that is thrilling and gripping throughout its journey, if never extremely scary that I have to stop and take a breather. And therein lies its excellence: I could never put it down.
Furthermore, the technical aspects of Dead Space, the graphics and sound, are stellar. Playing on an HDTV and a new sound system, I felt immersed in the blood-soaked corridors of the Ishimura, with each light glimmer and rustle of metal tricking my senses. The audio design team must have slaved hours over this title because it is among the finest in any game to date. Period. Every enemy's disgusting appearance is met with an even uglier soundtrack, and there are never sounds that repeat themselves into annoyance. The graphics, of course, are stellar, and the views of outer space are truly remarkable and I was blown away by its beauty every time I saw it. In addition to perfecting the game's soul and playability, EA Redwood Shores accompanied it with a perfect technical showcase.
So, what else is worth noting about Dead Space? I left out details on the bonus "missions" the player can partake in such as "zero-g basketball" and a shooting range. Those are fun distractions and both net easy achievements. That brings another very important aspect up, achievements. By merely completing the game, I got around 650 points, a considerable sum by anyone's measure. So, to the achievement whores out there, you won't have to suffer through Lost: Via Domus or Open Season to get a good fix.
All in all, Dead Space is one of the best games I have played in years. From the pitch-perfect controls, excellent weapon design, gripping atmosphere and constantly dynamic gameplay mechanics, I was always enthralled by Isaac's mission and kept with it until the very end. For any fan of action games, this is a must-play.