“That's it, man. Game over, man! Game over!”
If you’re a fan of the film Aliens you probably remember that line spoken by the cynical and cowardly Pvt. Hudson, just after the drop ship that was meant to take them off the alien infested planet crashed. Just by coincidence I happen to catch Aliens on TV the night before I cracked open Dead Space, the new third-person sci-fi survival horror game from EA Redwood Shores. Befitting considering the game unmistakably borrows elements from such films as Aliens and Event Horizon, as well as video games like Half-Life, System Shock, DOOM 3 and Resident Evil. Pretty good sources of inspiration if you ask me, but will Dead Space make you scream in fear or rather scream out for your money back?
EA Redwood Shores went to great lengths to craft the lore of the Dead Space universe, so much so that they introduced the beginnings of the story prior to the game’s release in a series of animated comics, and will continue to support the plot with the release of an animated movie, Dead Space: Downfall, on DVD and Blu-ray later this month. There’s even talk of possible novels and a line of toys.
In the game, you play as space engineer Isaac Clarke. After receiving a distress call, you and a small crew prepare to board the USG Ishimura, a “planetcracker” ship that mines planets to extract valuable materials. When you crash land on the Ishimura’s flight deck, what you thought was a routine repair mission quickly turns into a nightmare as you uncover that the Ishimura has been overrun by a hostile alien race with a penchant for reproducing using human corpses.
Similar to System Shock, or more recently BioShock, Dead Space uses audio and video recordings as a means of storytelling. Every recording that Isaac finds on the Ishimura reveals more of the backstory, eventually leading up to the present state on the ship. The story and its characters are a little clichéd, and sci-fi and horror fans will likely spot a few of the plot twists coming light years ahead, but the story is more than compelling enough to make you want to see it through to the end.
Dead Space is a surprisingly effective survival horror game, ripe with unnerving atmosphere and exciting gameplay, and that’s due in large part to the amazing sound design and art direction. Visually the game is shocking. The lighting effects build a sense of tension, the alien models are hideous and grotesque, and the ship’s environments range from claustrophobic corridors to cavernous rooms with massive machinery. Audio is equally impressive. Ambient noises help crank up the level of tension, voice acting is solid and the musical score kicks in at just the right moments.
It’s the little audio and visual cues that give Dead Space its edge. For example, when you enter a vacuum-sealed room the color palette changes entirely. Flesh and metallic surfaces give way to a frosted-over look, and the sound dampens almost completely. The only thing you’ll hear is Isaac breathing and his gravity boots striking the ground. And when his oxygen level begins to run out, Isaac will start to choke for air, a truly frightening effect. You won’t hear aliens approach in this type of environment, which only adds to the tension of the moment. This is when Dead Space is at its best. For maximum effect, make sure to play Dead Space with the lights turned down and the volume turned up.
Dead Space does not make use of a typical HUD (heads-up display). The HUD is actually built right into Isaac’s suit. His life, stasis and oxygen meters are located on the spine and back of his suit, and each of his weapons have ammunition counters on them, all of which are easily visible. With no HUD taking up screen space, the immersion level increases dramatically. You can still bring up your inventory, check objectives and examine the current ship level’s layout, but even those are presented to Isaac in the form of a hologram, meaning the game doesn’t pause while you scan your items. As a result, the threat of danger is ever present.
The aliens in Dead Space are otherworldly resilient. It’s often a waste of time to target their head or body. The best way to neutralize any alien is through strategic dismemberment. They’re much more vulnerable when you target their limbs and/or tentacles. Take out of the legs of an alien and they’ll fall to the ground, affording you a few seconds to run over and finish them off with a curb stomp. With stasis and telekinesis at your disposal, you can choose to slow down an alien with stasis, cut off one of their arms with a weapon, use telekinesis to grab the detached arm, and then beat the alien down with his own limb. How cool is that? There are so many ways to kill so many different types of aliens in this game that combat never gets stale. The concept works both ways though. In fact it’s worth it, when encountering a new enemy, to die just so you can watch how they dismember you.
As you progress through the USG Ishimura you’ll find credits that you can use at stores located throughout the ship to purchase new weapons, ammo, better spacesuits, air canisters, med kits and Power Nodes. Why are stores dispensing weapons on a mining ship, I don’t know, but go with it. The Power Nodes, which you can also find scattered about the ship, are used at workbenches to upgrade each of your weapons, in terms of their damage, capacity and reload speed. You can also use Nodes to increase stasis and telekinesis levels, or increase your suit’s affinity for taking damage as well as its oxygen reserve. As mentioned earlier, you’ll need the oxygen reserve whenever you enter a vacuum-sealed part of the ship or travel along the outskirts of the ship. These zero gravity environments add unique twists to movement, combat and puzzle solving.
Dead Space isn’t without a few issues. In Zero G environments, when you leap from one surface to another, you can become disoriented for a few moments as the camera jerks around. This can be costly if an alien is attacking you at the time. There’s a fair bit of back tracking in the game, not just in the sense that you’ll walk from one room to another and then have to walk back again, but that you’ll re-visit parts of the ship later in the game that you’ve already been to earlier in the game. I don’t find this to be a problem personally, but those who clamored about it in other games, like Halo, are considered forewarned. Lastly, by pressing down the right thumbstick you can bring up a navigation tool, in the form of a blue line, indicating the path to your current objective. While it’s a neat way to keep players from getting lost, I found myself using it all the time, even when I knew I was on the right track. It felt a little bit like I was cheating.
Go figure. In an effort by EA to diversify their portfolio with fewer sequels and more original intellectual properties, Dead Space is conceived, a sci-fi survival horror game that will undoubtedly spawn one or more sequels of its own. The story, while clichéd, is still gripping, the atmosphere is unnerving, the gameplay is exciting, and the sound design and art direction are brilliant. If you’re a fan of science fiction or horror, you owe it to yourself to have Dead Space in your collection.