Innovation is key to the development of any medium, video games included. And there's always a large chunk of games vying for the crown, racing to debut the most off-the-wall play mechanic they can think of - or if you're Nintendo, tacking on arm-flailing to a regular game - and every once in a while you end up with something great, something stunning that takes you by surprise and makes you wonder why nobody thought of it till just now.
Dead Space is not that game.
In fact there is precious little new in the game at all. It's in a common genre with a familiar setting and a pretty standard plot. You walk around poorly lit corridors of a creepy spaceship shooting hellish creatures and keeping close tabs on your ammo and health as you nervously await what's behind the next door. There's a wealth of games that are easy to draw direct comparisons to. The atmosphere is distinctly System Shock 2 with a dash of dull, lingering Silent Hill dread. The gameplay is Resident Evil 4 with some of the better bits of Lost Planet. The storytelling is very System-and-Bio-shock. And it's at least as good if not better than all of them.
Glen Schofield and his team at EA Redwood Shores deserve the best kind of acclaim for what they have done here. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, or, alternatively, cranking out a feeble clone of a popular game, they have instead created an original IP that takes everything good from all the best examples of the horror game archetype and forges them together in a cohesive, fun, and brilliantly polished whole. Even more impressive is that recognized and ubiquitous gripes - quick time events, escort missions, repetitive hacking mini-games - are very obviously absent. Somebody finally listened.
As engineer Isaac Clarke, you begin the game on a shuttle en route to USG Planetcracker Ishimura - a massive mining vessel designed to extract New England-sized chunks of a planet's crust and process the valuable minerals. They've issued a distress call, are now incommunicado, and what's more, Isaac's girlfriend happens to be on board. It's up to you and your team to find out what went wrong and fix it. This isn't the kind of story you couldn't easily find in any Sci-fi pulp magazine, and it's not full of shocking twists and turns. But it's pretty much classic space horror and serves the purpose of providing an interesting backdrop to the game's events.
Soon enough, the shit hits the fan. The shuttle crashes. The crew is attacked. Isaac gets chased by horribly deformed yet vaguely human creatures and has to run for his life until he finds a mining torch to serve as a weapon, and you slowly acclimate yourself to combat.
Using an over-the-shoulder camera, the game quickly informs you that the quickest way to kill enemies is not to aim at center body mass, but to cut off their limbs. Now honestly, that doesn't make a lot of sense to me. In fact it's pretty damn backwards. But none of that matters once you realize it's fun as hell. Only one of the seven weapons is an actual gun- the rest are mining tools ostensibly designed to slice, burn, or explode their way through solid rock. The enemies in the game are luckily a little more fragile in comparison. All weapons have an alternate fire mode, and you have melee attacks as well. You can punch then backhand a standing enemy. Or even better, you can stomp on a grounded enemy. HARD. Hard enough to rend limbs and heads.
Soon you acquire a Stasis Module that lets you slow time within a small area - not only does this come in handy for environmental obstacles and puzzles, but it all but freezes enemies, giving you more time to strategically hack off their legs, arms, heads, tentacles and whatever the hell else they grow. All while cackling madly, preferably. Not good enough? Well okay, how about unlimited telekinesis to grab items, manipulate the environment, throw objects at enemies, throw enemies at enemies, or throw a body part of an enemy at the same enemy you tore it off of? The combat mechanic simply never gets old the whole game through, and in the parts where I actually had to just run for it, I was quietly cursing the fact that I couldn't chop off just a few more limbs.
The main progression of the game is very vanilla. Go here, fix this. Find a key for this door. Go grab these parts from all over the level and bring them back here. The goals may be pedestrian, but the atmosphere and combat is so good, I never once cared. There's even a fair amount of backtracking in the game, but careful level design and item placement meant that plenty of new ground was left to explore the second time through, and aside from the regular jump-out-and-bite-you enemies, ambushes varied enough so that there was never the same trick twice in a row. I couldn't be sure what to expect from room to room, even if I had been there before. Beginning to end the game kept upping the ante and keeping it fresh with simple but oft-ignored enemy scripting methods. I'm still shocked that any game dev actually paid this much attention to What Doesn't Suck.
The other pillar of survival horror, obsessive inventory management and equipment upgrading, is also present, and in rare form. You can carry up to four weapons at once, and depending on the level of your suit (in the future, engineers get to wear badass-looking armor), you have up to 25 inventory slots to carry ammo, valuable items, and health and stasis recharges. Excess items can be stored in the safe at the Store, which, somewhat dissappointingly, is an automated kiosk and not a creepy guy in a trenchcoat with a vaguely Australian accent. Collecting 'power nodes' lets you upgrade your RIG (suit systems control, presumably stands for something cool), stasis and kinesis modules, and many aspects of all your weapons. If you're careful and take the time, you'll be reasonably well prepared for what's ahead assuming you don't choke when you're getting mobbed by 10 enemies at once.
Having mastered the core principles of survival horror, the Dead Space team threw in a couple of new goodies of their own. In several areas in the game, you are introduced into Zero-G environments. In Zero-G you can aim at an opposing surface, near or far, and jump to it with Y - and it's even cooler than it sounds. Not only do these sequences lend themselves to fun navigation and puzzles, but the combat gets even more intense. Enemies are just as adept at space-hopping from wall to ceiling to floor as you and will come at you from any and all angles. Severed limbs float around the room and blood spurts into little globules and hangs in the air. Sometimes you'll be in a vacuum as well, and the fantastic muffled sound effects amp up the panic even more. Somehow a regular enemy is a lot scarier when you can't hear it coming. And keep in mind that the Ishimura's Zero-G Basketball arena is still fully functional.
That's indicative of the level of detail that went into every bit of Dead Space. All the fun core dynamics would be less impressive if it weren't all polished to a mirror sheen (Speaking of mirror sheens, this game does NOT run on Unreal Engine 3, sorry to all the vasoline-layer and texture pop-in fans). Graphics are tops, and I never saw a bit of slowdown. Staccato string arrangements tell you when to be nervous. Immersion in the game world is near-absolute. Menus, ammo counters, and even health and stasis bars are all treated as holographic ingame displays, as if they're there for Isaac to see and you just happen to be there. They're in real time too: aside from the store, upgrade bench, and save stations, the action doesn't pause when you're in menu. If you've chosen a poor time or place to sort through your health packs, you'll be sorry in short order. The story is presented through video, audio, and text logs. If you so desire, you can view some of Isaac's personal thoughts in his mission log. Otherwise, he's the classic Silent Protagonist. The pacing is brilliant: when the game is slow, it's cause you need the break. When it's fast, dear lord is it fast, and deadly, and thrilling. Some of my favorite bits of the game are scripted sequences where you're grabbed by something huge and are being drug to your imminent death. In any other game you'd likely be prompted to hit Y, then X, then maybe A+X, then oh shit, not fast enough, sorry. Instead, you're still in control of your abilities - if your head is clear and your trigger finger is fast enough, you survive. And when you do itâ€™s due to skill, and not a random series of button presses. Who'd have thought?
I can't come up with much to complain about for this one. It can be pretty short if you rush through it. The overpowered euphoria of the New Game+ mode is somewhat hampered by the unskippable nature of the ingame cutscenes. When you're in bright areas you notice that detailed shadows are badly aliased. There's the fact that part of me wishes the game sucked so my review would be funnier.
If there's a main negative to this game it's simply that I don't like giving EA money, knowing that most of my purchase price is going to be funneled back into derivative shovelware WWII shooters or football games. But that doesn't change the fact that Dead Space is a masterful piece of work and the best game I've played all year. It's on 360, PS3, and PC, so there's not much excuse. Rent it. Buy it. Tell your friends. Just play it already.
Dead Space - 360 / PS3 / PC
Nigh upon perfect. Beautiful graphics and sound design mesh with all the other elements to suck you in deep and keep you there for hours.
All the polish and atmosphere might fail to come together if it weren't for the fun, strategic, and satisfyingly gruesome combat that drives the game forward.
A pretty wide swath of options exist depending on weapons you favor and strategies you employ. Paired with the beloved New Game+, there's a lot beckoning you to play again and again.
I think games cost a bit too much these days as I am becoming old and crotchety, but an hour in I felt assured my 60 dollars were very well spent, and I haven't changed my mind on that.
My unequivocal choice for game of the year for 2008. You need to play this.