Horror in Space Earns All Its GOTY Hoopla
Posted October 31, 2008
Story-arch originality seems to be the bane of the horror survival market right now, as the only way to tap into profits comes in revamping old series for the modern gaming universe. Dead Space, Electronic Arts' scary-as-hell, labyrinthine space shooter, attempts to detail that notion head-on. It was hard not to let the buzz of Dead Space grab your attention as the release date bounced around like a hot potato, as if EA knew they had a scorching hit on their hands; as other games were scrolling to later points in the year, they twisted the crank and decided to release it early for a pre-Halloween move. To say the least, the game was more than finished; to say the most, with a narrative as engrossing as its Silent Hill and Resident Evil counterparts, Dead Space might possibly be the most nerve-rattling, atmosphere-swallowing survival game of this generation -- and stands as a work of visceral genius. It's everything Dark Sector tries to be and terrifies on a tighter, more spring-loaded scale than most other third-person horror survival games -- period.
It takes the horror into space, where the crew aboard the deep-space mining ship Ishimura's activity has bleeped off the radar. Records show that the outage, which has silenced a ship with a crew in the thousands, started shortly after an odd artifact was brought on-board -- a fact that doesn't bode well for the crew going to investigate. As Isaac and his teammates scurry onto the ship after a horrific crash landing, they're confronted with a large, hook-armed beast that looks a lot like the doctor from The Fly during his later stages of transformation. As the group separates to discover ways to make the inoperational ship work, the captain and crew going to find a way to activate the ship while Isaac zips around in his high-tech armor and array of artillery to conduct most of the repair "grunt work". With the rest of the crew navigating in safer locations through telecom instructions (similar to the directive nature of ole' Atlas in Bioshock), he slowly starts to see that the monster they encountered during their first moments isn't the only one. Far from it.
Dead Space wastes zero time in dunking Isaac into the ship's maddening atmosphere, which renders an environment that throws back to space horror films like Ridley Scott's Alien for its loud, unstable mood. Soon after he starts weaving through the twisted metal corridors of the dilapidated ship, he discovers that the monsters have been transforming all the crew members into these scythe-armed bloodthirsty parasites. It creates a scale of finite possibilities, as the comparison between the stronger, more agile threats and silenced citizens on-board implies that the number of monsters aboard the Ishimura could be near limitless -- at the least, in the thousands. Dead Space uses this number as a way of creating hopelessness regarding killing off the enemy by informing of their numbers: just imaging the difference in the way time passes when you watch a clock tick second for second instead of staying active and uninformed of the time. Knowing that there are at least X amount of enemies in the Ishimura's broken, crumbling atmosphere filled with obstacle after obstacle -- while Isaac's accompanied by nothing more than a voice over the intercom -- can be a nerve-grinding affair.
Part of Dead Space's torture on the nerves comes from a meticulously-concentrated navigation mechanic, which blends smooth tactical movement with dangerous terrain complications. It's not one of those games that make it a wise move to run from point to point, mainly because anything could be waiting around the corner; and, unlike the buffer times available in many other horror survival games, coming within a hair's breadth of the Ishimura's creatures requires tippy-toed reaction time. In that, at least from a perspective of cautiousness for Isaac's livelihood, it becomes a slow build of nerves and tension as he steps passed upwards-streaming jets of air, sludges through zero-gravity lockdowns, and attempts to jog through zero-air spans. Several "haunted house" type staged effects pop up that add to this mechanic; freakish activities occurs behind a non-breakable glass or behind a locked door -- marked as "Stand By" when Isaac tries to open it -- which works to give a jolt or two, though I do wish that game developers could find other ways to wall off characters from non-interactive portions like that.
Nuts and Bolts:
Sure, running and gunning could be somewhat possible in Dead Space, but not terribly easy with this tightly-executed third-person control scheme. Isaac's stock movement is in walk mode, which is toggled by pulling the L2 button, while combat mode activates with L1 -- and both cannot be used, therefore the run-and-shoot really doesn't work. However, because of the bustling nervousness about the game, it lures you into the environment to a point that makes cautious maneuvering and shifting of motion an engrossing experience. It does get infuriating once Isaac has fired his way through a corridor, flipped a switch, then must navigate all the way back through the exact same corridor (read: backtracking) with a slew of respawned enemies. But that swarm of enemies becomes one of the most affective elements of tangible difficulty in the game, as ammunition and weapons toggling add to the sense of immediacy about the situations. Turning around, shifting weapons on the fly, and escaping enemies can all be a little difficult in spots -- though their limitations hinge on realism, and you can't blame EA for attempting to replicate that.
Dead Space reaches its highest points in gaming novelty in its user interface, namely the way that it uses minimal visibility of notification bars to create an unobtrusive, almost cinematic, environment. Isaac has a glow-in-the-dark tube along his back, notched into quadrants for easily visibility, along with a crescent moon light on his shoulder. These aren't just aesthetics -- these provide health and equipment warnings. As the main stripe lowers and changes colors, it informs of Isaac's overall health. Removing any form of health indicator from visible levels -- as well as clunky ammunition bars, which have been repositioned atop the gun itself -- adds to the cinematic appeal of the game, taking it further into a hybrid experience. The deeper user interface, which can be accessed with the Select button, is completely used in-game; in other words, it makes for an experience where learning how to load weaponry and consume health with "hot keys" becomes essential. The result, however, is a fully-toggled three-dimensional in-game map that operates on a couple of highly useful levels, which can go as far as telling you which directions up and down to go in a multi-floored environment without shuffling through pages.
Isaac's second indicator reveals some of the aspects that, thought a lot of fun, are tools that make more sense in the universe featuring Jedis and Wookies instead of aboard the Ishimura. This curved dial monitors another element Isaac must use, Stasis Energy, which is a slow-down projectile field that dramatically reduces the pace of obstacles like doors and debris -- but, sadly, doesn't work against enemies. As the game progresses, he also learns to use a telekinetic variation of this ability (read: force push) that comes in pretty darn handy in many situations, such as flinging a pressure-sensitive explosive canister at enemies when ammunition is low. Each of these simple environment manipulations, though minimally out of place, are executed better than they have been in many other recent games. Just forget the logic behind these elements and it'll reveal itself to be a blast of an experience.
Speaking of ammunition, Dead Space's array of artillery takes a few inventive turns in design -- but, mostly, they're your stock array of pistols, repeaters, and slightly more interesting melee weapons. Isaac starts out with a suitable "Plasma Cutter", which introduces the minimal novelty to the weapons. From it, three beams shine from its stalk. You'll notice I haven't mentioned anything about a flashlight yet in a review about a dark, broken environment with voracious beasts around every corner; that's because, no matter which weapon Isaac has armed, it operates as a perfectly suitable aquamarine light source. When in the firing position after pressing the L1 button, beams of light show the direction that he's aiming. It works when depleted of ammunition as well, which activates the sparse usage of melee attacks available (essentially a gun punch and foot stomp, which will be used more for busting open inventory crates that physical damage on enemies). Eventually, the weapon range develops into pulse repeating guns, melee saws, and flame throwers as Isaac's funds build up and the items are made available at the Store.
Along with being used as an aiming device and light source, they're also a way of showing which "firing mode" Isaac's weapon is in. Each weapon has an alternate mode that changes the way it fires -- in the Plasma Cutter's case, changes from vertical spread to horizontal -- which comes in handy when Isaac starts coming in contact with different types of monsters that require different attacks. And, similarly to Dark Sector, Dead Space has points across its map where Isaac can upgrade his weapons via nodes he picks up ("Bench") to keep speed with the escalating enemies or purchase ammunition, health, and new equipment ("Store"). Upgrading weapons works in a grid-style fashion that kind of reminded me a little of the sphere upgrade layout in Final Fantasy X, featuring different portions that upgraded specific abilities.
You'll be needing to sharpen your artillery potency and reaction time, because the enemies are vicious. It takes some really grotesque creatures to rival the likes of Silent Hill's morbidity and oddness, but Dead Space has assembled a fantastic range of beasts that, though all pretty much introduced early in the game, never seem to grow old. At first, you'll think the stock creatures aren't too bad, mainly because a few well-placed shots to their limbs and heads will severe them and kill with little difficulty. Along with that, you'll be pleased with the fact that each enemy drops ammunition, health, and other assorted items that'll help along the process once they're killed. However, when the environment gets faster paced -- and the number of those praying mantises from hell start to increase drastically, let alone increasing speed and hunger -- then Isaac starts to have a much tougher time. Quickness is key here, because slow reaction time results in having one of those things gnawing at his neck in no time flat. Prepare for that growingly commonplace button-mashing mechanic when that happens, and prepare to really wait away at a high rate.
What impressed me the most is the way the infrequent boss battles seamlessly integrated into the flow of the story, as they offer up meaty challenges without feeling too separated form the flow. But, like everything else in Dead Space, they get increasingly more difficult. The true draw to Dead Space comes in the environment and its denizens' capacity as a sound-based havoc on the nerves, and it succeeds in droves. Its nature could even be too rattling for some gamers at prolonged periods of time; after a few nights of lights-out, room-rattling scourging, it might just start to seep into your dreams. But the quality voice work and compelling nature of the "core storyline" regarding the religious artifact on-board the Ishimura becomes just addictive enough to frequently plunge into the chaotic electricity. Without question, EA's third-person survival game isn't to be missed, especially for fans of the genre. However, the accessibility of the gameplay and horror-flick cinematic flow might also appeal to those normally eschewed from that style -- or games in general.
Graphics & Sound, and Longevity:
Dead Space renders its sci-fi horror chaos in 720p -- 1080p beauty, and it's quite a stunner. The depth of the corridors, usage of textures, and splendid splashes of color against the predominately desaturated color schemes build an intricately gorgeous atmosphere. From a technical standpoint, the framerate is stellar; even when the crazed monsters break loose from glass windows and large canisters are hurled across the room via telekinesis, nothing chops out or loses it strength. And, believe me, there's plenty of bombastic explosion effects, such as the sides of the ship blowing out and rendering an entire large-sized room without air. Isaac's character model looks outstanding as he sports suits that grow more and more intricate as upgrades come along. The only real issue I had was the plasticized nature of the non-playable "victims" that you stumble across a few times. Where EA really brings out the stops is in the interactivity with the monsters, which shimmers, oozes, and jerks with near-tangible precision. It's a grotesque game, and Dead Space's engine gives it an almost touchable scope.
As good as it looks, that's not the strongest aesthetic about running through the Ishimura. Dead Space has got to be one of the most incredible sounding games ever created, as it crafts a chill-inducing soundstage that rivals most bombastic science-fiction action films. First, it's worth noting that the game is loud. VERY loud -- so much so that you might want to dial it down a couple of notches just so that all the intricate sound work can best be heard. Dead Space carries these ornate focuses aplenty, from minor distant effects like clanking and footsteps to gushing of blood and other ... grotesque effects. Plenty of range exists in its aural rendering, from piercing shrills that hit high notes in the speakers to punchy blasts that rumble the lower quadrants. Especially enjoyable are artillery shots, which utilize both ends of that spectrum to emphasize their explosive nature.
But those can be expected successes out of a modern game utilizing the Blu-ray storage capacity; where game design succeeds in a place I wasn't expecting comes in the manipulation of the film's grinding score, reminiscent of an accumulation of scores from the past 30 or so years of horror cinema. It has a fantastic way of integrating into Isaac's motion as he approaches enemies and dangerous obstacles, escalating in notes at just the right moments fore punchier intensity and quickly silencing to emphasize others. Normally this mechanic barely approaches success in other games, but with Dead Space it's a true success.
Returning to the tension within Ishimura, however, might be something that you won't want to do too soon after you've wrapped the twelve to fifteen (12-15) hour experience. As mentioned, the grinding style of Dead Space's dread-inflicting atmosphere crafts it into an experience where plugging through chapters can be both a lot of fun and utter havoc on the nerves. In that, it has limited replayability -- not due to a lack of fun, but just because the same tricks might just rattle the cage without enjoyment when you know what coming around each corner. Several difficulty levels do heighten the intrigue to replay, as does a range of 50 or so PSN Trophies. These trophies aren't quite as generous as the recent PS3 port of Bioshock, but they're pretty bountiful.
Concentrated adrenaline comes whisked together with intricate level design and haunting atmosphere in Dead Space, which will probably pop up on many a Game of the Year list later this year. But, much like a lot of horror movies being released nowadays, it succeeds based off of influence instead of ingenuity; instead of feeling truly distinct, it takes that work in the genre and exploits every ounce of it in a way that unnerves and rattles the horror-survival genre's nerves to new levels. Dead Space doesn't redesign the wheel to operate any different, but boy does it make it fire down the row with gasp-worthy speed. Plunging into the Ishimura, weaving through space's varied environmental challenges, and emptying clip after clip of pulse / plasma charges on some of the more impressively chilling enemy models yet of this generation makes Dead Space a Highly Recommended experience worth enduring -- at least once.