Dead Space review
No-One Will Hear You Scream
Ah, horror. As a veteran gamer I’m a bit ashamed to confess that Dead Space represents my first sojourn into the horror genre of video games. It’s important to clarify from the outset that, to a certain extent, what you get out of any horror game will depend on personal preference. Me, I’m not the sort of person who has ever found joy in scaring the shit out of myself by watching The Exorcist alone with all the lights out (no offense to anyone who does). I guess it shouldn’t then come as any surprise that this, as my first experience of ‘survival horror’, wasn’t something I particularly cared for. Sure, I’ve always harboured something of a morbid curiosity towards all things supernatural, but to say you ‘enjoy’ playing it is at best misleading with respect to the emotions it evokes. Nevertheless, just because I don’t particularly LIKE it, doesn’t mean that I’m completely ignorant of what horror ought to be like, what a horror game does or doesn’t do well, and unable to review it objectively. It isn’t fair to completely write off a game simply because what it aspires to isn’t to your particular taste, but I will begin by stating this: if you absolute hate anything remotely scary, you’ll get very little out of this game. It will induce paranoia, panic, and at times disgust and it’s rated 18 for a reason. You’ve been warned.
Released in 2008 and developed by EA’s Redwood Shores, Dead Space is the third person action-horror smash that spawned a franchise. While mining a distant planet, the starship Ishimura unexpectedly sent out a distress call before all communications went dead (roll on snare).You play as sci-fi archetype Isaac Clarke, one of a team of engineers sent to investigate and fix whatever the problem is. In a huge twist you totally didn’t see coming, upon arrival you find the ship’s crew seemingly wiped out, a horde of grotesque alien creatures called ‘necromorphs’ waiting ready in ambush to separate you from your party, and a routine repair mission converted into a struggle for survival as you try to find your lost love and bring yourself and your surviving teammates home in one piece. The wildest dream of every nerdy engineer in the target audience, I’m sure.
Welcome to the Ishimura. Clichéd? Yes. Brilliant? Yes
The first and most obvious question for any horror game is, assuredly, is it scary? To be honest, scary isn’t the word for it. It doesn’t fill you with that true sense of fear that you might expect from being stuck in the middle of space with a slew of bloodthirsty, animated corpses trying to eviscerate you at every turn. It’s closer to one of those budget flicks that relies on buckets of blood and gore and shocks resulting from loud noises and sudden movements which always seem a bit cheap. Make no mistake, every corner you round and every door you open, you’re constantly on edge. At any second a guttural gurgle might announce the next monster trying to pounce on you and tear your throat out. But it isn’t creepy as such. Once you grow accustomed to your enemy and your environment, you’ll feel less scared than nervous. It’s not the sort of thing that will keep you awake at night.
Semantics aside, the heartiest congratulations are awarded to the game’s graphics. It’s clichéd to an extent – shifting shadows, spooky sounds, enemies playing dead or crawling through the vents; you’ve seen it all before. But the decision to opt for disgust over dread pays off with the gritty spaceship setting combining superbly with the hideous necromorphs (reminiscent of Fallout 3’s centaurs) to provide a stunning contrast to the eerily beautiful deep space backdrop. The use of light (or rather, the lack thereof) is excellent, and a mere shifting shadow has you reaching for your holster. Textures are spot-on, framerate is perennially smooth, and the whole presentation aligns perfectly with sound effects which range from sudden horrific shrieks to subtle, distant footfalls. The end product is greater than the sum of its parts, and will fully immerse you in Isaac’s desperate struggle through a believably foreign environment.
The graphics aren’t the only innovation beyond the tried and tested. On release, ‘strategic dismemberment’ was the buzz word which aimed to describe the supposedly unique basis of Dead Space’s gameplay. Shooting enemies in the head is at best ineffectual, and at worst counterproductive: instead you are encouraged to aim for their limbs, which will not only award extra damage, but you get to laugh at your formerly ferocious foes as they try to pull themselves towards you sans their legs or arms. However, the tradeoff is the extra skill this demands of the player, and as a result, Dead Space is so much more a game of skill than strategy. Enter the first preference-based criticism: survival horror with necromorphs is so unlike survival horror with zombies. When you see one, it sees you, and will be upon you in a matter of seconds. There’s no fight-or-flight decision because you can’t run away. Melee attacks are so ineffectual it’s painful, since Isaac’s swings are so wild and clumsy that you’d swear he was used to drunken brawling. Fighting’s just a matter of which gun to use, and on which body part to use it, and once you’ve mastered it just repeats over and over. Sure, different weapons (and there’s a decent range to be fair) will provide you with slightly different means, but it’s all the same ends.
Innovation: No heads-up display means this is literally what the game screen looks like. The health meter’s the blue bar on his back
In fact, while playing it occurred to me that designing a game such as this is a matter of trade-offs. As a combination of horror and action, at every turn the developers have been forced to choose between soul-sucking survival horror and nerve-wracking HOLY SHIT KILL IT KILL IT action. The problem with Dead Space is that they’ve tried to include both, and in doing so, have created something which isn’t convincingly either. Take the decision to use a third-person perspective as an example: in line with many of the better survival horror staples, it’s a lot easier to be horrified at the size and speed of the necromorphs when you have Isaac on your screen as a constant point for comparison. It’s particularly effective at inducing a sense of paranoia, and making you feel a whole lot more vulnerable, because you can see exactly how far away they are, how quickly they’re moving towards you, and how the scythes they use for hands are about as tall as you are. Isaac’s bulk also serves to hide a significant portion of the environment at all times, enhancing feelings of claustrophobia and unease at what might be lurking just out of sight. The downside is that Isaac turns like a bus and the camera turns with him, making your physical reaction time much slower than realistic, and frustrating when you know something’s bearing down on you from behind with dishonourable intentions. Stomping on your enemies, while fun, is also horribly inaccurate for this reason. There’s no option á la Red Dead Redemption to change which shoulder the camera positions over while shooting. For a game that demands so much from the player in terms of shooting precision – providing only limited ammo and shooting specific body parts becoming a necessity at higher difficulties – it’s clunky and frustrating.
A playthrough is also undeniably linear. Chapters, of which there are twelve, are separated by goals rather than location. The Ishimura comprises of different sections which are accessible by a tram, with tram stations effectively serving as a lobby. While exploration will occasionally reward you with ammo or upgrades, there’s very little incentive to stray far off the beaten path. If you’re a completionist you might be tempted to investigate every nook and cranny to find logs to further the narrative, but for the rest of us, you’ll mostly find yourself heading from A to B as quickly as possible. And while you can’t obtain all upgrades in a single playthrough, subsequent ones are identical, except that this time you know what to expect and roughly when to expect it. Where’s the fun in that?
I’m an unashamed stickler for narrative quality, and controversial though it may be, I’m going to stick my neck out and declare this to be one of Dead Space’s greatest shortfalls. Ok, perhaps survival horror games are relatively new to a deep space setting, and it has a number of interesting effects on atmosphere. The game’s impressive graphics shine best when you play against a backdrop of the infinite void, a belt of asteroids raining on your head, or a star blazing furiously in the distance. But let’s get two things straight: it’s not the first time it’s been done (think Alien, Doom) and the majority of the game’s spent inside the ship. Consequently it could just as easily be set in a facility somewhere on Earth. Once you realise this, there’s very little to Dead Space’s narrative which isn’t clichéd. It tries to come across as the usual mystery – Where did the necromorphs come from? Who are they? What do they want? – told through text or audio logs, only the most crucial of which will lie in your path unless you stray especially to get them. Your character is yet another ‘blank canvas’ type, saying nothing for the entire game, who you’re supposed to project your own personality on to. It works insofar as you genuinely feel his paranoia, but that’s about it.
All the better to kill you with: Necromorphs aren’t so much scary as gruesome
Perhaps I’m being a little unfair on the storyline: after all, it’s spawned several anime additions and three further games thus far. Yet it seems to be another case of a great idea for a storyline that’s poorly integrated into the game itself. Within this first instalment, it’s unnecessary detail. You don’t find yourself caring much about the origin of the necromorphs because, for the most part, it isn’t something you can do anything about. Your in-game world is completely limited to the Ishimura. Your only concern is staying alive long enough to complete your objectives, with the eventual goal of getting your ass the hell away from the Ishimura. Knowing why doesn’t make it any more satisfying.
Finally, there’s a few elements which seem completely out of place. ‘Boss’ fights only occasionally offer any new mechanisms and can only be called thus by their slight change of pace, since their difficulty ranges from mediocre to laughably simple. Even worse are the ‘shooting range’ and ‘basketball’ minigames, the appearances of which don’t even make any sense and if anything detract from the game’s tone. If the developers wanted to congratulate themselves on their mechanics that badly, they could always have, y’know, integrated them into the game a bit better. You’ve just spent 10 chapters swimming through gallons of alien gore, are you really going to take the time out to shoot some hoops?
Still, there are some neat saving graces to write home about. Since screen space is at a premium there’s no heads-up display, and relevant meters – health, ammo count, oxygen – are all on Isaac’s suit or the guns themselves, and it works a treat. You can’t just pull up your menu in the middle of combat either, since it’s all in real time and doesn’t pause. ‘Zero G’ is another great addition that you might expect from a game set in space: particular areas will have large, open rooms where the gravity has been shut off, and you can leap from floor to wall to roof with the camera re-orienting itself every time. It’s a whole new element of fear when the creepy aliens can also come at you from above or below. Certain objectives will also require you to space-walk outside the ship where a timer will appear to indicate how long you have before your oxygen runs out, the visible time-limit furthering your already substantial paranoia. The upgrade system is only tokenistic as far as RPG elements go, but as upgrades are essential for increasing survivability or damage output, and since upgrade tokens (‘power nodes’) are relatively few and far between, your choices will have a discernible impact on how you play.
Conclusion: I’m not the person to ask about how it compares with other horror games, but in and of itself Dead Space is an amalgamation of hits and misses. Its presentation is perfect and its gameplay is genuinely something different, but I’m not sure it achieves what it aims to. Gory rather than terrifying, it will definitely have you on the edge of your seat – but more out of discomfort than enjoyment. Get it cheaply, play it a chapter or two at a time, and you’ll get the most out of it.
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