Ridley Scot’s Alien gave moviegoers a reason to fear the cold, harsh unknown of space with a gripping trip into terror and EA’s Dead Space dares to do the same. Feeling a lot like part System Shock, part Resident Evil 4, and part Bioshock with a healthy nod to Scot’s horrifying vision and to other sci-fi classics from that era, what had started out as a project put together as a “thing to do” on the off hours by members of EA Redmond Shore’s staff has become something that no gamer worth their vacuum sealed salt should shy away from.
Dead Space takes place in a future where mankind has spread itself among the stars along with its thirst for resources. You play Isaac Clarke, an engineer assigned to a repair team answering the distress call of the USG Ishimura. A starship of incredible size, the Ishimura is a planet cracker…a vessel whose purpose it is to literally tear chunks from a planet’s surface and haul them into orbit where they can be broken down and processed for their ore. It sounds like an easy job until the crew find the ship which is when everything quickly goes wrong. Something has infested the ship, something that hasn’t finished with had started on the surface of the planet it still orbits. And Isaac has no choice but to find out what is going on in a bid to survive the nightmare he’s forced to face.
The cinematic introduction throws the player right into the story in much the same way that Bioshock had done with the player’s bathyscaphe descent into the underwater city of Rapture, and you might be tempted to replace the Ishimura with the Nostromo, but while those elements might feel borrowed and familiar, the narrative put together by the crew at EA Redmond Shores manages to make everything feel frightfully fresh and suitably chilling. Players may have signed on to be scared witless, but they will also be treated to a compelling sci-fi story thanks to strong characters and plenty of tidbits that they can discover along the way in the form of logs that will keep them moving deeper into the mystery behind the Ishimura’s missing crew.
The environment of Dead Space has been put together with terror in mind thanks to one of the sharpest looking engines to grace the 360. Making use of the dirty future motif featured in sci-fi classics such as Outland, Blade Runner, and Alien where high technology is taken for granted with plenty of wear and tear, the USG Ishimura’s hallways wind through its colossal body like tunnels carved out from the pipes and metal plating filling it, blood staining the floors where a thousand crew had once worked and lived together. Unpredictable quarantine alarms may trap you, vent fans hint at what might come out from behind them, signs and posters hint at a sense of civility that had once found a home in space, and flickering lights and warning strobes play with your senses as you wander through the titanic starship.
Pushing the technical polish of the game is the interface which is presented in-game as a hologram that Isaac brings up, keeping the player in third person over his shoulder and immersed in the experience. Cinematics, cut-scenes, text logs, and video recordings that fill in the story of Dead Space are all presented in the game through Isaac’s holographic display, never pulling you out of the game. Loads are hidden behind the wait for certain doors to open, but will largely go unnoticed for the most part enabling the game to feel completely seamless. The only times where I felt as if I were pulled out of the experience was in accessing the game menu to quit, or in reloading a game, or watching as Isaac was unmercifully turned into ground beef by one of the many horrors waiting for me.
If that wasn’t enough to fill your eyes with anticipation for what might be around the next corner, the clattering sounds just behind the walls, gibbering echoes from somewhere up above, the explosion of air from decompression as you step out into the void, and the slavering sound of something lurching at you from the dark compliment the visuals with brilliant sound design that surrounds you. When Isaac finds himself out in a vacuum, muted and muffled footfalls and his own breathing may be the only sounds you can hear from within his suit. Those with surround sound stereo systems have another reason to rejoice in the dark with Dead Space.
Veterans coming in from a game like Resident Evil 4 will find themselves at home with the third person over-the-shoulder look which works extremely well for Dead Space as it leverages that experience into its design. As mentioned before, the interface allowing you to control his inventory, view a map of the local area, check objectives, or read the logs that you may have discovered is brought up by Isaac as a holographic menu in the game that you can actually run with if you’re into that sort of thing. As awkward as it might sound, it works far better than you might expect. Isaac’s health is also indicated by a meter located on the spine of his suit and an energy meter next to that indicates how much energy he has for another tool that he will get to use, keeping the player in a real-time state of play meaning that the action won’t stop just because Isaac needs to reorganize his ammo clips. Isaac’s also an engineer, first and foremost…not a space marine…but he does have a few tricks up his pressurized sleeves to help him survive.
Fortunately, the controls have several important shortcuts to avoid having to dive into the menu to find a healing tube. Hitting the X button immediately applies an instant band-aid to your wounds, and weapon selection is handled by the D-pad. An in-game store provides the goods as you gather enough cash from what you can scavenge on the Ishimura from the dead and you can even store extra items within its vault to save up ammo clips or healing items for when you might really need them…which might be all the time. You can even upgrade the engineer’s suit that you start out with at a Store, but like several other items including more than a few weapons, you’ll need to find the schematics for them to add to the list before you can spend the credits.
Exploration is rewarded with plenty of goodies and schematics are only one reason to go poking around where you shouldn’t go. In addition to the ammo and the credits you might find, power nodes are also valuable currency that can allow you to upgrade your weapons at a workbench. Having a power node for an upgrade isn’t enough as each upgrade tree for each weapon will challenge you to manage how best you should spend them. There are also doors that can only be opened with power nodes, forcing you to make the decision of whether you should upgrade or use one to unlock a door in the hopes that what is behind it will be worth the sacrifice.
Isaac will also unlock two abilities that will prove useful in the game. One is Stasis allowing him to slow certain things down such as malfunctioning doors that he can now slip by without getting sliced in half. He can also use it against enemies to slow them down allowing him to dissect them with his weapons. Stasis also uses up energy, but it can be replenished using packs or special charging units discovered in the ship. Another tool he’ll have at his disposal is Kinesis which doesn’t use any energy and allows him to levitate items to move them out of the way, carry them, or send them flying at foes. Both abilities come in useful during the game, especially Stasis.
It’s a good thing that he’s got a grab bag of goodies to rely on since Dead Space features a wide variety of horrifying monsters to keep him company, and they won’t go down easily. Simply blasting away at them with your initial weapon, the Plasma Cutter, won’t do much, but blowing away their limbs and tentacles will be a skill that the player will have to get used to. The game liberally earns its Mature rating with plenty of gory encounters lurching after the player. Body parts get underfoot, torsos are kicked aside, heads crawl at you on all threes, and the monsters only get much worse as you slowly make your way through each of Dead Space’s twelve chapters. And yes, there are boss monsters, although they aren’t thrown at you at the end of each level…but when they arrive, you’ll know it. Sometimes it’s the introduction of a new monster, but other encounters involve some truly massive horrors.
But Dead Space isn’t all about killing as many monsters as possible simply to survive to the next save point. It throws a variety of situations at you in taking full advantage of being in space. Players will deal with decompressed sections of the ship with only so much air to keep them alive, zero-g environments that will have them hopping from one part of the room to the next while under attack, and even walking outside on the surface of the ship as asteroids pound the hull. Just when you think that you might have to deal with yet another dark room, the game throws you into a gunner’s chair to defend the ship from incoming rocks the size of shuttles.
Finishing the game unlocks plenty of goodies and the achievements offer a variety of fun challenges. You can opt to reload your cleared game and play through it again with all of your gear, although the difficulty level will remain the same leaving you to start a new game from scratch if you want to play through at a more challenging pace. There’s not much else in terms of extras and no online options to play around with, but the ten to fifteen hours that it can take to play through on your first run offer plenty of excitement.
Dead Space is also a remarkably polished game with little to complain about, although there are a few odd things. Since doorways usually mark where new zones are loaded, shooting enemies may have no effect through certain ones and picking up items dropped by foes that fall there can prove to be difficult as the game may not recognize that there’s something there. There’s also an eerie feeling that the monsters onboard the Ishimura had spaced all of the weapons since you’ll find plenty of ammo types but nothing to load them into unless you’ve already added to your arsenal thanks to the store. And as good as the game is at creating a sense of survival horror early on and well past the halfway mark of the game, some encounters can get repetitive when yet another locked room traps you in with another horde of monsters that you have to kill. The level design does a good job in creating the illusion of being open enough to explore, but it does give way to a somewhat linear approach in prodding the player forward in restricting tram travel to any other areas until the chapter is complete. There’s also quite a bit of backtracking in the later stages of the game, but it manages to keep the pacing fresh without feeling as redundant as it did in a title such as DMC4.
Other than those small bits, Dead Space is a fantastic, pulse pounding adventure that should be relished with all of the lights turned out, the volume cranked up, and with no one else in the room. Part gaming and part cinematic experience, it’s something that sci-fi fans and horror mavens should find themselves at home with. It may not have zombies coming out of the ground to eat brains and suck on your bone marrow, Big Daddies, or Sean Connery as an ornery marshal to help you out, but they shouldn’t reasons to ignore the lurking horror that lives in the dark vacuum between the stars.