Dead Space – Xbox 360

There are no new ideas, just new ways of freshening the old ones up. At least, that’s how the old cliché goes. While it’s a tenet derived from narrative fiction, the same notion can be applied to videogames – a medium that continues to push the idea of interactive storytelling further with new and exciting ways of involving the player in the narrative, even if the stories never really evolve beyond the same yarns that have been spun before. But, as with fiction, old tales can be rendered new when enough care and polish is applied. Sometimes, it’s not just the story that matters most, but the storyteller. And that’s exactly the position EA finds itself in with the launch of their new IP, Dead Space, a new take on a somewhat creaky survival horror genre in desperate need of a fresh voice.

Dead Space was conceived and developed by EA’s Redwood Studio and largely represents the mass effect of a number of general influences. From the cinema, the tale culls elements from The Thing, the Alien series and Event Horizon – properties that stamp their imprint on Dead Space’s tale of a haunted starship found floating in the ether of space. And much of the game play components are on loan from Bioshock, Resident Evil 4 and the Doom series, all of which receive subtle nods of appreciation throughout the game.

That said, imitation can be the sincerest form of flattery as the Redwood developers expertly take these influences and mold them into something familiar, while spinning it off in some fresh and exciting directions.

At the outset of the game, your character Isaac Clarke (paying homage to Asimov and Arthur C.) is awakened aboard a vessel streaking through space to rendezvous with the deep space mining ship, the USG Ishimura. The crew of this “planet cracker” had made an amazing discovery on the surface below and the scientists aboard had begun the process of deciphering their archaeological find when all Hell broke loose. Responding to a mysterious distress signal, transmitted by Clarke’s girlfriend, the player finds themselves with two main objectives – rescue the girl while sifting through the rubble and decay that has overtaken the Ishimura in a bid at understanding how things went so horribly wrong.

The bulk of the game takes place on the Ishimura – a mammoth starship that takes on a character all its own, similar to the role that Rapture played in Bioshock. While much of the ship is engineered around its role as a military mining facility – the ship exists as a city in miniature, leading the player through a number of unique, yet organically connected environments.

Using the survival horror genre as its template, the developers append a good deal of game play variety on the foundations laid out by the original Resident Evil over a decade ago. First and foremost, the player will find themselves wandering through dank, dark corridors hunting down clues and solving environmental puzzles which once resolved will clear the path deeper into the ship. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way from the original Resident Evil’s “key hunts” as a number of the challenges faced by Clarke prove to be realistically complex.

In one sequence, Clarke is forced to fix a radar array that had been compromised in a previous firefight by replacing the damaged dishes with viable replacements. Complicating matters further is the revelation that the communications equipment is located in a Zero-G environment overrun with vicious aliens, prompting the player to multitask as they extract the broken equipment, hunt down the replacements, take advantage of the lowered gravity and jettison from floor to the ceiling while taking time out to battle these malicious beasties. Mind benders like this are abundant throughout the game and do a great job of mixing up the puzzle solving with the action, keeping your brain and trigger fingers completely on their toes.

Another inspiration on loan from Bioshock is the use of audio and video files to further the narrative without pulling the player out of the game play. As you search through the crumbled interior, you’ll find these documents which once picked up will begin to play. The audio recordings are piped over the soundtrack while the video entries appear as a holographic projection that emanates from Clarke’s RIG suit. While this attention to detail helps to color in the corners of the game world, it also does a nice job of furthering the story without pulling players out of the action. As the game progresses and the narrative clips grow more chilling and revelatory, these haunting dialogue patches coupled with the extremely creepy ambient soundscape that constantly surrounds the player conspire to ratchet up the fear factor.

Survival horror used to be all about running for your life. That’s what drove the success of the first Resident Evil, where players often found themselves surrounded by enemies with nary a bullet to spare. Over the years, developers upped our arsenal, giving us ample rounds to mow down all those hungry hell hounds. Dead Space presents a very compelling middle-ground, with players given alternate tools to take down every creature they encounter but usually leaving them with precious little ammunition. Throughout the game, you’ll come across automated shops that sell a variety of equipment (your standard health packs, ammo) and weapons but it all comes at a fairly steep price. You never really feel overpowered which aids that creeping feeling of unease.

It’s not so much an abundance of guns & ammo that is needed so much as skill in using these tools. See, the creatures in Dead Space are extremely tough to bring down. Where most games prompt players to go for the head (the standard one shot-one kill approach), the nasty Necromorphs of Dead Space are best brought down by dismembering their limbs. This runs counter to the way players normally approach an action game, with the player tasked with taking a surgical (literally) approach to disarming the horde. Gutt shots and head shots seem to only tick these aliens off, so players will instinctively begin firing at the legs. This usually won’t kill the baddies out right, but it does slow them down enough to let you concentrate on the rest of your body of work. With arms and legs flying, this game is not for the squeamish and the resulting explosions of viscera visually reference the ghastly transformations seen in John Carpenter’s The Thing.

There is also a minor RPG element at work with the player capable of upgrading their weapons and suit (the RIG) to increase their capabilities. These augmentations are made by affixing power nodes to the equipment at the special ‘forges’ that pop up in each area. These nodes can be spent to increase ammo capacity and damage totals as well as more defensive concerns such as hit points and air supply.

On that note, Dead Space also introduces a number of unique wrinkles to the game play. Several times throughout the adventure, the player will find themselves outside the ship (usually to repair something) where they have to contend with alien attacks as well as a dwindling oxygen supply. With every element of the HUD affixed to the player’s character model (there is no traditional HUD – instead the important gauges can be seen on the player’s suit), you’ll find yourself scanning ahead for the next threat while keeping a cautious eye on the decreasing oxygen counter. Adding to the sense of urgency brought about by this race against time, is the fact that the sound is muted while in space, meaning you can no longer hear those critters coming.

As mentioned previously, there are also a few set-pieces set in zero-gravity where the player finds themselves exploring and fighting on all surfaces, turning the world upside down as they navigate their way through a constantly shifting landscape. Finally, from time-to-time, you’ll be called upon to take control of a massive laser cannon and practice your skeet shooting against a variety of external threats including fending off an asteroid assault.

At its core, Dead Space aims to bring you on a roller coaster ride and like the best amusements, wants to scare the hell out of you while leaving you grinning in the end. Is Space worth exploring or is it full of dead air?

Graphics

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When the original Gears of War launched in 2006, it flew under the banner “Shattered Beauty”. It’s a great evocative phrase that could have been stuck to last year’s Bioshock and makes an apt adjective to append to this title as well. The world in which Dead Space inhabits is compelling, with a great, ghastly ghost ship displaying some wonderful design choices. There isn’t an area of this ship that doesn’t invite exploration – from the dank, claustrophobic hallways and catwalks leading to massive, cavernous cargo holds to decaying floral terrariums onward to the chill of outer space.

At the beginning of the game, the influences on loan from other games were abundant and I feared that I was just playing through a prettier Doom 3. But I think the references are done on purpose with the developers placing us into familiar (yet disturbing) environs, letting us get a little comfortable before pulling the rug and revealing how deep their madness runs.

Early on in the game, I traversed through my 13th successive industrial hallway, when I came to a door expecting more of the same on the other side. As the door slid open and revealed a massive control deck, with a window open upon vast alien worlds suspended in space, a hail of asteroids raining down upon the hull, I just stopped and took it all in. This was the definition of “shattered beauty” – with imagery so potent it took my breath away while it sucker-punched me. Of course, stop and stare too long and you’ll learn my hard lesson. Within moments I was eviscerated. I’ve got to say though, my exposed entrails never looked so good.

Game play

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Survival horror has come a long way from Resident Evil’s directive to just “run like hell”. These days, action games require a variety of interconnected systems to sell the surreal life, a challenge that Dead Space meets by marrying the exploration elements of horror-adventure titles with the visceral combat thrills pioneered by Resident Evil 4 and deepened in last year’s Bioshock. While EA Redmond cribs from a large number of prior games, they do a good job of pulling in what works and cutting the fat.

The ability to augment your RIG and weaponry pays off in a number of ways. With the player afforded fewer nodes than needed to max all skills and abilities in one play through, you really have to make choices as to how you want to develop your character’s equipment. Multiple play-throughs at higher difficulties will eventually allow you to enhance all aspects but that first play-through requires a good deal of strategy in selecting the right approach. The fact that nodes can also be used to open locked doors (thus depleting them from your inventory but granting you access to secret areas brimming with currency and equipment) presents another risk/reward scenario to work through. While there is often one set way to get from Point A to Point B as the plot dictates, the dynamic events that crop up during your travel between waypoints (including a number of surprising confrontations) leads to increased tension every time you open a door.

The developers also do a nice job of introducing a number of creative puzzles that employ ‘real world’ physics-based solutions to hurdle the various environmental hazards that crop up. In addition, you gain access to two special powers – Stasis (which freezes enemies) and Kinesis (which acts similar to the Gravity Gun in Half Life 2) and these abilities go a long way towards helping you overcome some of these brain teasers.

Controls

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If the survival horror genre has revealed one consistent weakness, it’s in the area of control. The closest we’ve gotten to a truly elegant control scheme is the Wii-version of Resident Evil 4, and even that left some hand-wringing with the unnecessary waggle motions. While contemporary analog schemes have remedied Resident Evil’s original tank-like controls, the added complexity found in today’s titles simply places more demand on game pads.

Essentially, too many possible actions for too few buttons and that’s saying a lot, as today’s controllers have an abundance of inputs. Dead Space is not immune from this criticism. Between the various primary and secondary attacks, health recharges, environment navigation and sprinting and context sensitive actions, there is a bit of a learning curve associated in the title.

The developers did an admirable job of trying to keep the player in the game as much as possible, eliminating the irksome ‘menu trips’ that rob games like this of their tension by keeping every ancillary element (recordings, inventory, HUD) organically tied to your RIG suit. These systems can all be called up via holographic projection (and paged through) with the click of a button meaning you can continue navigating a besieged Sick Bay while paging through your list of Med Packs without breaking from the screen. Unfortunately, this adds to the learning curve. You will learn the controls and eventually they’ll become second nature but they are far from elegant, a fact learned very quickly when you are on the run from a horde of Necromorphs and are clumsily fumbling with your onscreen inventory to recharge your Stasis meter.

Music

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The music is appropriately moody with menacing orchestral movements mixing with industrial sounding thrash whenever the enemies drop in unexpectedly. That said, a lot of this is indistinguishable from the soundtracks that have backed other survival horror titles – which I guess, goes hand in hand with the soundtracks employed on most Hollywood horror movies. These scores are developed to set a mood, goose the flesh and get that heart racing. To that end, the music works but none of it is memorable enough to haunt your dreams afterward.

Sound

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If anything, games like this almost work better when the music is kept to sparse appearances. Sometimes, silent moments interrupted with a cacophony of screams and rattling chains can prove more effective. The sound design backing Dead Space is astounding. Remember the sequences in James Cameron’s Aliens, where the Colonial Marines pushed forward through a derelict housing complex, with only the patter of rain and the steady ping of their motion sensors backing their footsteps. It’s that same minimalist approach that Dead Space employs in some key stretches that really works your nerves. It makes the spine-chilling screams that echo throughout the hallways the more frightening as you never know for sure if there is an enemy ready to pounce or if the sound guys are just up to their old tricks.

The fact that closed doors don’t stop most enemies just adds to the fear. Memo to starship engineers: Stop installing these handy-dandy ducts, it makes it too easy for xenomorphs to get the drop on me. Then there’s the old tagline, “In Space – No one can hear you scream”. Several memorable sequences are played out against the vacuum of space. The fact that the creatures scurry about the side of the ship but you can’t hear them coming, lends to some real uncomfortable moments where you are trying to forge ahead but keep glancing behind you to see what’s there.

Intelligence

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I don’t know what’s worse – the fact that I was always scrounging for more ammo or the knowledge that Dead Space features some of more intelligent enemies I’ve encountered in a good long time. Forget the fact that they only get angrier the more limbs you slice away, these creatures also display a devious intelligence that always had me second-guessing my actions whenever I entered a new area. Sure, many of them tend to bull rush you the second they spot you but they also have a knack for getting behind cover, scurrying up walls and away from your shots and even diving into the ventilation systems in order to creep up behind you. Relying upon the lessons taught in similar games, I would often exit a room should the going get tough, assuming that I could hunt down some ammo or health and return to the battle when I was good and ready. Unfortunately, these demons were always one step ahead of me, popping down from the ceiling or through the floor no matter how many rooms away I managed to scurry to. I never grew bored of enemy encounters and no matter how much I upgraded my equipment, I always felt slightly outmatched, creating a nice challenge that carries through the entire game.

Difficulty

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After years of aiming for the head, I’ve found my mad skills are useless. These aliens don’t go down easy. Taking a clinical approach to creature cutting, you’ll need to systematically take down key appendages to stop these critters from charging. Each enemy type has a different weakness which you can exploit through deft use of your tools and weapons but until you find that, these enemy encounters will scare the hell out of you. In the great survival horror tradition, you are often low on ammo, light on air and just far enough away from a supply center to ever truly feel comfortable. Fortunately, the Save spots are liberally deposited throughout each of the game’s 12 massive environments.

Finally, there are a handful of boss encounters that exist on a scale (in terms of shear size and depth of complexity) that rival some of the epic battles waged in Nintendo’s venerable Legend of Zelda series. I have a Love-Hate relationship with Boss Battles. Once I have bested whatever beastie is causing me extreme anxiety, I will rave about it for years. But nothing robs me of follicles more than these climactic clashes with titans. On multiple occasions, Dead Space worked my last strand but also left me grinning from ear-to-ear when I was done.

Overall

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EA used to get knocked for milking their franchises and pumping out sequel after sequel. The last year or so has seen the company expand and take some moderate risk through the introduction of new intellectual properties, such as Army of Two and Dead Space. While Dead Space may not fully reinvent the genre, it does take familiar elements and cobble them together to create a new and exciting IP that has a lot of potential to rival the venerable Resident Evil series. Resident Evil reinvented itself with their last installment and Dead Space takes its cue from what worked in that title, adds its own flavoring and actually throws a shout back to the game design choices of the original RE to create a survival horror game that is an absolute must play. This is one of the most engaging titles of the year, a scary and exciting thrill ride that may take us to some familiar looking destinations but always finds new and exciting ways through which to view them. Dead Space is well worth exploring.