Sunday, 3 May 2009

Dead Space review...

Hello and welcome to my rather late review of Dead Space; possibly the most gut wrenchingly terrifying game ever created. In late 2006 industry mega-publisher EA games announced that due to growing internal concerns of franchise fatigue; the company would soon be releasing a host of new, original intellectual properties to refresh the companies somewhat tired image. Flash forward to October 2008 and to the release of Dead Space; one of the inspired results of said initiative.

Ok, enough of the history lesson and onto the actual game. As you may well have guessed from the title, Dead Space is a survival horror game set in space no less. In a slightly unoriginal plot formula; the main character 'Isaac Clarke' (Nb: Sci-Fi fans should be glad to note that the name is an homage to the great writers 'Isaac Asimov' and Arthur C Clarke) is part of a small crack team of engineers sent to explore planetary mining ship 'USG Ishimura' to discover the source of a mysterious distress signal. On arrival things immediately go wrong (Shockingly) as the team find their ship being pulled into the Ishimura by a distorted magnetic field leaving it damaged almost irreparably. Before I go on I'd like to point out that this, in my most humble of opinions, is the most visually splendid intro to any game that I have ever come across.
It's not long before you get separated from your team on the opposite side of a glass pane only to see one of your crew mates horribly eviscerated by a necromorph. The Necromorph are a race of parasitic aliens who attach themselves to human hosts, grossly mutating them into a number of different hideous forms (I don't want to talk about these too much as doing so would run the risk of a} ruining the plot and b} detracting from the pure gruesome horror of discovering them for yourself). If this is already sounding familiar to Ridley Scott's masterpiece of sci-fi 'Alien', there's a very good reason for that; it is Ridley Scott's film re-dressed in a slightly different context. However in my mind, this can only be considered a good thing; the writers go some very interesting places with the framework and apart from anything else, how many space horrors don't contain a race of symbiotic aliens? I don't want to delve into the story too much, as it is in all honesty, rather good and giving too much away would be a disservice to your game experience.

As I briefly eluded to earlier on, Dead Space is utterly beautiful. I guess the best place to start with any horror game is the lighting, especially in this case. Never have I seen such cleverly used in game lighting ; the deeply threatening mood created by the dimly lit corridors, or the absolute terror induced by the siren alarms (which act as a sort of strobe, briefly illuminating the enemy visually staggering their race towards you) is unrivalled in any game to date. Ironically however, the sound is where the game really shines.

This game is not for the faint hearted. The sounds in this game are without doubt the most horrifying thing I have ever heard (Even more terror inducing than the images stirred by the music accompanying two girls one cup). Every monster in this game has its own distinct, absolutely petrifying and piercing roar; each of which stirring far more than a simple jump, but actual physical terror. You will be brought down to absolute adrenaline releasing panic every time you hear one of these monstrous creatures approaching. Don't be fooled into thinking that this is as ghastly as it gets though. In this game you will die... in fact you will die lots of times and in many deliciously disgusting ways. The sound designers clearly wanted you to know this. Isaac's blood curdling screams of pain as his limbs are torn asunder are the stuff of nightmares (I mean this quite literally, I've had more nightmares about this than two girls one cup and goatse
combined); the sounds of the sheer mutilation are also terrifically genuine sounding (They clearly had a lot of fun tearing up chunks of cow). Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this game is the background noise. It's not uncommon to hear the scuttering and clanging of nearby necromorphs as you scour the Ishimura's decks. However one clever aspect of these background noises is that they don't necessarily mean that you are about to be attacked, it doesn't mean that you aren't either, but as you progress you'll grow to distrust silence just as much as the distant sounds of movement. To make matters worse, as isolation starts to take its tole on Isaac, the poor chap starts to hear things meaning you can never be sure exactly what's around the next corner. If you own a surround sound system of any kind, you're in for a tremendously terrifying treat.
One other astonishing technical aspect of this game is the aesthetic. It's absolutely gorgeous (as gorgeous as a ship filled with bloodied corridors and mutant aliens can ever hope to be anyway). Everything from the artistic design to mind bogglingly large number of polygons crammed onto the screen at any one time, is absolutely astounding. There are some minor jaggies apparent in the 360 version of the game, (I can't comment on the PC or PS3 versions) but they are barely noticeable and in consideration, it's hard to think of any 360 game where this isn't the case. The fact is that if you have any appreciation for the amount of work that has gone into this absolute spectacle of a game, you will be blown away.

Some of you may be wondering when I'm going to retract my head from the games arse and talk about the actual game play... well you're in luck. Like the majority of horror games to date, Dead Space is set entirely in the 3rd person (the philosophy of the genre seeming to be; if you can't see your limbs being torn off, then it might as well not be happening). There are some interesting twists in dead Space's presentation however, that do not exist anywhere else and are what in my mind, really set it apart from the pack. The focus here has been placed on complete immersion. This goal has been achieved in a number of different ways. Firstly there is no in game targeting reticule, all the aiming is done with the laser sights attached to all of the games weapons. Secondly, there is absolutely no pause menu. The only respite you're ever going to get is by killing all of the aliens (Yes this is cruel, but that's kind of the point of horror games). What you get instead of a game jarring pause menu, is a small holographic menu that you call up at any point during game play. Thirdly, and most importantly is the complete lack of an in game hud. Dead Space's developers clearly wanted to dispel the idea that you're playing a game and put you firmly in Isaac's shoes. Instead of your normal shield display in the corner of the screen you instead get a blue health bar along Isaac's spine that drains as you're ripped to shreds by the plethora of in game enemies. Also missing is the ammo gauge, with a holographic ammo counter above your gun replacing it. These subtle interface elements allow the game to completely consume you and for its wonderful cinematic quality to shine through. Every moment in this game in is brilliantly scripted, allowing every moment of the game to feel like a hollywood movie.
I can only compare the feeling presented by this game to the first time I played through half-life on the PC.
The gun play in Dead Space is also far different to any other game on the market. Shooting an enemy lots of times is no guarantee that they're going to expire; the only guaranteed result of such an action being an empty ammo clip. Instead the aim is to rid the alien scourge of their pesky limbs (Most of the enemies seem to emulate the black knight; often failing to be discouraged by a mere flesh wound) ; two or three limb losses disabling the majority of enemies. Often you find your priority shifting from simply executing a single enemy to slowing down a horde of enemies by removing their legs (or arms if they didn't have any legs to begin with) to buy yourself some precious time. All of the guns in Dead Space are heavily upgradeable, with Isaac using his engineering skills to insert power nodes into appropriate slots whenever he finds one of the many work benches scattered around the Ishimura. There are a number of satisfying weapons that you can get your hands on within the game; the first of which being the games trademark weapon, the plasma cutter. Other weapons include the pulse rifle (fairly standard rapid firing rifle), the force gun (the clues in the name), the line gun (a wide laser beam), the flamethrower (really?), the contact beam (a high energy laser beam) and my absolute favourite the ripper (fires a rotating circular saw blade that levitates in front of you). Each of the weapons has a secondary fire mode varying from a rotated line sight to wide area attacks. And when you do eventually run out of ammo, which is quite likely unless you're relatively proficient; you can always beat your enemies over the cranium with the blunt end of your gun.

Two other interesting game play elements are the kinesis and stasis modules. Using the kinesis
module allows you to to lift, move and fire many objects within the game. This can mean anything from moving heavy boxes to creating makeshift projectiles to obliterate the enemy. The stasis module on the other hand brings any object or enemy within the game to a near stand still allowing you time to complete complex tasks or dismember your enemies at a leisurely pace.
Both of these modules are used for light puzzle solving within the game (Nb. you are invariably being mercilessly attacked during such sequences), which provide some nice contrast to the constant assaults from aggravated amputee aliens.

During your exploits around the Ishimura you will find yourself having to venture outside of the ships decks and onto its surface. As you may or may not be aware, there is no oxygen in space. this means that throughout many points in the game you're relying on your suits rather limited oxygen supply. You can upgrade your suit to have a larger supply, but most would advise against this; after all, upgrading your weapons would seem like the wise choice in such a hostile environment. One other interesting side affect of having no air is that there's no sound, or at least not beyond the dampened reverberations which travel through the ships hull. The game also contains a number of gravity free sections, meaning you're free to jump around from surface to surface at your own will (Of course the nasty aliens that are trying to remove your face are also gifted this liberty). This provides for some incredibly intense battles, where you really do have to be aware of what's coming from every direction.

So... did EA get it right. Given to the critical response to the game you would have automatically assumed that they had. However, sales figures for Dead Space have been poor at best. Herein lies the EA paradox. For years EA have gotten away with making lazy releases of sports or racing franchises with little more than a slight visual overhaul, some minor game play improvements and an updated rosta. The people go out in their droves to buy these poorly produced rehashes of the same old crap that they've been spoon feeding us forever. Now when they start to produce good original games (in my opinion the best game of last year in fact) they're rewarded with nothing more than a resounding meh from the consumers. This disturbs me almost as much as the gruesome corridors of the Ishimura itself. EA deserve reward and encouragement for producing such a brilliantly rich title. Instead they're rewarded with shit all in terms of sales and a complete lack of awareness from the consumer. Please, if you haven't already, go out and buy this game! Do it now!

And now for some arbitrary number allocations.

Sound: 5/5 (You will cry like an infant)
Story: 4.5/5 (Not exactly original, but pretty good all the same)
Graphics technical: 4.8/5 (not quite perfect)
Graphics artistic: 5/5 (Never has such a gruesome vision been realised so flawlessly)
Game play: 4.9/5 (I've deducted a point simply because I truly felt sorry for Isaac as his body parts were mercilessly removed)
Overall: 5/5 (truly astonishing title... it deserves your respect)

Dead Space is available on the xbox360, PC and PS3 with special content (armour and weapons) being available for purchase on xbox live for a small cost.

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  1. Dead Space is an awesome game. My major complaint with it was at the perfectly mute main character. True, Gordon Freeman never talks but for some reason its not as jarring in the first-person as it is in the third-person. It seemed like Issac should at least say something to his lost lady love.
    Good review.

  2. Thanks for the comment. If I'm honest, I'm glad that Isaac remained mute throughout. There's nothing more removing in a computer game than when the main character starts saying retarded things; which unfortunately is the case with most protagonists. I guess the idea is supposed to be that you provide the internal dialogue.

  3. I may buy this. Saying that it was like playing through Half Life for the first time on the PC really sold it to me.

  4. I'm glad to hear that. It's definitely worth the time of even one such as yourself; one whose time is immeasurably valuable.