Dead Space PDF Print E-mail
Written by The Rogue Wolf   
Thursday, 30 July 2009 20:20

The Rogue Wolf


 Dead Space Logo 


Developer: Visceral Games
Publisher: EA
Average pricing (at review time) $28
No demo available (unless you own a Xbox 360 or a PS3)

ESRB Rating: Mature
PEGI Rating: 18+ 



Space. It's a really big place. In fact, the diameter of the observable universe is estimated to be thirty to forty billion light years, containing roughly 10^26 stars (that's 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars). And it's possible that each of these stars holds planets of all shapes and sizes, and on these planets... who knows what could be found?

There are two major schools of thought in the world of literature and film as to the nature of the universe. The first, which I like to call the "Star Trek" mentality, sees the universe as some grand frontier, to be explored and viewed as a wonderous, never-ending parade of fantastic sights and new things to see and experience. It holds the view that space, in its vastness, is generally benign, waiting only for the intrepid explorer to discover its treasures.


Dead Space Review picture 1 

It'd be a great spot for a picnic, aside from the whole 'no gravity' and 'no atmosphere' things. 


The second, and by far more pessimistic, view is what I call the "Cthulhu" mentality. It sees Earth as a relatively protected, distant speck in the backwater reaches of the universe, and humanity as an ignorant and blind species. Furthermore, it considers this to be a good thing- as the Cthulhu mindset feels that space holds an uncountable number of horrors, things inimical to our fragile existence and tenuous hold on sanity, things which exist in ways we simply cannot comprehend. These creatures, consciousnesses and entites would at best see us as merely ants, scrambling dumbly beneath their gaze, and at worst would see us as playthings for their unfathomable aims and desires.

The Cthulhu mindset has gotten its own share of stories and films, well beyond H.P. Lovecraft's tales of slumbering astral horrors. From H.G. Welles' "War of the Worlds" to "Event Horizon" and "Pitch Black", from "Alien" to "Independence Day", we have often wondered if, somewhere out there in the black, there exists an unimaginable creature that wants to eat our faces and lay its eggs in our rectums. Really, do we WANT to beam signals out to something like that?


In the mid-26th century, advanced technology has allowed humanity to break the light-speed barrier, and rapid expansion has ensued. This, of course, requires materials for ships, buildings, and so on. Not satisfied with mining asteroid fields, a megacorporation, the Concordance Extraction Corporation, has designed and commissioned "planet-crackers"- ships capable of tearing apart entire worlds and harvesting their raw materials. The USG Ishimura is the first and finest of these ships, and the planet Aegis VII is the latest on its long list of worlds to mine. But something has gone wrong- a distress signal has been sent, followed by a complete communications blackout.

You are Issac Clarke, an engineer in the employ of the CEC. With technician Kendra Daniels and security officer Zach Hammond aboard the repair ship Kellion, you're flying out to investigate and repair whatever problems the Ishimura is having. Issac's stake in this mission is also personal; his girlfriend Nicole Brennan is on board the Ishimura, having gotten out a partial message asking him for help before all contact was lost. Of course, bad luck strikes as soon as you approach the ship- a random piece of debris thrown up from the planet obliterates one of the Kellion's engines, forcing it to crash-land. Now you and your team are stuck on board a dark, unresponsive ship whose crew are nowhere to be found.

Then the excrement REALLY strikes the ventilation device....


 Dead Space Review Image 3

I don't think I like this show anymore. 


 Dead Space follows proudly in the tradition of movies like Pitch Black and Event Horizon, placing its protagonists aboard a derelict, decaying ship in deep space, far from help and fighting against a unknown and immediate threat. Aboard the Ishimura, however, your greatest threat is the ship's crew- or, rather, what they've become. An alien presence has mutated their corpses into Necromorphs, warping dead flesh and bone into talons, fangs and blades. Those few survivors remaining have gone abjectly insane, either staggering about numbly, whimpering hysterically or killing themselves in brutal ways to avoid the horror of being caught by the Necromorphs. Mad ramblings and cryptic messages in alien code decorate the walls, written in chalk, marker or blood.

The fact that the Necromorphs are already dead will prove a tactical challenge for the wannabe Space Marine- firing a weapon into their center mass is nearly ineffective, as these creatures can withstand amazing amounts of punishment to their bodies without a major loss of offensive power. Their weakness lies in their limbs; cutting or blasting off an arm, leg or head will disadvantage the Necromorph, forcing it to change its tactics, and dismembering a Necromorph sufficiently will destroy it. It's a good thing, then, that most of the "weapons" Issac will collect in his travels through the Ishimura are space-age mining tools, designed to cut, blast or burn stubborn metals and ores; in fact, the pulse rifle is the only real weapon to be found, and it is relatively ineffective (unless used wisely) against many of the Necromorphs.

Dead Space plays out in a third-person perspective, with the camera behind and to the right of Issac. Aside from the menu and save/load screens, there is not a single hovering GUI to be found; instead, Issac's suit (referred to in the game as a "Rig") will project holograms to show nearby items to be picked up, inventory, incoming messages, ammunition in an aimed weapon, etc. Issac's health and the amount of power available for his stasis tool are displayed as a glowing bar and half-disc on the back of his Rig. For the most part, it's remarkably unintrusive and intuitive, and lends a fair amount of atmosphere to the game. Only a few hassles in managing a full inventory with items lying nearby, and a generally slow feeling with the mouse, marred the experience. Issac himself animates well, with different running/walking animations depending on the state of gravity and atmosphere around him, and he'll occasionally glance at things nearby of interest. Unlike many other third-person games, it seldom feels as if Issac is in your way while you're trying to see what's going on.

(I will take this moment to nag about two issues that keep cropping up in ported-from-console games- the lack of a quicksave/quickload system, and problematic keyboard binding. The first isn't terrible; the game autosaves at certain places (though you lose those autosaves if you quit the game), and there's a bit more suspense in knowing you'll lose some progress if you screw up. But a keyboard configuration that will let me map neither my arrow keys nor my 4th or 5th mouse buttons? I had to Google for a fix so that I wouldn't be forced to used WASD like a common peon. There's absolutely no reason for this other than sloppy porting. And no screenshot key either!

Oh, also- turn off VSync, unless you like chewing your own genitalia off in frustrated rage. You have been warned.)

Aside from repurposed mining tools as weapons, Issac has two other tricks up his vacuum-sealed sleeve- a stasis module and a kinesis module. The first basically serves as a "slow beam", drastically slowing the movement of what it effects; though it's meant for out-of-control machinery, it also serves to hamper the movement of Necromorphs as well, turning a leaping enemy into a slow-motion puppet and allowing for more careful placement of shots. The second functions as a pseudo Gravity Gun, allowing Issac to pick up, carry and launch heavy objects and other items- including ventilation fan blades, explosive canisters or even severed Necromorph talons or claws. Mastering these two modules makes battles much easier.


Dead Space falls squarely into the "survival horror" camp that has become far too crowded these days, many by titles which have since become action-fests (*cough RESIDENT EVIL cough*). Your enemies' preferred method of room entry is either crashing through an air vent, dropping down from the ceiling or crawling up through a hatch in the floor; typically, this happens directly behind you, so that the creature knocks you off balance. (The Necromorphs score bonus points if they knock off your aim while you're taking on another of their ranks.) It's not AS bad as the "monster closet" techniques Doom 3 resorted to, but unless you're an abject dunce who can't pick up on environmental clues for the life of you, you're going to catch on fairly quickly to where the game wants to "surprise" you.

The Necromorphs themselves, however, are a disturbing bunch. Still-recognizable human faces gazing blankly at you, arms hanging limply from the center of the chest as repurposed shoulder blades now seriously live up to their "blade" designation and attempt to rend you into tiny engineer chunks. Some of them appear to be made of multiple corpses simply mashed together, and one particular type has had its skull split in half, clamping down like a disgusting inverted set of jaws. If you're unfortunate enough to let them close in on you while you're critically wounded, they can brutally kill you in a messy death scene. Dead Space is not for the squeamish, kids! 


Dead Space Review Image 2

One reason Issac and Nicole broke up- she always turned the AC up too high. 


Things get even more interesting when you go outside for a walk, or start walking on the ceiling. The Ishimura has several sections designated as zero-gravity areas, and has suffered catastrophic damage in other spots, exposing entire subsections to the cold depths of space. Issac's Rig is sealed against vacuum, carries a limited air supply and has magnetic boots which allow him to maintain footing in freefall. Zero-G combat is interesting, forcing you to think three-dimensionally and watch for incoming enemies or places you can leap to for a better vantage points. The Necromorphs are not at all shy about coming at you in vacuum, either- being dead means they don't need that silly "oxygen" stuff- and the game does an excellent job both visually and audibly in communicating the emptiness of space- vision becomes crystal-clear, and the only sounds you can hear are your breathing and the vibrations of your boots and weapon (along with enemies which are very close).

Aside from the reanimated dead behind you, the ship falling to pieces beneath you, enormous chunks of rock above you and the uncaring harsh vacuum around you, your other primary enemy is your own limited inventory space. Issac's Rig can at first only hold about eight items, with things such as Medkits, air canisters and stasis packs (to refill your stasis module) each taking up one slot, and ammunition "stacking" up to a certain amount in a slot. However, you can buy progressive suit upgrades which provide more room for inventory, as well as increased armor to help Issac withstand Necromorph attacks. Also available are improvements to your Rig, modules and weapons by using Power Nodes, which give you a somewhat RPGish ability to trick out a single weapon, improve all of them somewhat, or increase your health and air supply (which has nothing to do with Air Supply, thankfully) to reduce your reliance on health kits and air canisters. Also, there are stores scattered about each section you visit, allowing you to buy and sell items as well as stash them away. Finding schematics for new weapons and upgrades is a key part of the game and a reward for exploration.


While I am not one of those gamers whose sole fixation is on graphics, I do appreciate good work in the visual (and audio) department. And Dead Space is an excellent effort on both of those fronts. Lighting and shadows are real-time, as is pretty much required for current-gen games. Though you spend the vast majority of the game on a spaceship, each section you visit has its own visual theme, and the textures and models used in them are detailed and varied. Facial animation on living (and non-terminally-crazy) human NPCs is excellent- not quite up to the par of Half-Life 2, but close, showing emotions clearly and convincingly. (I'm not entirely certain that the visual feeds you receive on your Rig aren't actually from live recordings.) The Necromorphs are suitably grotesque, showing some truly horrifying mutations and mutilations (distended flesh hanging from bone, improvised spikes and scythes jutting through limbs) and splatter convincingly when struck by plasma, pulse rounds or buzzsaws. The further you get along your journey, the uglier and more menacing the Necromorphs get. Do be warned, though, that the game is rather demanding on your hardware- my overclocked 8800GTS gets hot enough after about an hour or so of play that I start seeing graphical glitches and hangs. I do really need to improve my box's cooling, though, so your mileage may vary. This card also kept steady framerates the entire time.

(I'd like to take a moment here to comment on the load times Dead Space has. They are practically nonexistent. I don't think I ever watched a loading screen for more than three seconds. Contrast that to BioShock, where even the quickloads took 10 to 15 seconds.)

On the audio front, the game shines equally brightly. The voicework is uniformly excellent, with the characters voiced by a rather impressive cast (although Issac, aside from his grunts of pain and anger, remains mute). Weapon sounds are convincing, environmental noises are spot-on, and the enemies- from the squeals of the Lurkers to the roars of the Brutes- make noises that are both distinctive and disturbing. Probably the biggest complain I can muster is that the whispers you start hearing early on aboard the Ishimura are, when you can hear them, actually somewhat banal. That's a pretty weak criticism, honestly, but it's the biggest one I can give in this otherwise outstanding work. Walking into a vast atrium and hearing a simple lullaby sung in the most unease-producing way ever is a memorable event.


Dead Space Review Image 4 

Trust me, it only gets creepier once you DO figure out what's going on. 


 Gameplay does tend to bog down a little at around the two-thirds mark, when you're on your fifteenth repair mission to fix yet another thing that has broken in the ship. By then, you have long had the opportunity to buy all of the weapons you can get, and you've met almost all of the Necromorphs the game has to throw at you and mastered most of the obstacles you'll find along the way. The game attempts to counter this by mixing things up, though, with situations involving several classes of Necromorphs at once. While it does a fair job, you may still feel as though the game is running a little low on gas at certain points.

(I'd like to go ahead and complain about a particular design decision. The game randomizes ammunition caches and drops by enemies, and it chooses to give you almost exclusively ammunition for weapons you're already carrying. While this may seem useful on the surface, it removes the ability to put aside a weapon you have absolutely no ammo for (since you have only four weapon slots) for a time when you have gathered up enough ammo to make it useful again. Admittedly, ammunition can often be bought in the store, and it's not overly expensive, but still.)


Atmosphere is a very important thing to me in a game. (And by atmosphere, I mean "general feel and tone", not "breatheable air", which tends to be more important to me outside a video game.) Dead Space has atmopshere in spades. There were very few times where I felt safe, even when I felt that it was very unlikely I'd be attacked- half because I was usually wrong, but half because the game just made me feel like I was under constant threat. The excellent sound work, the awesome voices, the shadows, the insane writings on the walls, and the ever-present feeling that Something Bad Is Happening pervade the entire game, creating a sense of dread that drips down the walls like coagulating blood.

The gameplay is only hampered by the somewhat haphazard job EA did in porting this game to the PC. Playing with VSync enabled introduces massive amounts of inpug lag; disabling it negates the lag, but then causes flickering and screen tear in some places. Even then, the mouse still feels somewhat sluggish in the game yet jumpy and hard to control in the few menus you use it in. In a game that demands some rather precise shot placement, this is not an optimal situation.

All that aside, though, the game itself plays very well, with a design continuity that makes figuring things out fairly easy. Seldom was I completely bereft of a clue as to where to go next (the 3D map and the destination beacon work well for that). The only complaint in this section I will levy is that the areas are quite linear- but you're aboard a ship, so there's only so much that can be done about that.


Dead Space Review Image 5

 Zero-G makes for some... interesting battle aftermaths.


Being an EA game, I hold no hope that any Mod tools will see the light of day for Dead Space, which is a pity- I can only imagine what the game engine could see in the hands of the same minds that brought us the likes of The Inverted Manse. If Modability is critical for you, you will be disappointed. And the difficulty level only affects enemy health and damage, so replayability is similarly hampered. The upgrade systems at least do provide you some flexibility, so those who like to challenge themselves can slam all their Power Nodes into a single weapon and see if they can manage.


EA has done its best to crib from Bungie's Halo playbook, releasing an animated prequel (Dead Space: Downfall) and an alternate-reality game site (No Known Survivors). It's clear that they're investing in this franchise and want to draw it out as long as possible. Whether this will end the same way- a disappointing "finish the fight" third effort- has yet to be seen, but this first effort is far from a shout into the vacuum. Heck, I even went and made my own wallpaper from it.

Graphics: 9.3 / 10

Sound: 9.5 / 10

Gameplay: 8.5 / 10

FINAL SCORE: 9.1 / 10

I'm a bit upset about the lack of Mod support for this game, and its subsequent drag on replayability, but that's more my own personal inclination than anything else. EA has taken a chance on something new and made an exceedingly respectable effort. While it offers nothing outright revolutionary, it shows a polished shine on every aspect of its offering, save for the middling port to the PC platform that only slightly mars the game itself. A technical masterpiece, an engrossing and suspenseful storytelling experience, and an engaging style of play make this a worthy first outing for a new franchise. Now let's hope they can keep it interesting....


Dead Space Review Image 6 

It's good to see that, five hundred years from now, basic human taste in entertainment won't have changed one iota.

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