Dead Space Reader Review
Being the sort of individual who gets withdrawl symptoms after a couple of hours of not being fuelled by dread, fear and adrenaline, horror games in particular are not just a fun way to pass the time. They're a staple of my games library, both modern and retro, and part of a sane and healthy lifestyle which doesn't see me throwing myself out of a plane or off buildings (no matter how much some may wish me to do so).
The problem with this is that many horror games also have a peculiar side-effect of being heavy on the cliché and trying to do too much in a short amount of time. But I am sort of jumping the gun with this, so let's get down to the start of this train wreck, shall we?
Dead Space is the adventure of another one of those clueless faceless emotionally-inept Gordon Freeman-wannabes, this time named Isaac Clarke (Smart arses), your average engineer and his magic repair tool which works suspiciously like a gun. He is on the way to carry out some repairs to the good spaceship Ishimura and check in with his equally emotionally inept but-at-least-has-a-face girlfriend, with the cliché pairing of a black superior officer man and a geeky highly-strung but modestly hot girl in tow. But since this is a video game and in particular a horror game at that, barely minutes in the alien goo hits the fan and suddenly you find your little threesome split up. Rather conveniently for you, you happen to be wearing a state-of-the-art battle... sorry, engineering suit and even more conveniently for your friends, you seem to be in a position to have reasonably free access to and around the ship, which means you, the player, are going to be doing all the legwork. Oh joy.
Now, I want to get this out of the way before we go any further into the review - Dead Space is far from the fresh foray into horror that many have been proclaiming it as. The reason I say this is for ninety percent of the game I was almost expecting the words "The Thing 2" to come into play, because for me, it owes a lot to that particular film and indeed, the videogame (you know, the one you never played?). Actually that would make this The Thing 3 but let's just gloss over that one, shall we? Not that this is a bad thing mind you, the concept hasn't been as ritually done up the hellmouth as other branches of horror. It's just hard to take it seriously when you have an image of the lead man as Kurt Russel in your head for the majority of the game. With you now sufficiently disturbed, the review.
In favour of Dead Space, it is perhaps one of the most polished forays into survival horror in recent memory. Not just visuallly either, which is par for the course for modern-day EA (This and Crysis are the most beautiful games around right now), built with their own engine that isn't just pretty, it's mind blowing! Coming in at a native 1080p, the game is pretty much the most convincing horror game... well, in a very long time (since Project Zero 2 in fact but I said my piece on that ages ago). And not just in the audio, which I would love to complain about but can't as in every situation the sound, music and effects are spot on, every single time, without fail. This is merely make-up, the polish has gone far deeper than mere cosmetics.
Unlike most survival horror, Dead Space is built to exploit both the survival and the horror in equal measure. Play this game like Resident Evil 4, and you will die a lot. Play it like Doom, and you will die a lot. Play it like Silent Hill, and you will die a lot. The idea is that enemies are very resiliant to full force, and the best way to take things down is simply to dismember them. And each enemy has different appendages to prioritise, which adds a tactical level. Pity that once you catch on to this, that combat is over rather quickly but I guess that's okay. Immortal aliens wouldn't be much fun anyways. At least it's more interesting than just going for headshots all the time, you actually have to AIM at something. Yeah, okay, I have to do it. The enemies owe more than a nod to The Thing and some scenes owe much more than a passing nod to other sci-fi movies like Alien and Independance Day, but let's duck into a closet and let this rampaging monstrosity pass us by.
The scale and size of the Ishimura is nothing short of spectacular, although perhaps a little too shiny... no, bad me. No Doom references. Ahem. To give the game credit where it is indeed due, whilst it may be shiny and dark where it matters, the game does do a great job mixing up the environments a bit from region to region - it even throws in zero gravity to the mix. To aid in this exploration, Clarke has two devices at his disposal. A kinetic device that cam be used to pull, push and pick up/fire things scattered around the ship (used remarkably well in many puzzles). And a stasis device, which is used to slow down time... hmm, I swear I've seen that mechanic before... it's not used particularly well in puzzles either, but it's useful in combat. Umm, I'd like to move on from the time-slowing thing before I rip its spleen out. It's not the most refined mechanism in the game but I guess it's a requirement now to have some sort of time-slowing device in a game upon pain of chestbursting.
But hey, so far it's all looking peachy. Great alien design, great visuals, great sound, well paced, tactical, large (a good 10+ hours), a great upgrade mechanic that sees you upgrading your stats via your suit (likely the best system of its kind I've seen in a lunar year!). Surely, then, EA have hit on gold here. Forget that it borrows from Alien, The Thing and a dozen other films and games and it really appears on the surface, they've done what Capcom and Konami have been struggling with for years - to hit that mythical sweet-spot.
But that's not true, sadly. It isn't until later in the game when Dead Space starts to get a little too full of itself, a little ahead of its station as it were, and starts to unravel a little bit. Zero-G, as great a device as it is, slowly deteriorates and starts to get a little too complicated in execution, leading to death and loss of direction. Not that I do not admire it for trying to make something out of it, just it starts to get a little poorly designed and when the majority of the game is very well designed, it's hard to accept. The turret minigames, again a great idea but executed with all the polish and sophistication of an Iraqi dictatorn and are about as much fun as having your appendix removed twice. And having limitless access more or less to power nodes and safe hubs which you can return to and be happy you are safe there are nice in theory but can be suitablty exploited, since the aliens apparantly can't go near these hubs as when they approach they seem to remember that they left their wallet in their other trousers. Instant death isn't common but when it happens, it's often unfair and unwarranted (a few exceptions to this but for the most part anyway). Getting swarmed once by those nasty little bugs is shocking the first time, and gets old as they reuse it time and time and time again. Oh, and anyone notice that some of the few survivors you encounter are untargetable and seem to live perfectly well despite the fact when you look at them closely they're pretty much decomposed corpses with injuries that should otherwise be almost instantly fatal? Oh sorry, looking a little too deeply there.
The main and perhaps most disturbing and distasteful aspect of the game is when half-way through, the game suddenly realises it's missed the most important cliché of them all for a sci-fi set on a spaceship set by the granddaddy of all alien films - the religious extremism, and boy do they thrust it down your throat like a horny facehugger. It's actually rather sad, because despite the usual fare of cliché and plot, the game does have charm. Then they throw in some religious zealotry and teabag it in your face. Doctor type person starts a mutiny to dispense with the captain and the main doctor to further understand, research and advance the alien lifeform and make it perfect yadda yadda take it to earth and purge the human race from existance we're all doomed resistance is futile say your prayers and the rest of the bollocks that comes with it. Not only is this particularly dislikable and not in the right way, but being exempt from alienification - especially when even the main character isn't (although the game is happy to censor your transformation but willfully lets you watch it happen to others) makes for a hateful plot mechanic. It just never feels entirely necessary in my eyes when the setting and general idea of alien life taking over a spaceship is sufficiently enough on its own, it doesn't need the extra garnish. But then again, I'm a horror fanatic who likely notices this crap more than most of you will and I wanted to bitch more about the overuse of religious extremism as plot in general, this was just a good oppertunity to do so.
Suspend belief though, gloss over the usual clichés and pitfalls and play this like a survival horror, and Dead Space is definitely a welcome addition to a genre that has of late been a little on the quiet side. No, it's not the fresh game people have hailed it, seeing as it borrows from dozens of films, books and games with reckless abandon for its own welfare. It's not perfect either, with a plot that gets increasingly difficult to digest, a suit and gun which can be souped up that you need nothing else and mechanics and setpieces that are too much an awkward change of pace when the game seems to be progressing so smoothly. Thankfully, these problems - whilst there and valid - do not overly consume a game which is for the most part superbly paced, pretty to the point of orgasmic and truly very scary when played at night with the lights out, like you should do with any horror to be honest.
It can sit in the genre and be proud of itself, taking its place up there with the big names of the genre. No, it's nothing new, but is anything these days? When it's done this well and when you can forgive it some of the more cardinal sins of the genre, the ultimate question is - who cares? Lock, load and enjoy.
But don't think about Kurt Russel. That's the reason I haven't slept tonight (and likely will continue to haunt me for weeks to come...).