Every so often, there comes a game which I like to save for myself. A game that I do not give to one of my esteemed colleagues to review. Electronic Arts’ Dead Space is one such title. I had a vague idea of what to expect from seeing it played briefly at this year’s E3 Media and Business Summit. At least, I thought I did. I guess seeing it played in a brightly lit convention room flooded with fellow gamers is a lot different than sitting down in a darkened room to play it by myself.
Fighting off the feeling that I had become a shut-in, I turned the lights off and started up Dead Space. So far so good, the intro UI is not scary. It is creepy but I am handling it. The score is eerie from the get go – brilliantly composed. So, into the introductory scene I go. It starts off with wonder and good excitement. After all, you are experiencing the majesty of space and mankind’s achievements therein. Then, it all goes wrong, and from that point forward you are in for one hell of a ride.
You play as Isaac Clarke, an engineer who is sent as part of a small repair team to find the ‘planet cracker’ ISG Ishimura and fix whatever is wrong with her. What you find is that the ship has been taken over by strange lifeforms called ‘necromorphs’. Whatever this life form is, it seems to utilize the biological matter available to it in its pursuits. In this case, the Ishimura’s crew. The design of the necromorphs is perfect. They look to be inspired by Rob Bottin’s and Lance Anderson’s work in John Carpenter’s 1982 film, The Thing. This fact alone did not bode well for me, as growing up The Thing was the only movie to ever really scare me. The idea of something using your own body for its grotesque purposes just creeped me out, and still does. Killing these abominations is a matter of tactics, just not spraying and praying. You have to dismember them first by blowing off their limbs/tentacles. This will usually kill the creature. If you try shooting it in the torso or head on the other hand, you will usually just piss it off. Trust me, don’t piss them off if you can help it.
The dark corridors and gruesome details adorning the Ishimura’s innards just wreak horrific atmosphere and you will often find yourself creeping around corners at a snail’s pace, gripped with anticipation of certain death.
Thankfully, Isaac wears a protective suit which helps him take more punishment that a normal person could. This suit can be upgraded by the use of ‘store’ terminals placed around the ship. Additionally, your weapons and armor can be upgraded at workbenches by using special ‘power nodes’ found scattered about.
Even with all this upgrading, you will usually feel very weak in relation to your enemies. Problem with Mr. Isaac Clarke is that he is an engineer, not a space marine. Your weaponry will consist mostly of unusual tools such as a plasma cutter. You will get a couple more standard military weapons, but ammo is nice and sparse in the game leaving you constantly hungry for more. You will also get some other engineering hardware which allows you to move things from far away, a sort of engineering telekinesis. Issac also gets to play with a stasis tool which slows down whatever object he hits with it. This can range from a fast-moving obstacle to a fast-moving tentacled infant-monster (creepy). This, coupled with your finite inventory space can lead to much pondering over what to keep with you and what to leave behind.
Dead Space has a very eerie score which procedurally changes depending on what you do in the game. The composer of the base chords and melodies, Jason Graves, does to your ears what the art direction does to your eyes.
I must admit, I could only take playing in the pitch-black for so long. I think I lasted about a half hour before the intensity just got too much and I had to light the place up with warm and friendly photons. The problem with this logic is that while lighting up my living room makes me feel better here in the real world, poor Isaac has no such luck. Even lit areas could become death traps in an instant.
There are several other cool gameplay gimmicks in the game, even having to do with zero gravity, however I will not spoil anything more for you. Dead Space is one of those games which you just have to experience for yourself. If I can tell you one thing in this review, it is that if you usually enjoy shooters, creepy survival-horror titles, or sci-fi horror in general you will love Dead Space and should buy it right now. Go and support quality productions like this. There are far too few of them to let this one pass you by. And for goodness’ sake, try playing in the dark to start with just to get the full effect. Good luck…