Dead Space Review
It started out as an announcement that didn't get all that much fanfare, as is common with the revealing of an all new intellectual property in the videogame world. EA's Dead Space billed a horror game that took place in...outer space, and again, people didn't 'oooh' or 'ahhh'. But as soon as we started getting our hands on playable content, Dead Space quickly turned from being thought of as generic, to something much, much more. As press hype began to build for Dead Space, so did anticipation from the gamers...and luckily, the game was pushed up to arrive a week early. As you can see, the final verdict is very strong, and there are more than a number of reasons why...
First off, Dead Space runs on a proprietary engine made by EA, so this is just one of few games that's not running on Unreal Engine III. The reason having your own engine is a good thing is because EA's Redwood Shores studio had complete knowledge and control over their own architecture, translating to less development issues down the road, and a better multiplatform title. So thanks to a proprietary engine Dead Space benefits from being a rather polished game, for the most part.
When revealing the game, EA Redwood stated that Dead Space was inspired by movies such as Event Horizon, The Thing, and Alien; while videogame influences obviously include Resident Evil and Silent Hill. The team has crafted a story which revolves around a character named Isaac Clarke. Clarke is a space engineer for Concurdance Extraction Corporation (C.E.C). The C.E.C. is a mining company that controls enormous mining ships around the galaxy.
When a particular "Planet Cracker" ship (a planet destroyer that extracts remaining ore from a dead planet) calls in a distress call, a group of engineers assemble to go investigate the issue. As you can imagine, Clarke is one of the engineers on duty. Upon arrival, the engineers soon realize that the ship had been taken over by an unknown race of aliens, and so the fight to survive begins.
The Necromorphs are this mysterious alien race, they have the ability to inhabit the body of a regular being, distorting and mutating their original shape. From there on, the alien beings can continue to infect others, and the only way to kill the aliens is to dismember them. Yes, dismembering your enemies is how you kill them. While it may seem a little unusual, it works, and it's actually a solid concept that encourages you to aim well, as opposed to just spraying fire everywhere. Furthermore, the mechanic of shooting limbs works to the gameplay's advantage as it heightens the sense of urgency, fright, and the fight to survive. Again, because you're not shooting aimlessly and you have to concentrate on a kill, you're taking up time while the enemy advances closer. Often times you'll end up killing the enemy right as he's about to strike, and a sigh of relief will follow each and every time that happens. As you can see, the effect this has on you is absolutely brilliant, certainly more so than any other horror game before.
There are a variety of different Necromorph forms, so throughout the game you won't be killing the same enemy over and over again. As mentioned already, gameplay is third-person and utilizes an over-the-shoulder view that is similar to games like Resident Evil 4 and Gears of War. My one complaint with this is that there are times your view of the environment seems very restricted and that can often result in getting blindsided by an enemy you didn't see. A simple solution would've been to center the character on screen, and use the over-the-shoulder perspective only when the weapon is drawn. Additionally, not being able to switch between shoulder perspectives (left or right) is another qualm of mine. But I must say this, though...in some strange way, this limitation actually makes me use my senses more as I'm now more inclined to pay attention to strange sounds, as well as look around my surroundings more often. Again, this only heightens the game's fright level.
The gameplay utilized some solid physics work, and you'll discover a good chunk of it when you enter one of the gravity-free areas of the game. There are a number of environments where gravity is non-existent, so Clarke has to rely on his gravity boots to get around these no gravity zones, and that's another aspect of the game that came out much better than anticipated.
Getting down to action, the game will grant you a number of weapons, abilities, and armor. The primary weapon will be the Plasma Cutter, which is a mining tool used to cut down rocks and such. Instead, you'll use it to sever the heads and limbs of your enemies. As I mentioned earlier, there are more than one kind of Necromorph, so just because one kind dies from getting its head severed, doesn't mean another type will. For example, severing a certain enemy's head may cause a smaller alien life-form to crawl out and jump at you. Firing at a pregnant alien will cause additional, smaller lifeforms to come at you, as well. So while the goal is to dismember, you also have to be prepared for surprises. Now, if things get hairy, the Stasis Gun can be used to slow down targeted enemies, allowing you more time to kick some ass - the gun can also be used on moving objects, as well.
Clarke's suit plays a pivotal role in the game, and its implementation is reminiscent of Nintendo's Metroid games. The suit connects to the network of the ship, and will automatically update you with information of your surroundings, such as item details, nearby computer stations, and will even display video transmissions via hologram. An energy bar on the spine tracks Clarke's health, and air-supply is fed through the suit, as well, when you're in rooms that have been decompressed. Likewise, gravity boots will keep you planted to a panel when things get...lightweight.
Your weapons and suit are upgradeable, as Clarke's engineering knowledge will enable him to perform item modifications to add more power with every shot, or increase defense. Item modification isn't free, though, as you'll be required to scour for nodes, which are required per upgrade. If you're playing the game's harder difficulty and you're fresh out of ammo, you'll be able to use melee attacks to fend off threats by pistol whipping and stomping a fallen enemy. And finally, when you just wish to be Darth Vader-ish, how about a kinetic power that'll allow you to pick up a bunch of different objects and throw them when you're down on ammo? It's certainly a fun power to use, and is highly reminiscent of Midway's Psi-Ops game.
Visually, Dead Space is a gorgeous looking game with an amazing atmosphere that really immerses you into the whole experiences. After spending so much time with Bioshock, I didn't think there'd be another game to immerse me into the whole experience as much as it did, but Dead Space does just that, albeit on another level. As I've mentioned before numerous times, Dead Space's immersion comes from its sense of urgency and fear, unlike Bioshock which enamors you with its unique world. Both games boast an amazing atmosphere, but both do it differently - so neither is better than the other.
On the technical side of things, Dead Space exhibits fantastic polish with a screen that is completely free of aliasing issues, on top of being completely devoid of an on-screen HUD. So how do you tell how much life or ammo you've got left? Simple, as already stated, your life-gauge is displayed on the back of your suit along the spine, as can your Stasis energy, and your ammo can be viewed simply by raising the gun. Texture detail is pretty sharp overall, and I haven't seen anything that I felt inclined to call out, so all is good there. Character detail is well done, as well, as are the character animations. EA Redwood certainly did a fine job with the game's animation, so bravo there. The framerate, while decent for the most part, can exhibit unusual slow-down simply when you're panning the camera around, which is a little annoying. The framerate can suffer a bit too when there's a lot of action, as well, but most of the times it sticks to 30 and keeps everything running fine. As far as resolutions go, you have your pick from 720p, 1080i, and 1080p, but 720p is the game's native resolution and the rest are upscaled.
The audio in Dead Space is nothing short of remarkable, and perhaps some of the best a horror game has ever seen. There is no soundtrack, and the only bits of composition are there solely to build some tension. There is audio all around you, be it noises or sounds, the audio does a fantastic job of contributing to the game's atmosphere. Running the game through a 5.1 setup demonstrated superb use of each and every channel in the corners of the room. And to top it all off, there's also some rather great voice acting here too. There's no denying that Dead Space's audio is truly great, and not playing it on a surround setup would be doing the game a disservice. Brilliant work, EA.
You could argue that Dead Space is perhaps the biggest sleeper hit of the year. While yes it is from a high profile publisher, it was also underestimated by many and few expected such a blockbuster hit. Boasting splendid atmosphere that is superbly woven by the audio, visuals, and the gameplay, Dead Space is also the scariest, most tense game to come out in a long time. If you're looking for an amazing survival horror game, then look no further - Dead Space is your ticket.
10/19/2008 Arnold Katayev