Dead Space User Review
Visceral Games (formerly EA Redwood Shores) have tapped into this pathological fear of our own bodies in many of the enemy designs of this game. The enemies, known as Necromorphs, are created from corpses, and seek to make more corpses, thus prolonging the species in this way. It is a horrific thought, but one that plays out well. As I mentioned, the enemy designs are based primarily on human shapes. But seeing them deformed brings with it a slight disconnection. Unlike what you might expect, these Necromorphs aren’t zombies. Instead of simply being reanimated corpses, they have enormous blades erupting from their shoulders, while others have tails in the place of legs. In short, there is a good amount of diversity in the enemies, and more variants are introduced as the story progresses, meaning that you are constantly tasked with finding their particular weakness.
One of the unique parts of Dead Space is the way in which you incapacitate the enemies. In most shooters, it is simply a case of plugging them with bullets until they drop. In many horror games, headshots are a necessity to conserve your limited ammunition. Now, we must keep in mind that Dead Space is indeed classified as a survival horro game, and this is reflected in the relatively sparse ammunition. It isn’t difficult to find or buy, but you do quite regularly find yourself running low. The interesting thing is that body shots take too much time, while headshots won’t kill them. Instead, you must dismember the Necromorphs, shooting off their limbs one by one. Three ‘delimbings’ will usually be enough to drop most enemies, but some need more. Something I particularly enjoyed was the way in which the animations change depending on what you cut off. Taking off a leg will see the creature crawling towards you by pulling itself along with its arms. Taking an arm will see the enemy charging you, as it will be ineffective with only one. If you manage to cut off the head, they will start attacking wildly, not knowing where you are. It’s a very nice touch.
Best of all, most of this is explained in the story, which has a rich background, but the plot of the game itself is rather weak, but definitely picks up in the second half as the revelations start to come. Set in the far future, Dead Space tells the tale of Engineer Isaac Clarke, one part of the three-man crew sent to figure out why communications with the Planet Cracker U.S.G. Ishimura has stopped. What should be a simple mission quickly turns to a fight for survival as the Necromorph infestation is discovered, and the team is forced to find another way off the ship, as they craft they came in on is destroyed in the opening sequence. An emotional element has been tried to be worked into the story, with Isaac’s girlfriend Nicole being a part of the crew of the Ishimura, but I personally felt that this fell far short of what it could have been.
This same sentiment prevails throughout most of the game. For the first half, you are constantly being sent on menial fetch-quests. Yes they give you a sense of urgency and make you feel as though you’re doing something, but by the time the fourth obstacle is put in your way, you’re left thinking ‘Surely not everything would go wrong.’ (Until you remember Murphy’s Law, that is, but I digress.) Halfway through the game, you begin to run into survivors on the Ishimura, and this is where the story gets better. It just seems to take too long.
The story is further expanded by the numerous audio and text logs that you find scattered about the ship. This is where the background that I mentioned earlier comes from. You see the points of view of crew members about the events that are occurring around them, and it helps to build a strong mythology, which has since been expanded in a prequel game, two animated films, two comic book series and a novel. It seems strange to think that video games are turning into such a heavily multimedia based experience, but that’s beside the point.
The setting is certainly interesting. Horror in space has been done before, (namely in what is probably my favourite film franchise, Alien) and this isn’t especially different in the way that it is presented. The usual light and sterility of the SF setting is replaced by darkness and bloodstained walls, not to mention the insane graffiti. That being said, the propensity for geometric shapes is definitely on display. The designs of the characters also reflect this in the RIG. It is a heavy duty suit, with a spine on the back that shows the health of your character. It’s beautifully designed, with detail down to tiny scratches on the helmet and dozens of segmented pieces adorning the suit. If I have a gripe, it is that the camera sits too close. It gives you a good view of the RIG, but this comes at the cost of line of sight. For much of the game, Isaac takes up a large portion of the left hand side of the screen. Visceral has been kind enough to ensure that you aren’t often blindsided, but it still acts a detriment to the experience.
Speaking of screen space, the UI is non-existent. As I mentioned, the health of the character is displayed on him, and the same goes for the amount of Stasis Energy that he has. The Ammo Counter is shown as a holographic display on the weapon when you have it at the ready, and there is no HUD. You can get an indication of the direction you need to go by tapping the R3 button, which emits a line leading onward to your next destination, or by pressing Select. This brings up a map shown as a holographic display from the RIG, but I found it confusing. It shows the environment, but it’s difficult to get any exact idea of the path you are supposed to take. It is a frustration, but little more. Outside of this, the RIG works incredibly well, and the minimalism certainly helps to keep the player immersed in the game, as you aren’t flitting about trying to keep a track of all of the data.
Back to what I was saying earlier about the setting for a moment, and let me just say that the developers have captured the aural experience well. Like the UI, the focus is on minimalism as, more often than not, you are accompanied only by the sounds of your footsteps and breathing. You will be alerted to the presence of a Necromorph by the sounds of something scraping on steel, or heavy breathing. Occasionally, they will burst through a window or an air vent, and with this comes a nerve-racking explosion which will leave you whirling about, looking for the enemy. In moments of heightened tension, you will hear a discordant tune, and this works very well in setting one on edge, and it is used rarely enough for it to always have that desired effect. Most effective of all is probably the vacuum sections of the gameplay. These are sets in parts of the ship in which the hull has been breached, resulting in a loss of oxygen. Without air, sound cannot travel, so these scenes are pervaded by a heavy silence, and you hear only the sound of Isaac’s breath. With no audio cues, it makes it far more unnerving when you run into a Necromorph.
I’ve already mentioned several times that you face off against the Necromorphs, but I haven’t yet detailed the control scheme. Realistically, it should be easy for anyone familiar with third-person shooter gameplay to adjust to the controls here. Camera and movement are controlled with the default sticks. The triangle button brings up the Inventory menu of the RIG, where you can see what ammunition you have in stock, any air cans, or health packs, as well as Schematics (more on them later) and any other collectibles. Pressing R2 or L2 from here allows you to cycle through tabs, including the map and logs that you’ve already collected. The RIG menu can also be brought up through the Select button, but that starts at the map. Pressing Square uses one of your health packs (starting with the smallest first). This is a very helpful addition, as you never know when the next enemy is going to pop around the corner, and because of the high octane nature of battles, it simply wouldn’t do to have to fiddle around with the somewhat cumbersome Inventory system. The X button is used for context sensitive actions, such as opening doors or shaking off enemies. And the L2 button allows you to run. It’s good, but rarely used as the level design doesn’t usually allow for it.
On top of that, there is the combat. The right shoulder buttons are used for melee attacks, 1 for a punch and 2 for a stomp. Again, they’re useful in a limited capacity (namely when you’re VERY low on ammunition. The attacks deal almost no damage, and nor do they create any space between you and the enemy). The D-Pad switched between your weapons, and you can carry four at any given time. You can switch between your loadouts at the Store (more on that later). When it comes to actually fighting, the only way to do so is with your weapons. You hold them at the ready by holding down the L1 button. Once this is in place, R1 fires, while R2 deals an alternate firing mode. It’s worthwhile checking out the secondary modes, as it opens up numerous extra strategies to employ. All of the following commands require you to be holding down the L1 button to pull them off. Firstly, reloading is performed with a simple press of X. It usually takes a small amount of time, so it’s important to make sure that you time it right. I personally found it easier to switch to another weapon when I began to run low, and reload all of the weapons once the battle is complete. Square fires off a Stasis charge, which slows down objects and enemies for a short while, allowing you to pass certain obstacles, or line up shots in the exact right way. Circle is the Kinesis module, which draws objects towards you. This can range from dropped items to corpses. You can fire them away from yourself by tapping R1. Finally, Triangle is the jump button, but you can only use this in the Zero-G areas.
Now, I mentioned just a mite earlier the Store. As the name would suggest, this is where you buy and sell any items that you need, or do not need. There are several items that are used exclusively as a currency exchange, as well as being able to pick up credits fairly regularly. Usually, when you need money, you’ll have it. Schematics, again referenced earlier, allow you access to more items in the Store, including larger health packs, weapons and more advanced versions of the RIG. Speaking of the weapons, there are seven to choose from, and each feels distinctly different from every other. As a result, it is quite a bit of fun to experiment with different set-ups to discover which one you think works best. Also in the Store is the Safe, where you can hold any excess items that you are loath to get rid of. There is also the Bench. This is the seemingly necessary RPG element of this game. Basically, you use Power Nodes (dropped by certain enemies, usually found in hidden locations, or purchased at the Store for a hefty price) to upgrade your equipment. It is, in my opinion, quite useless. Sure, having more health, or stronger weapons isn’t a bad thing, but it feels like a waste. I’m not sure why.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only missed opportunity of Dead Space. I’ve already mentioned the discrepancy between the strength of the back-story and the weakness of the game’s plot, but there is more than that, affecting almost every facet of the production. The amount of detail in the graphics is inspired, but the repetitiveness of the environments becomes grating. There are a few areas to break the monotony, but it‘s mostly just dark corridors and a few larger rooms with a simple layout. The voice acting is actually of a very high calibre, but the lack of any really meaningful dialogue in the first half of the game makes it seem like a poor effort.
The real problems don’t lie in the technical failings, as there really aren’t any. No, the key problems stem from the gameplay, though I get the feeling that these are more personal gripes than anything to do with the production. Rather, the expectations that I held for Dead Space, based on pre-release information. First of all, the fact that Isaac is an Engineer is at the fore. It’s why he has been sent to the Ishimura. He has with him the trusty Plasma Cutter. This is his screwdriver. An item that fires a blast of laser energy. Really? The least that they could have done is offer up a few puzzle scenarios where it would be necessary to use it. But no, the only real use is for dismemberment. That’s not to say that there aren’t puzzle elements. Unfortunately, these are always simple, relying on the use of the Stasis and Kinesis modules, and take only seconds to figure out. It’s a real disappointment.
Next is the game layout. I’m not complaining that you occasionally have to backtrack through the same locations, as slight differences are made each time, and it’s not like you have to run through every level twice, as you did with ‘Devil May Cry 4’. No, the problem stems from the thoughtlessness in the enemy placement. In the beginning of the game, enemies are fairly scarce, making the run-ins more frightening, as you are led to believe that one is too much. As you progress, this aura of subtlety is destroyed. You will have enemy after enemy thrown at you, at times having to face off against what would, in most circumstances, be considered an intentional onslaught. This doesn’t seem right, as the Necromorphs are not organised. They don’t plan, they just attack, so why would they swarm in a room, waiting for you to enter? Again, it makes little sense, and is only in there to slow the progress of the player.
The third major detrimental factor is most certainly a personal issue. You see, Dead Space seems to focus on glorified violence and generally frightening imagery. In this sense, it is similar to the ‘torture porn’ genre of films, such as Saw and Hostel. I don’t find this frightening, but disgusting. If I’m looking for horror, I want something that will make me afraid to look over my shoulder. There is no real psychological element to Dead Space, except the purported madness of the crew, but even this is played down. There is no mental connection. To say that the constant pressure of the game and the swarms of enemies didn’t make me tense would be a lie, but they weren’t enough to frighten me.
The game, on Normal difficulty, will likely last the average gamer between ten and twelve hours. After this, there isn’t really anything more to do, unless you choose to try to explore any of the nooks and crannies that you missed in your first play through. As usual, there are several difficulty settings, which simply dare you to try harder, but they only add more tension as the enemies are stronger and slightly more prevalent. Upon completion of the game, you net a few goodies to see you through a New Game + mode, which means that you keep any of the equipment that you picked up in your first round, and upgrade them further. This can only be accessed on the same difficulty setting though. It’s forgivable.
So there you have it. I would be lying if I said that Dead Space wasn’t a good game. Sure, it has a few misfires, but it is arguably the best survival-horror experience of the generation thus far. And it makes sense to move the genre away from the slower paced nature of earlier incarnations. People simply won’t tolerate that nowadays. The mass market is all about speed over thought. It isn’t pleasant, but it is a reality. The developers said that they set about to create the most terrifying game that they possibly could. For me, it was certainly a tense, white knuckle ride, but hardly the kind of horror that I enjoy. That being said, the promise of the franchise is one that I can get behind. A few minor changes to the core gameplay and focus and it will be near perfect, even with the flaws.
Thankyou for your time and I hope that you found my words to be both informative and helpful. Until next time PSXE, Peace and Law be with you.
This user review does not reflect the views of the PSX Extreme Staff.