Dead Space is a triumph. I’m supposed to say something about how unusual this is for a publisher like EA, but who else (besides Ubisoft) could conjure a title of this quality? THQ can’t even make the menus of its off-road racing game Baja as exciting as the powerfully dull Forza Motorsport. If this is a sign of the “New EA” I’d better divert the funds I was going to put towards that Snickers bar and buy a controlling interest. Sorry. Economic apocalypse joke, not funny. I’m glad to see this original idea and attention to detail has rejuvenated what I assumed was a bland Madden and Need for Speed franchise machine. Did I mention I’ve already finished the Dead Space animated movie, preordered Dead Space 2, and bought all 37 items of Dead Space content from Xbox Live?
May as well say this upfront: Dead Space is not a very scary game, even though it could be a very scary movie. The team clearly studied System Shock 2 and Resident Evil 4, but they made three serious mistakes. First are the monsters: they suck. Every single one looks like a skinned human being whose bones were put in backwards and given tentacles or claws or a spiky tail or something. Some crawl on walls, others leap great distances or charge you, but none have any personality or even a name. Whenever one appears onscreen there’s a dramatic noise as if to say, “we’re scaring you now!” After the first two times they may as well pull out Candle Jack.
Which brings me to problem two: these horrible monsters have taken over the gigantic “Planet Cracker” spaceship Ishimura, and job #1 under Monster Captain Fn’Gaaah is to leap out of the ventilation and try to scare the player. They just appear when you complete an objective or walk far enough into a room to trip the invisible wire placed by the developer. Then ugly flesh pile #23,782 bursts through a fan and goes “fngaaah!” before he’s cut to ribbons. It’s sad, really. The cheerful, talented, hard working people of the Ishimura were cut down to make room for these uninteresting blobs of flesh. Imagine a slow-moving version of The Flood from Halo on every single level and weep for a Bioshock Splicer.
Problem three is the protagonist, Issac Clarke. I don’t mind that he’s a breathtaking non-entity as talkative as Gordon Freeman, but the secondary goal of finding his girlfriend is completely hollow. You see a frightened transmission from her during the opening scene and then nothing for six hours of gameplay. When your commander “motivates” you by mentioning that Nicole may still be alive, I had to look in the manual to remember who he was talking about. The player has no emotional connection to this straw woman. If it was Alyx Vance on that ship I’d be raring to go. Even Ashley Graham created more compassion than Nicole.
Maybe I’m making it sound dull. You will get the willies during most of Dead Space regardless of the bland beasties. The lighting is spooky without being Doom 3 dark, the ship creaks and groans ominously, and you’ll hear snatches of someone chanting evilly in Spanish(?), perhaps summoning the space devil. Traditional audio logs are augmented by text and video logs, all well written and superbly acted. The two surviving crew members of your repair ship mean more to you than a dozen Nicoles (which still isn’t a lot). If the monster design and placement were fixed it would be pant-wettingly awesome.
But enough complaining. I love Dead Space so much I can forgive its un-scary monsters and uninteresting love interest. There is a lot of real innovation and all of it is good. For one, I can take out my frustration with the monsters in a very exciting way. Your guns née cutting tools - which are uniformly excellent, by the way - can and should cut off the limbs of the aliens you encounter. Don’t shoot the chest or even bother with the head. That’ll just piss ‘em off. Instead, aim for the arms, legs or tentacles. EA dubs it “strategic dismemberment”: chopping off limbs reveals a new method of alien locomotion and kills them quicker. Whoever did the animation for this game deserves a medal.
Issac himself animates and controls perfectly; no other word can describe it. There’s no quick turnaround button, but since you can walk while shooting, you don’t need it. Moving your character through the world should be a game’s first priority, but I can’t think of a third person shooter that controls as naturally as Dead Space. He even turns his head when watching videos or browsing the holographic interface. Compared to The Force Unleashed, this is complete immersion.
What a delight it is to see a revolutionary user interface in one of my favorite genres. There is no HUD. Issac’s health is the green tube on his back, and his ammo count appears floating above each weapon when he readies it. When you press the menu button your inventory appears as a hologram in front of the character. Rotate the camera and you can even see it from behind. We’ve never experienced anything like this. Of course, you’ll have trouble viewing the menu in confined areas, and the “spine as health meter” is apparently a fashion mandate in this universe. Doesn’t make much sense unless everyone has a floating camera two feet above their head, but whatever.
For all its other qualities, Bioshock didn’t do much with the fact that it was set in an undersea city. You never had rising water, swimming, or air supply issues. Dead Space is very glad to be in space. You’ll occasionally enter areas of vacuum where limited breathing keeps you on your toes. There are also zero gravity sections of the ship, allowing Issac (and the monsters!) free rein over the floor, ceiling, and walls. Put the two together and you get breathlessly intense combat. Killing aliens and watching their corpses spin gently through the void spurting blood is just delicious.
There’s also stasis and kinesis, borrowed from Max Payne’s bullet time and Half-Life 2’s Gravity Gun. The developers have mixed it up a bit: stasis only slows down one monster at a time, and kinesis is practically useless. For the fast monsters stasis is a godsend, letting you carefully sever limbs and conserve ammo. Kinesis is used for puzzles and moving tables and chairs out of your way. While you’ll find explosive barrels scattered about, there’s not enough of them and barely any room to throw them. It’s amazing that the central conceit of Max Payne can be turned into an ancillary feature of a modern game. I wonder if strategic dismemberment will show up in Grand Theft Auto 5.
Dead Space’s graphics are beautiful, its ship design is superb, and the frame rate stays steady throughout the entire experience. In more than a few places I had to force myself to move forward, the fear was paralyzing. I don’t mind the frequent save spots or guided lines on the ground. They’re optional and fit within the universe. Plus, it looks like EA realized that times are changing and it’s acceptable to hold the player’s hand if he wants to be held.
Not a problem over here. My hands are locked in the shape of an Xbox controller.