Dead Space

In Dead Space, the setting is reminiscent of the original Alien film, with a massive ship, the USG Ishimura, now populated by only a small rescue team, and creatures you hope never to meet. This is not Resistance, nor Killzone, this is survival horror at its best, in a science fiction setting where every element of the environment plays a role, every enemy is perfectly placed, and every move you make could result in your character's demise. It's unusual for Electronic Arts to produce a game like Dead Space, but a fantastic sign that the publishing giant is keen to develop new and original games, as opposed to just tired sequels, especially with Mirror's Edge arriving at the same time. Are the new franchises worth paying attention too though? With Dead Space facing competition from the Resident Evil series early in 2009, the game has a massive challenge to overcome, but incredibly, the developers seem to have managed it.

Dead Space

Playing as Isaac Clarke (the name containing deliberate references to famous science fiction authors Asimov and Clarke), you find yourself fighting the ship before you even meet your first enemy. After a violent landing, you're tasked with restoring the ship's transport systems, which will allow access to other areas. Things swiftly go from troublesome to terrifying though, and it's not long before you're running scared down a corridor, pursued by a beast more scary than an annoyed human female. It's actually genuinely scary for the first few encounters, and the pace doesn't fade from the game. The developers have truly understood how gamers think, and know exactly how to suprise us. All the traditional gaming patterns are displaced to facilitate extra scares. The game will purposefully lead you into a sense of rythm, only to shatter that pattern just as it becomes familiar. Expecting the unexpected won't work either, because the game knows that you know, seriously. Every so often, you'll hear an ominous clank or metallic clink and round the next bend fully expecting to meet tentacled madness, only to be greeted by an empty corridor, dimly lit by flickering, damaged lights. Moments like that, featuring no actual monster presence, are used to just as much effect as the alien encounters.

As an engineer, Isaac has little combat training. Relying on an environmental protection suit and engineering tools such as a plasma cutter, the game has far more in common with the close and personal nature of Alien, as opposed to the heavily-armed conflict witnessed in the sequel. Other weaponry, or rather, tools, become available as you explore, including remote saw blades and force guns, each with a vague engineering-related motivation to justify their inclusion. The cutting nature of many of the weapons is ideally suited to the game's enemies though, since Dead Space places great focus on strategic dismemberment. For experienced gamers used to aiming for the perfect headshot, there's something initially counter intuitive about aiming for limbs instead, but it's tremendously effective. Shooting the head of a standard necromorph will only make the bizarre baddies grumpy. To really stop your foe, you'll need to shoot arms and legs in gruesome fashion, especially if you want to conserve precious ammunition. With near-perfect balance, players will likely be forced to aim carefully, use the environment where possible, and search for additional ammo whenever possible, simply to stand a chance against the tougher enemies. There's the option to melee the enemy, but with obvious risks attached.

Dead Space

There is a reasonable amount of variety in the enemy types, though it's certainly nowhere near as diverse as a Final Fantasy game. Still, when compared with even the brilliant Uncharted, there's a lot more range in Dead Space, with enemies as small as a human hand, squirming their way rapidly up Isaac's legs, through to monsters as large as a docking bay, bringing destruction to all nearby. Each requires a slightly different strategy to defeat, and thanks to the shortage of ammunition, those strategies will often require adjustment with little warning. Of course, being a science fiction game, there's scope for a few extra tools in Isaac's arsenal, and these come in the form of kinesis and stasis. Kinesis is perhaps the most fun, allowing you to grab objects at a distance and levitate them around the room. If a pickup is out of reach, it's time for kinesis, and the module also allows players to grab explosive canisters and fling them towards enemies as a handy substitute for ammunition. Stasis is equally useful, giving you the power to freeze objects temporarily, with uses ranging from freezing enemies that you need time to attack without reply through to holding back fast-moving machinery (like faulty doors, or raging electric cables).

The game certainly isn't all about the weaponry though. The weapon selection, choosing between any of four weapons Isaac can carry at a time, from a selection of seven total, is very smooth, with a miniature selection screen appearing through an incredibly subtle HUD. All in-game equipment, weaponry and advice can be supplied through a wrist-mounted holographic display. This technique is particularly important, since it rules out any need for any other displays or overlays. Worried about ammunition count? Simply holding up Isaac's current weapon will reveal a small, but clear, digital display at the rear of the gun, revealing the ammo remaining in the clip. The result is a clutter-free screen, leaving the main two characters, Isaac and the USG Ishimura itself, to interact fully. The immersion, and resulting loneliness, is superbly effective. Once you've turned on the game and loaded your save, there's very little to break the rythm and atmosphere the game builds so tremendously well. In a dark room with a good set of headphones, there's no experience like it on PS3.

Dead Space

There's some inventive elements of Dead Space, including Zero-G ball games, and gameplay is varied nicely with occasional trips onto the exterior of the ship, facing the oxygen-free vacuum and more fearsome elements of space itself. There's actually very little to criticise in any of the gameplay, other than perhaps the slightly sluggish feel of the character fighting. There's a run button to aid general movement, and it's fantastic to be able to shoot and move, but entering into melee combat is a (perhaps intentionally) cumbersome experience. The difficulty curve can also be a tiny bit unforgiving on occasion. If you expend all your ammunition at the wrong time, and find yourself faced by the trickiest roomfull of nasties yet, then it might become difficult to progress. However, once you achieve a sense of rythm in the game, and become accustomed to the ebb and flow of enemy presence, it's easy enough to prepare yourself with substantial ammunition saved for the right moments.

One thing that needn't be criticised at all is the visual magnificence of the game. It might not be pleasant to look at when Isaac is getting torn apart in a moment of failure by the player, but the game is beautiful, even amongst the horror. There's almost nothing to complain about, with fantastically sharp visuals, stupidly effective lighting (seriously, the light effects in the game are second to none, and bring the USG Ishimura to life brilliantly) and great character design. The only minor flaw is the occasional moment of poor collision detection. For example, Isaac walking along with a table stuck around his head, not forced there in a moment of horror, simply present through graphical glitch, was not so impressive, but it's a rare event in a game that, on the whole, looks magnificent.

Dead Space

The audio side of Dead Space isn't outdone by the visuals though, with haunting sound effects and classic horror-style violin-style score accentuating all the right moments. The score appears only on rare occasions, allowing Isaac to explore in silence the majority of the time, kept company only by the spooky sound effects that form the irregular heartbeat of the crippled Ishimura. It's not just the quality of the effects that stands out though, it's the timing. Every rattle, every clang and every rumble is perfectly timed to coincide with on-screen action and other ship-related cues. One nice touch is the transition from interior, air-filled rooms, through to vacuum locations, where every nearby sound starts to echo and resound around Isaac's helmet, while distant noises appear muffled, perhaps carried by only the metallic vibration through to Isaac's feet. It's a tremendous game to listen to, and sets a new standard for audio excellence.

Many might argue that comparisons between Resident Evil 5 and Dead Space are unfair, but personally it seems clear that Dead Space has evolved the survival horror genre and left Resident Evil stuck in a sticky past where shooting could only be achieved standing still. Dead Space takes some of the best elements of Survival Horror from the last decade, polishes them to perfection and produces one of the finest titles of the year. With trophy support to keep players working, and a 10-hour main story that's easily worth repeating, there's plenty of motivation to spend some serious time with Isaac, risking the corridors of the USG Ishimura. If you're not a fan of the genre, Dead Space might be the game to let you enjoy something new, especially if you're keen on Science Fiction. In this generation of games though, there's nothing that can compete with the excellence of Dead Space; the game is highly recommended.

Game details

Game logo

Publisher:

Electronic Arts

Developer:

Electronic Arts

Players:

1

Online:

Downloadables

Release:

2008-10-24

Trophies:

49

Review summary

Gameplay:

Dripping with atmosphere, decent combat

Graphics:

Visually stunning, painfully beautiful

Sound:

Perfectly accentuates the tense action

Lastability:

Not long, but with good replay value

9.1

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Commander Shepard

I trust you too Tali, but you don't have to prove anything to me.

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I know... well no not that I know... it's just that... well... it's not normally like this... I mean, wow... when did it get so hot in here?