PC | PlayStation 3 | Xbox 360
Dead Space Review
Review By Steve Farrelly @ 03:18pm 29/10/08
It's an odd observation, but at gaming's current point, it's difficult to find a solid, stand-alone single-player experience.
Since the overwhelming success of the Wii and a subsequent boom in social gaming (not to mention the continued growth and strength of MMOs), pretty much every gaming experience now comes with some form of social or multiplayer functionality. Even Fable II, a game you would normally consider a single-player romp has its own spin on the social aspect, and if it's not an invite to other players to see your single-player world, then it's an invite to other players to rock frag grenades with you across supplied or created multiplayer maps (as is the case with Far Cry 2, for example).
It's definitely awesome to see that we've reached a point where videogames are no longer anti-social in standing (overzealous parents can't tell you to go out and 'make some friends' anymore), but there's also something to be said about a solid solitary gaming experience; something only you sink your teeth into - an experience where game-world and player combine to become a single entity. And through the aforementioned advent and growth of social gaming it seems as though this experienced is fast becoming the dinosaur of gaming. Thankfully EA Redwood's Dead Space is here to remind us all just how good it can be to piss your friends off for a night of lone time - just you and your game.
Dead Space is a game that wears its collective heart on its sleeve. I say "collective" because the game borrows successful elements very heavily from a number of Triple A titles, but I say "heart" (with emphasis on the singular) because these borrowed elements coalesce to form a perfectly functional foundation; evolved from the collectively borrowed gameplay instruments of its more-than-obvious source material.
In short, while not 100% original, Dead Space offers up one of the most solid gaming experiences I've had in a long time, and it does so because it's not afraid to take the best elements from great games and make them work - equally well - as a single entity.
You play through Dead Space as a hapless technician by the name of Isaac Clarke (see, heart on their sleeves). You and a team of rescuers are headed toward the Planet Cracker Class Mining Starship, USG Ishimura, after losing all communications with the vessel for no apparent reason.
No one is answering your calls, and the ship looks to be completely powerless. Adrift and ominously dark, you and your team need to get onboard the Ishimura, assess the situation and restore the ship to working status - a simple enough task for the average space engineer, right? Wrong.
As with all great horror and sci fi, anything that can go wrong does, and everything you thought you knew is very much a lie. There's no room for spoilers here, because unfolding the story is as compelling as just trying to stay alive, and Dead Space kicks things off real early in that department.
In fact, even after a pretty dodgy docking with the adrift mining vessel, you're thrown into the thick of it; separated from the rest of your team, only to watch them fight for their own survival through impenetrable glass when the real shit hits the fan (not that you'd be trying to get in there and save them at this point; you're as lost and confused as they are).
But even after seeing the initial horror from the safety of where you triggered the event a sense of ubiquitous dread kicks in, and you'll feel that cold sinking thing hit your stomach. And it's from this point on - no more than five minutes into the game - Dead Space and its ever-present fear and trepidation set out to never once let up.
While the horror element is very cool, it's still nothing we haven't ultimately seen before: A lone warrior fighting off hordes of insane, unintelligible monsters/aliens with nothing ever going in his favour until the bitter end. And at its core, this is pretty much what Dead Space is. But it does so much to engage the player in this cliche (beyond simply scaring the pants off you), that it's really difficult to ignore.
(That is until you face intense moments of true terror and heart-pounding relentless action, of which there are many, and so often require a breather).
To begin with, the universe EA Redwood have crafted here is totally functional. Everything serves a logical purpose, and you'll find even the weight and movement of Isaac as one of the most refreshing things you've experienced in third-person gaming in a long while. He moves with deliberation, ever-crouching because of the weight of his suit (transferred to you, the player, with perfection) while his transitional animations and their various trees are uber-realistic. It's a hyper-real world with true-to-life components that hold it together.
Mechanisms in the game look like they're doing the right thing, and elements such as moving through a Zero G environment or dealing with a vacuum is handled with scientific applaud. All of this helps extend the suspension of disbelief and adds to the overall immersion of the game (a must for anything labeled "horror").
This is also where the borrowed gameplay elements I mentioned earlier come in. If you could take the best of Resident Evil 4, Metroid Prime and BioShock and combine them all into a single package with pure unification, you would end up with Dead Space.
The third-person camera system borrows heavily from Resident Evil 4, but also expands upon it. You're not playing with a first-person view, but the way the camera works feels close to that experience in that you have a pretty good amount of peripheral to utilise. Moreover Isaac, no matter where you swing the game's camera to, is always off-centre; never once obstructing the overall view, yet he constantly remains a centerpiece regardless.
Progression through the game is almost entirely aboard the Ishimura. You'll come across locked doors and obstructed paths you know will become available to you later in the game with new weapons and abilities (ala the likes of Metroid or BioShock), and the overall pacing of this is handled to utter perfection.
Unlike the Resident Evil series, there's almost never a moment you feel safe in Dead Space. There's no "save room" with enchanting calm music to ease your nerves, and enemies don't predictably respawn; you may very well walk through corridor after corridor without a single confrontation, yet moments later face enemy after enemy in unbelievably unpredictable patterns. The Necromorphs will literally come at you, any time, without abandon. And while there are certainly many scripted moments and events throughout the game, the AI for these monstrosities is such you never face them the same way twice. They react differently each time which not only keeps you on your toes, but reminds you the severe lack of powerful weapons at your disposal is something that has to change quickly.
In this respect Dead Space again borrows very heavily from Resident Evil 4, as well as BioShock. Throughout the game you'll find Credits, Semi-Conductors (like Treasure in RE4), as well as other pick-ups alongside the very sought after Nodes. You can then visit the game's Store and buy/sell items with your accrued Credits. On offer are more powerful weapons, health, air canisters and more. You'll also uncover schematics for newer items that become available next time you hit the store. Nodes are used to upgrade your weapons and your Rig (your suit), and you can buy different levels of suit with varying enhancements (more item slots, health, oxygen etc) to combat the cold harshness of space and its seemingly unending population of mutated murderous alien denizens.
What's equally compelling about combating the aforementioned murderous mutated aliens is you're not always doing it in science labs, the medical bay or engine rooms. There's a fair amount of Zero-G exploration, puzzle-solving and combat as well as some memorable moments out in space, walking across the Ishimura's hull, avoiding asteroid bombardments and creepy Necromorphs who apparently don't need oxygen to survive. On top of just being cool breaks from corridor gaming, small things like not being able to hear anything out in space barring personal sounds from within your rig (your breathing, echoes of your footsteps), just make the game that much more enjoyable to experience.
Moreover, dealing with the fact there really is no up or down in Zero-G is tough enough as it is, but having to do so while avoiding/fighting Necromorphs is damn well insane (and difficult to initially get a grasp on).
The physics for moments and areas like this are awesome. You can shoot something in Zero-G and watch it move along the correct path. It would have been cool if you fling yourself backwards, aim in another direction mid-flight then change course through the weapon recoil, but maybe we'll see this for the next game (if there is one, and here's hoping there is).
It's the truly realistic components (all of which are small in singularity, but combine in force), that make the game though. One of the stand-out examples is in interacting with the game-world. Most games, when having to do this, force you to drop your guard and perform said interaction. Dead Space, however, allows you to maintain a steady, ready aim (for the expected monster attack, which could come at any time) while working with various components such as picking up items, opening lockers and doors and interacting with computers and ship mechanisms. It also helps that the lighting throughout the game is almost non-existent (in an awesome atmospheric way), and that your weapons are essentially your only direct light-source, so taking that from you would have just been plain mean.
Adding to the immersive nature of the game comes its lack of a HUD (heads up display).
This is all handled in-game in keeping with the overall logical functionality of the game-world. Instead of having a health bar obstructing your view in 2D splattered somewhere on the screen, it is represented as part of your actual Rig. Your weapons have ammunition counters physically attached, so you always know what you have in store (which, if you play the game on Hard is usually very little, all the time). In fact everything you would need to know/see in terms of managing your game and character is seamlessly integrated into the actual game. One of the most impressive of which is your Inventory/Map/Objectives screen.
All of this, including the likes of audio and video logs found throughout the game to flesh out the story, is represented as visual displays projected in front of Isaac, all with a massive emphasis on being not only believable, but aesthetic, atmospheric and informative. It's a balance that works incredibly well, and one you'll find in few other games of this (or any other) nature.
So moving the camera around Isaac while one of these system is open reveals they are in place in full 3D and a true part of the game-world. It's among the first of its kind, and a gameplay innovation I hope many other games take onboard. Which brings me to the visuals.
Dead Space is absolutely gorgeous. Beyond the incredible animations, the sensation of playing as Isaac, the functional and reactive game-world and the imaginative beasties, there's the ship design, space stuff and overall presentation - it all just screams next-gen.
Lighting here is among the best yet seen in videogames, and works in perfect conjunction with the game's narrative foundation (and just scaring the absolute shit out of you). Enemies are creepy as all hell, while NPCs (of which there are a few), all react and move with the same deliberation as Isaac. EA Redwood have worked tirelessly to craft one of the most believable monster-hunting environments ever presented in the survival horror genre.
And that's exactly what it is. Dead Space is the future of the survival horror game, and while I was very much looking forward to Resident Evil 5, I truly think its throwback design to Resident Evil 4 is going to keep it just under this amazing title; which while borrowing so much from so many great game, works diligently to not only advance the borrowed features, but create an experience with absolute synergy and forethought. No one element absolutely stands out over another, and as such you'll feel Dead Space is that rare breed of game (in this day and age) that doesn't feel rushed, but instead wholly realised. The only thing I can see turning people away from this is if you don't like sci fi, horror or single-player games.