For years now, EA Games hasn’t been a publisher gamers look towards for original, quality IPs. The company seems interested in changing this image, however, and Dead Space is an excellent step in the right direction. It’s not that we haven’t seen these mechanics and concepts before – but rarely are they so flawlessly executed. Dead Space combines a finely tuned shooter experience with survival horror elements, complete with a compelling story and an incredibly oppressive atmosphere. All considered, this is one of the most impressively terrifying videogames ever created.
Dead Space is set thousands of years in the future, in an age where interstellar travel is standard. Humanity now relies on giant space stations known as Planet Crackers for survival. These ships literally crack open entire planets and extract nutrients and resources contained therein. At the game’s outset, silent protagonist Isaac Clarke (kudos to those who catch the references in his name) is with a rescue team responding to a distress call from the U.S.G Ishimura – the largest planet cracker in her class. Of course, upon arriving, it’s quickly realized that things are a horrible mess. The crew has been slaughtered, and the ship is crawling with terrifying alien creatures known as Necromorphs. Isaac, with the help of a few friends who can only communicate with him remotely, must now fight his way through the dark halls of the Ishimura in a desperate attempt to find a way out – and to uncover the secret behind this nightmare.
Dead Space doesn’t lay on the narrative layers very thickly, but what’s there is engaging enough to keep the game moving. After a few hours, the player will likely be determined to find out what, exactly is going on here, and how our hero is going to overcome his seemingly hopeless situation. The presentation is done well, with practically no non-interactive cutscenes to be found. Dead Space takes a page from BioShock in this sense; all plot development is done through video transmissions from your allies, as well as numerous text, audio, and video logs found throughout the ship that chronicle the crew’s struggle before they were all killed. Never do cutscenes break the action – video transmissions hover in front of Isaac as they play, allowing the game to continue uninterrupted.
The gameplay is extremely fine-tuned, and extremely terrifying. Dead Space is perhaps best described as a “limited-ammo shooter,” and it pulls off this concept very well. The player will constantly find himself being assaulted by a wide variety of enemies, often many at a time. Unlike the vast majority of shooters that encourage the player to aim at the head, to effectively defeat the Necromorphs, the player is forced to aim for the limbs. A headshot will often merely aggravate them. A reserve of Stasis Energy allows Isaac to temporarily freeze enemies in place, but this must be used sparingly. There’s never too little ammo or resources for the game to become frustrating, but at the same time, there’s rarely enough for the player to feel overpowered against the threats that lurk onboard the Ishimura. While mission structure in Dead Space can often be repetetive, the game’s combat is always a very intense experience, and should keep players entertained from beginning to end.
Outside of combat, Dead Space does feature some light puzzle-solving elements, and these are usually quite well-done. They’re never particularly challenging, but they’re not insultingly simple either. Many of them take place in the game’s “Zero Gravity” segments, which are essentially what they sound like – certain portions of the Ishimura are devoid of gravity, allowing for some mind-bendingly fun sequences. However, some of these sequences are also devoid of oxygen, which couples the puzzle with a time constraint.
The sound design in Dead Space is practically without peer, and without question, is the most frightening component of the game’s design. The sounds of aliens screaming and skittering back and forth through the Ishimura’s airvents is ever-present, accounting for a consistent feeling of unease – it’s impossible to know when an attack will come. Demented members of the crew who miraculously survived can be heard singing disturbed songs over the intercoms, or simply whimpering in fear. Aside from that, the voice acting is extremely well-done across the board – especially given the extreme situations the characters are in, it’s remarkable how realistically the voicework comes across.
The graphics in Dead Space are just as beautiful and frightening as the rest of the game is. The metallic halls of the Ishimura are often shrouded in darkness, or even worse, adorned with lights that flicker on and off. Bloody corpses litter the halls, complete with gruesome detail. The Necromorphs are extremely well-designed, and move with terrifying realism. Dead Space is one of the best-looking games available.
Dead Space is a terrifying experience on every conceivable level. Wandering the empty halls in fear is every bit as intense and frightening as battling off a drove of flesh-eating Necromorphs. But there’s more here than scares; the game packs an engaging plot and some highly refined and entertaining gunplay. The only notable complaint is the game’s repetetive mission structure, but the intense combat and atmosphere more than compensate for that. Survival-horror fans shouldn’t miss this one, and neither should fans of action-adventures/shooters who can handle the scares.