There haven't really been a lot of newcomers into the survival horror genre. Most of the titles released have come from pre-established franchises, with gameplay mechanics and story threads that are well known and debated by fans of the series. As a result, trying to establish a new franchise in the genre can be an even steeper uphill battle -- the story, game mechanics, characters and scares have to be even stronger than most games to interest and even pull away fans of other franchises. This is the kind of challenge that Dead Space, EA Redwood Shore's upcoming game, faced because it was set in a completely new universe of survival horror (in more ways than one), one that EA has been supplementing with an animated movie, comic book and other assets. Fortunately for horror fans, Dead Space is a great example of the genre and is an awesome way to launch a franchise that could continue for many years to come.
The story behind Dead Space takes place hundreds of years in the future, during a time when mankind has exhausted all of the natural resources on Earth. Fortunately, in this dire time, humanity has mastered space travel, and a process known as planet cracking has been developed to combat this drought. A celestial body is split into pieces, and its minerals are strip-mined and melted, returning the byproducts to Earth for consumption. An entire fleet of ships sails the stars performing these tasks, and the crown jewel of this mining fleet is the USG Ishimura, which has performed more planet cracks that any other vessel. However, on a routine mission, the ship cuts off all communication from galactic command, which is somewhat strange. To discover what's going on, a small maintenance crew is quickly dispatched to the Ishimura from a nearby vessel.
Players step into the boots of Isaac Clarke, a systems engineer that's part of the dispatched maintenance crew. Outside of fixing the communications issues, Isaac has a number of reasons for arriving on the Ishimura -- he has a number of friends that are stationed on the ship, including someone very special to him that sends an urgent holovid with a few cryptic messages before she disappears. Unfortunately for Isaac and his crew, shortly after they arrive on board the crippled vessel, all hell breaks loose. Their craft is destroyed, leaving them stranded on the Ishimura. The crew is attacked by nightmarish creatures known as Necromorphs, who kill most of Isaac's team and separate him from the surviving members. Even worse, the ship and its systems have started to be corrupted or are failing thanks to the Necromorphic infestation. It's up to Isaac to wander the halls, search for any friends or survivors that are still alive, and fix as many problems as he can until he can find a way to escape the ship, which can take you 12 or more hours to complete.
Isaac isn't the typical hero that you'd find in most sci-fi games; he doesn't walk into the Ishimura packing a firearm or grenades, nor does he have specialized training. Apart from the first one that Isaac finds on a workbench, all of Isaac's weaponry and items are found via schematics that are scattered across the ship. Only one of them is a true firearm -- the security pulse rifle; the rest of his "guns" are repurposed pieces of mining equipment used for planet cracking. However, Isaac can use his engineering knowledge to make these weapons much more powerful by analyzing their blueprints and rewiring them at workbenches with the use of power nodes. Thanks to these nodes, Isaac can improve their performance in a number of ways, such as carrying more rounds, shortening his reload time, or increasing their damage. This upgrade system even expands to Isaac's space suit, which can be improved to strengthen his suit's armor or his air supply in case he enters a vacuum. He can even use the nodes to augment the stasis or kinesis modules, which can be used to freeze monsters as they charge him or propel items into the creatures, respectively. What's creative about this system is that players won't be able to max out every weapon or every bit of gear that they have in one playthrough; this forces them to choose what they'll specialize in as they go through the ship.
This is an important decision to make, particularly because some weapons are more effective against the Necromorphs than others, and since you'll need to use strategic dismemberment to weaken and effectively kill them, the right weapon in the right situation can be the fine line between life or death in the game. See, unlike monsters in other games, Necromorphs will shrug off direct attacks to the head or chest and keep coming for more. Blasting their limbs off is the only way to cause enough damage to kill these beasts, and you'll frequently need to focus on aiming accurately and quickly at these weak spots before you're surrounded and dissected yourself. This is particularly true in later stages, when some of the Necromorphs start moving faster than before, and it frequently turns battles into brutal affairs, with severed arms and legs flying everywhere as you attempt to survive the onslaught of creatures. Thanks to the over-the-shoulder, third-person perspective, this can add an extra level of tension to the game while you're fending off swarms of beasts, but be forewarned: there is no quick turnaround command. While some people may consider this to be a problem, this is actually a wise design decision because it makes you feel much more vulnerable and claustrophobic within the confines of the suit, and whether you're moving through a hallway covered in bodies or floating in a zero gravity environment, you always feel as though something could reach out and kill you at any time.
In fact, the atmospherics of the game play a large role in adding and heightening the tension that players experience as they move through the Ishimura. Although there are plenty of jump moments, the game isn't simply about the cheap scare as it is tossing you into an area that descends from bad to worse. As soon as you step on board the ship, you automatically get the sense that something is wrong. Everything from suitcases and books to work suits and tools are scattered around. As you go further in, you realize how violent and horrible the situation on board the Ishimura must have been, with limbs, blood-spattered walls and other gory scenes that are directly out of an abattoir. It only gets stranger as you move into more Necromorph-infested areas, with sections of the ship completely engulfed in a flesh-like material that pulses and quivers with a life of its own.
The unsettling nature of the world is heightened by the fact that there is no specific HUD to speak of -- Isaac's health is presented on his back, his ammunition is holographically projected above the gun, and incoming transmissions that he receives pop up in front of his face. Even checking his inventory is pulled up via holograms, and it is done in real time, meaning that a Necromorph can come crawling through the floor or leap from a vent behind you and strike you at any time. Because you're never removed from the action, you feel much more immersed in the world, which is only added to with the environmental items scattered around the ship. Messages scrawled in blood, text and audio messages that detail what happened on board the ship, and even Isaac's notes to himself in his personal journal add to a sense that this is a ship that no one should be on or even near if they value their life, which is an impressive way to balance the story with the action of the game presented in front of them.
Along with these startling sights, horror fans will pick up on influences from a wide variety of horror movies that are scattered through the game. Obvious connections of elements found in Dead Space can be tied to Event Horizon, the Alien Quadrilogy, John Carpenter's The Thing, Night of the Living Dead and more. But even more impressive than the large pedigree of game influences is the fact that it manages to weave a carefully balanced narrative that uses the best elements of these films with a lot plausible twists and turns within the story. Not only does the game lay down the foundation of why things went wrong on the Ishimura, it sets up the game to be the launching point for a franchise, and the universe of Dead Space is definitely large enough to support a vast series after this title.
Although the atmospherics add a lot to the game, Dead Space isn't without issues that hamper some elements of play. The zero gravity areas are a bit strange because even though you can see legitimate areas that you could propel yourself to, you can't always leap there. Frequently, you'll need to make a shorter jump that's closer and then hop to the original target. While that seems a bit nonsensical, the other problem that occurs within the zero gravity space is that in these spaces, the camera can sometimes be restricted to show a specific perspective, particularly if you happen to be on a wall or a ceiling. Unfortunately, when the camera locks up during these moments, you can sometimes get attacked by some creature outside of your peripheral vision, which sucks. It can be extremely frustrating, especially when you're trying to dodge one monster only to get hit from behind by something that you could have seen if you'd only move one or two steps to the side, which suddenly releases the camera from being stuck.
Another issue within the title is that there's a lot of backtracking within the game. It all makes sense in the context of the gameplay, especially when you're going through each situation; instead of being a meaningless fetch quest, it's completely plausible that you'd have to return to one area you've previously moved through once you discover that one vital piece of equipment you need to fix something is stored there. However, it does have a way of making the ship feel much smaller than a massive capital ship. That's not to say that you get this sense throughout the entire game, because there are plenty of spaces like the medical, engineering and mining decks where you'll move through large areas, but the repetition can be a bit disappointing. This is particularly heightened with the sometimes flawed nav icon. By pressing in on the right analog stick, a holographic line moves out from Isaac and points him in the right direction to go, even turning him to face the right way. The problem that comes up with this system is that every now and then, the game will spin Isaac in a circle, projecting a line that goes forward a few feet before doubling back on itself and pointing the opposite way. That's just bad navigation logic.
As an aside, another strange feature that isn't a horribly bad or major issue is the fact that your foot stomp can be surprisingly powerful, destroying boxes or other items from a rather large distance. Typically, you'd expect that you'd only be able to crush something that was below your boot, but for some reason, you can crush a box suspended on a bench above you or floating in zero gravity. It's an odd choice, and a minor gripe that's humorous when you see it, but it does stand out as an oddity.
However, one of the last issues that I have with the title is related to the New Game + feature. As I mentioned before, you won't be able to acquire every single upgrade for the game itself during your first playthrough. Fortunately, once you beat the game, you'll unlock five separate items, including a fourth difficulty mode previously hidden from the main menu. You'll also be able to move back through the story with all of your equipment intact, so you can blast your way through the game quicker. However, you'll be locked on the initial difficulty level that you chose when you started the game, and won't have the opportunity to switch. This can make the second playthrough feel a bit skewed because it's quite easy to fly through with an over-augmented Isaac. If you return to the main menu and choose a higher difficulty level (including the unlocked Impossible mode) you lose these upgrades and have to start over, which is rather disappointing.
Whether you spend an hour or a day exploring the Ishimura, you'll definitely be struck by the visuals of Dead Space, which are eye-catching for both their detail and their gore factor. The detail placed into Isaac's suit is excellent, particularly as you upgrade it throughout the game, and the same can be said about the weapons themselves, which gain new visual and audio effects when you've maxed out their schematics with power nodes. The holographic implementation within the game is excellently done as well and is quite notable because of how it supplements the gameplay. The fact that you can rotate the camera around Isaac as he watches a video in front of him or that you notice little touches like Isaac's head moving up and down to acknowledge the holographic inventory screen highlights a lot of the great visuals in the game. On top of this, each level truly feels like its own, and whether it's the white walls that denote the medical decks, the poster-filled entertainment and housing levels, or the industrial mining sections, you get an idea of what these futuristic planet cracking ships are like. It's even more striking when you move into zero gravity areas and tumble through different areas, including the starkness of space.
However, all of this visual discussion isn't even counting the disturbing character models of the Necromorphs themselves, which appear to be more and more freakish with each creature that you run into. Whether it's the tentacles and limbs that are placed in unnatural areas or the mutating forms that emerge from errant shots, the Necromorphs are quite unsettling to see, and even more unnerving when they come flying towards you. The same can be said for the gore and dismemberment, which is predominant throughout the game. Whether it's Isaac getting his head bitten off or impaled, or wandering through floors that are stocked with the fallen crewmembers of the Ishimura, the gore is both striking and appropriate to the gameplay. There are two things that I'm not crazy about: first, in the space or zero gravity areas, whenever the space gets depressurized, the pixilated visuals to show air being sucked out of an airlock or room doesn't look great compared to the rest of the game. My second and much more infrequent issue with the graphics is the slight slowdown that can occur, particularly during large explosions.
Supporting the strong visuals is excellent voice acting across the board. While Isaac never utters a word, the other members of the cast perform their lines quite well, whether that's with an audio journal log or a holographic movie. However, the real standout is the use of sound, which is designed to send shivers up the player's spine. Whether it's the skittering through the walls of Necromorphs that are crawling towards you, the screams from the creatures as you blow off their legs, or the sudden sharp noises released as a jump moment occurs, the sound design is fantastic and really draws you into the game action. This is one of those games that you want to just listen to late at night with the lights off if you're looking to get freaked out.
There is one caveat that PC users will have to be aware of, which is that the mouse and keyboard configuration is vastly inferior to that of the gamepad. For instance, if you want to aim and fire a weapon, you have to hold both the right mouse button and then press the left mouse button. Switching to alt-fire involves hitting the middle mouse button and then firing with the left mouse button at the same time. The same is said for using your kinesis and statis powers, as you hold the right button to aim, then hit a separate keyboard button to use them. The result is a cluttered mess of buttons that you have to constantly hit, which isn't nearly as responsive as plugging in the Xbox controller and blasting away with the triggers. Fortunately, the game instantly recognizes the controller, so you won't have to reset the game to trigger the change over from keyboard and mouse to controller, but if you want accuracy and ease in playing the game, do yourself a favor and grab a controller.If you're looking for more on Dead Space, check out the Insider head to head here
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