Reviewed: October 29, 2008
Released: October 14, 2008
We can do this the easy way or the hard way. The easy way is for me to tell you that Dead Space is the most original, best designed, most artistic, and simply the best game I have played on my 360 this year…perhaps ever. The hard way is for you to keep reading and learn the reasoning behind such a bold statement.
Still here? Sucker! You should be playing this game already. Oh well…your loss. So you need more convincing, eh? Dead Space is more than just a game. It’s a multimedia phenomenon. Before the game even released you had a totally interactive web-experience at http://www.noknownsurvivors.com/ that was getting you all psyched for the game, and in just a few weeks you can purchase the animated DVD that will fill you in on all the backstory.
I had the privilege to screen this DVD and it is just as amazing as the game, both in style and content. It contains a lot of story that you really don’t need to know but it really helps flesh out the characters and events if you do watch it. The closing scene of the movie is the opening cutscene from the game – a seamless blend of cross-promotional storytelling. Be warned that if you watch it first it may contain spoilers.
But back to the game; a game that will easily go down as the scariest game of 2008. Nothing can touch this title for sheer screams of terror and stained skivvies. You play as ship engineer (fancy term for intergalactic repairman) Isaac Clarke sent to repair the USG Ishimura, a massive city-sized planet cracker vessel that is in distress. It just so happens that Clarke’s ex-girlfriend, Nicole is stationed on the Ishimura, and we join the game with Clarke viewing a communiqué from Nicole as they approach the derelict ship.
Accompanying you is tech expert, Kendra Daniels and security officer Zach Hammond. After a botched (crash) landing the three of you head into the seemingly abandoned ship. It doesn’t take long before things go horribly wrong. Hideous creatures appear from ventilation shafts and kill one of your party. You find yourself alone, unarmed, and fighting for your life against hordes of what you will soon learn are called Necromorphs.
I won’t even begin to spoil the delightfully suspenseful tale that EA has crafted, but rest assured there are surprises and twists to the story and the gameplay about every 60 seconds from start to finish. I have never been captivated by a game like I was for the three days I spent glued to my 360 and Dead Space.
Part of the appeal of Dead Space is that you aren’t really playing a stereotypical hero. You’re basically an engineer and your weapons, for the most part, are tools like plasma cutters and a flamethrower. Sure, you eventually get your hands on military grade firearms, but by then you will have learned that bullets aren’t nearly as good as weapons that CUT.
The tagline for Dead Space is “strategic dismemberment” and nothing could more accurately describe the gameplay. From start to finish you will be assaulted by all sorts of crazy mutant creatures and most can withstand lots of conventional damage. Your best weapons are fire and anything that can detach a limb from its host. But even then all bets are off since a headless Necromorph will still charge at you blindly, or a monster with no legs will drag himself toward you. You’ll need to sever multiple limbs or better yet, curb stomp the heads of the beasties.
Dead Space delivers numerous new and original gameplay ideas, the first being a totally seamless gameplay experience from the moment you hit the Start button from the title screen to the moment the credits roll and you go to change your shorts. There is no HUD or conventional menu system. Everything is integrated directly into the gameplay, even to the point where your inventory and map screens are holograms that are projected in front of your character. And when it comes time for video messages, those too pop-up in front of you and keep on playing while you walk around. Even the level loads between the various chapters are disguised as a shuttle ride between sections of the ship. This is game design at its very best.
Another highly engaging aspect of Dead Space is the upgradeable weapons and armor. As you explore the game world you will come across Power Nodes. These can be used to access locked doors, behind which are untold rare items you may or may not need, or you can save these nodes for the occasional workbench where you can apply them to weapons and armor to enhance your combat and defensive capabilities.
Each weapon and suit of armor comes with its own flowchart consisting of multiple sockets leading to upgrades like damage, reload time, ammo capacity, or in the case of armor, hit points and air tank time. You place your nodes in the open sockets to create a path to these upgrades. There are far more weapons and open sockets than power nodes, so you have to make some tough decisions about how you want to play the game.
Other collectibles include text and voice logs as well as thousands of credits that you can spend in the ship’s vending machine or store. It is here you can buy more ammo or even new weapons. If you happen to find a blueprint in your travels you can upload that blueprint to the store and access more items. There are also some items you can purchase on the Xbox Live Marketplace and they will appear in the store within the game.
Your inventory is limited based on the current level of suit you are wearing. At first I smelled the disaster of the Resident Evil inventory system, especially since you could offload your excess baggage into a storage section of the store and access it from any other store in the game, but in the end, I found no real shortage of items and I had very little use for the extra storage space.
The controls are exquisite and you play from a third-person view off to the side, much like Dark Sector. You swagger along until you bring up a weapon in aim mode, which also activates a flashlight so you can see what you are shooting. You can cycle between weapons with the D-pad, and you can assign new weapons to the quick-select spots at the store. Ammo is displayed above each weapon as a holographic readout.
Weapons have alternate fire modes. The plasma cutter can be rotated 90-degrees to fire either a horizontal or vertical cutting beam. It’s up to you to figure out which orientation will do the most damage on each encounter. Other tools available are a Stasis module used to temporarily freeze or slow down objects or monsters. This module requires its own power, either with recharge packs or wall outlets scattered about the ship. Much like your health status, your stasis power is also indicated by a visual meter built right into your armor.
And finally, Clarke can wield a Kinesis module – think gravity gun from Half-Life 2. You can use this to grab, move, and launch items around the environments. It comes in particularly handy in the anti-grav sections of the game. Yes, there are several locations throughout the game that are zero-g and these represent some of the most original gameplay in gaming history. Prey touched on the concept with magnetic strips but in Dead Space you literally launch yourself and fly through zero-g rooms or even outside the ship.
Just as important as gravity is air and there are numerous sections that are either poisoned or a complete vacuum due to a breach in the ship’s hull. When you enter such an area an air tank indicator displays on your armor ticking away the seconds until you suffocate. You’ll either need to recharge your air supply or reach a pressurized section of the ship before that happens. Regardless of a lack of air or gravity, you can be sure there will be plenty of Necromorphs in these areas to make things interesting.
As previously stated, there is no HUD and no “game” interface. You are totally immersed into the experience of Dead Space, so even when you are accessing systems like inventory and the map you are still in real-time and open to attack. The game does a fantastic job of keeping you off balance and totally creeped out from start to finish.
Having a ship the size of a large city certainly helps in creating some unique environments. Each new level brings new wonders and usually some new horrors. The first time I stepped onto the massive bridge my jaw hit the floor. The first time I stepped into the blood-soaked infirmary my stomach joined my jaw. Each area is dark, sinister, and totally creepy.
While I appreciated the attempt at a 3D map, I found that the small pop-up hologram was just too small to be all that helpful. What was infinitely more useful and should be patented and added to every game in the future was the waypoint path guide. By clicking down on the right stick a blue line indicates where you need to go to complete the selected objective. Even with levels as massive and complex as those in Dead Space it is impossible to get lost.
Dead Space is not shy when it comes to spilling blood. You only need to view one of your own death scenes to see ten pints splash the walls, but the sheer body count of dead ship’s personnel, messages scrawled in blood, and numerous other horrors better left to your own personal discovery all combine to create a terrifying gameplay experience unlike anything you can imagine.
It doesn’t hurt that Dead Space tells a great story; a mystery if you will, that is slowly revealed through video and voice messages and even text logs. When the full realization of what has happened and how hits home you will come alive with emotion.
Dead Space is a linear, story-driven experience but one that you will be compelled to replay at least once more after you finish. Upon completion you are awarded several power nodes, a military grade suit, and an unlocked Impossible difficulty mode. As long as you don’t change the difficulty mode you can replay the game with all your previous possessions and upgrades. This will certainly help you earn some of those hard-to-get achievements like playing the entire game with nothing more than the plasma cutter.
Dead Space is a stunning work of art when it comes to graphics. Everything from ship and level design to monster creation to the totally integrated game interface is stylish and functional. You quickly forget you are playing a game and you really become Isaac. Special effects like lighting are punched up by the overwhelming darkness of most levels. Emergency lights and strobes combine with smoke to distract you from the Necromorph sneaking up behind you, and the sheer disgust level of the pulsating multi-limbed creatures will turn your stomach. And just wait until you see the boss fights.
Complementing the visuals is a quality sound package that starts with a wonderful score that is more environmental than musical. Sure, you get musical cues from time to time but most of the sounds you hear are the groaning and creaking of an abandoned ship, the clanking of metal boots on floor panels, the hiss of an airlock, or the snarls of any of numerous types of alien mutants.
The 3D Dolby Digital mix will surround you in horrific sounds from every possible angle, which actually helps locate monsters when they are sneaking in from outside your view. Plus, the designers take a few cheap shots like sudden loud noises or creepy nursery rhymes coming from the walls. Play this game at night in the dark and you won’t sleep for days.
My first trip through Dead Space took 13 hours but I was being fairly complete about my explorations, often backtracking to unlock power node doors and looking for every possible pick-up. Your mileage may vary, but I’m guessing 10-15 hours is a safe estimate, and you will certainly want to revisit the game almost immediately after you finish it the first time since you can play with Isaac all decked out with awesome weapons and armor. I’d also recommend you watch the DVD after you finish the game. It really does enhance the experience.
The 48 Achievements range from merely completing each chapter to cutting off 100 or 500 limbs or playing six levels of Zero-G Basketball. Then you have the near-impossible task of completing the game on the hardest difficulty mode, or obscure objectives like finding the Peng Treasure. Beating the game with only the Plasma Cutter is only worth 40 points, but if you replay the game and max out the weapon on the workbench, this small pistol is capable of taking down even the final boss without a problem.
Resident Evil used to be the king of survival horror but no more. There’s a new game in the galaxy and its name is Dead Space and it is going to scare the living crap out of you and anybody who watches you play it. The entire presentation is unlike anything we’ve seen in any game to date, and the story and sinister atmosphere will make your skin crawl, right before you leap out of it.
Dead Space is a must own title for anyone who loves science fiction, horror, or any combination of the two. When you combine those elements with such amazing gameplay and stylish design you easily have the makings of a Game of the Year contender. It’s got my vote.