Game Review – Dead Space (PS3 version)
(Now THIS is a fucking cover, goddamnit.)
Produced and developed by EA Games. Cast and Crew: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1267296/fullcredits#cast
One of “Doom 3″‘s many flaws was that it never provided you with enough reason to finish it. The story could be summed up in three words: “Hell Invades Mars”. The dialogue was shitty and the scares were ridiculously predictable – every vent and hole in the floor gave them away about a minute before they happened. And now, with the latest “Silent Hill”, “Homecoming”, having sucked even at the series’ specialty, the story, the horror genre in gaming was well on its way to kingdom fuck.
Enter EA Games and its fabulous “Dead Space”.
I wouldn’t have expected a game like this from EA, since violent horror is not what they’re famous for. The team responsible for putting this game together should form a subcompany within EA, because they’re just too talented not to. I don’t remember the last time I loved a game with a completely silent protagonist (no, I did not love Half-Life 2 – I just liked it).
The future has arrived. Earth’s resources are gone, but there’s a whole universe’s worth of planets to explore and suck dry. Having mastered space travel, the human species created the procedure known as planet crack – where the planet in question is broken in order to form a ring of debris around it, which can be mined for resources (this concept is probably writer Warren Ellis’ doing – he was involved in early stages of production and this sounds like him). That’s when the greatest planetcracker ship of them all, the USG Ishimura, loses communications with other stations. Assuming it’s a mere comms problem, a crew is sent to do the necessary repairs. You are systems engineer Isaac Clarke – a silent man who not only is the one who knows how to fix comms but also wants to find someone very important to him in the ship, Nicole, who sent him a desperate message from the Ishimura. But when the Ishimura does not help with the docking procedure, Isaac’s ship crashlands on the hangar. Upon further investigation, the crew finds out, in the worst way possible, that it’s far from a mere comms problem: it’s an alien infection that drove mad and killed everyone in the Ishimura and brought them back as zombies known as Necromorphs. Isaac and two survivors, Sgt. Hammond and Kendra, try making it back to the ship, but it’s destroyed by the necromorphs, leaving them stranded in a huge, broken and infected planetcracker.
The game cleverly makes the most out of this premise. The necromorphs are fascinating enemies with a disturbing life cycle. Their methods to infect human hosts are tremendously cruel: causing severe dementia on them, so they will eventually kill themselves – which is when the alien virus can act and use the corpses to breed new lifeforms. There are several kinds of necromorphs, all of them with their strenghts and weaknesses. There’s even babies, necromorphed into tentacled, wall-crawling little beasts. And none of them can be killed with a headshot. This is where “Dead Space”‘s true genius comes in: in order to kill the necromorphs, you have to dismember them. You can kill them by shooting their torso, yes – but you’ll waste an entire clip of ammo. Aim for the limbs, and they’ll be slowed down until death. And fortunately, the right analog stick has been perfectly calibrated by EA – aiming with it is surprisingly easy and intuitive.
But how does a system engineer hold his own against hordes of necromorphs? Isaac is no soldier – he’s a techie. But he needs to find Nicole above all else, so he uses mining equipment – plasma cutters, force energy, line guns – as weapons. Designed to cut asteroids, mining equipment proves to be an efficient weapon against the necromorphs, and Isaac knows how to handle it. Most of your objectives revolve around fixing things, since Isaac is an engineer – but this is always done differently, with new enemies or in a varied context in order to keep the game fresh – and a GPS system ensures you never get lost. Just press R3 and a line will be displayed showing you where to go next. Isaac’s health points and other information are NOT displayed in a HUD – the developers incorporated all that information in-game: the health is in Isaac’s back, his inventory is projected holographically in front of him, as are the video messages from Hammond or Kendra (the game never pauses, therefore never breaking the tension). There’s also two futuristic concepts Isaac uses to his favor – Stasis, the limited ability to slow things down (which helps solving environmental puzzles and fighting fast enemies) and Kinesis, that manipulates objects like the gravity gun in “Half-Life 2″.
So the question is: how does a mute protagonist ever become important to the player?
This is where “Half-Life” fucked up. Silent protagonists have the personality of a bucket of shit. It’s infuriating to see people monologuing with them as if they’re somehow telepathically answering. But surprisingly, it works well in “Dead Space” because as silent as Isaac is – he feels human. We hear his nervous breathing, his moans of pain when hurt. From the excellent third person perspective, we see him move and shoot. You can trade items in Ishimura’s store, and buy yourself new armor and new weapons with credits from fallen enemies (which were previously human and therefore had money with them). And there’s a workbench which you can use to upgrade your weapons, your oxygen supply (there are gameplay sequences out in space – and they are fantastic) and overall health. And the secondary characters are interesting enough to make up for his muteness. Sgt. Hammond is captivating in his courage and dedication to saving you and Kendra. Kendra also is in her fear of the necromorphs and her desperation to find someone to blame – in this case, Hammond.
In fact, “Dead Space”‘s story is very well-written and coherent – proving once again games are a new artform. The plot twists are surprising and the one in the ending is incredibly touching and powerful. The game touches on religious subtexts like fanatism (“Unitology” sounds like a reference to “Scientology”) and creates a threatening villain out of it, Dr. Mercer. The developers have a huge notion of cinema, creating a hostile, disturbing environment within the Ishimura and some sequences that can only be described as “fucking awesome”. With several ventilation ducts on the walls, you never know from which a necromorph can come out of – and often, not a single one does, or if it does it falls from the ceiling right in your face: the game plays with your expectations and usually succeeds to surprise you. There’s some flaws, like Necromorphs playing dead (you can easily make them out among real human corpses and shoot them before they rise), but the developing team has a great sense of timing and knows when to put you into combat and when not to.
In fact, “Dead Space” is more disturbing than it is scary. The game makes you feel uneasy in its cruelty – like shooting a necromorphed baby in zero gravity and watching it float, blood spurting out of his severed limbs, while its innocent face is intact and staring blankly ahead. Or seeing a shadow up ahead in the end of a corridor, and finding out its a human who went mad and is hitting his head repeatedly against the wall while giggling – until you come too close, when he finally hits the wall too hard and breaks his head open, falling dead on the floor. There are several moments like this – one of the saddest ones is when a character dies gruesomely right in front of you, when you are unable to do anything to help.
And even if the horror doesn’t work with you, “Dead Space” still works wonderfully as an action game: the boss fights are insane, with enormous beasts that you fight in several different manners. Always avoiding repetition, the game has many moments that awe you silly – like a sequence involving Isaac, a turret and another ship that has received a distress call from the Ishimura.
Visually, “Dead Space” is magnificent – it has one of the most inspired art directions I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in games. The necromorphs are brilliantly designed in their several races, and watching a corpse turning into a necromorph in a real-time, unscripted event is incredible. The USG Ishimura itself is beautiful from the outside and terrifying from the inside: the previously well-lit corridors and mess halls are now dark and claustrophobic due to the severe damage the ship suffered – but you can still see nostalgic traces of how life used to be before the infection (audio and text logs scattered throughout the level also help with this).
Isaac himself is a work of art. With realistic animation and an unique look, controlling him is a pleasure. Even in zero gravity sequences, it’s easy to move him around and jump from a surface to the next. The game has some interactive cutscenes like a tentacle appearing out of nowhere and pulling you toward a hole, and you need to shoot the tentacle dead before you get there (this happens more than once). All of this is rendered with beautiful lighting effects – and it’s simply phenomenal to fight alien lifeforms in the command bridge, with asteroids floating beyond the window and casting shadows on the floor, with the planet in the background. In the PS3, I didn’t experience framerate problems even once – gameplay bugs were also pretty much absent, showing how much careful optimisation and polishing this game went through before being released.
The sound design lives up to the visuals, with exceptional voice acting and sound effects – like the scream of a necromorph that stays glued to the wall while spurting out eggs. When you are in the vacuum, Isaac’s breathing becomes loud while all the outside effects almost vanish – which creates a powerful atmosphere. The music is a bit generic and bends over to some horror movie cliches, but does its job well.
Disturbing, fun and surprisingly long for a linear game, “Dead Space” is a masterpiece of modern gaming. Even if I wasn’t a space junkie, I’d still have loved it for the compelling story and masterful gameplay. It’s a truly unique experience that also manages to make references to several science fiction films like “Alien” without losing its own identity. Why do you think the protagonist is named “Isaac Clarke”?