Dead good, or a waste of Space?
OK, letīs start this review with a quick question: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you read the words ‘Survival Horror’? I’m willing to bet it is either of these: Silent Hill or Resident Evil. The truth is, whilst a popular genre, very little has been done to change the formula set during the earliest days of Resident Evil (considered the first true survival horror game by most people), and as a result nearly all games made since have followed a very similar format. Whilst this has lead to some great twists on the gameplay (Silent Hill’s psychological links, Project Zero’s ghost-busting camera, etc.), the reality is that most games of this type need to adhere to a certain framework to be considered part of the genre.
Dead Space takes these basics, changes the setting and playing style, and manages to create a fantastically fresh game that still carries the best bits of other survival horror titles. Set a few hundred years in the future, you play as Isaac Clarke, a spaceship engineer sent to the USG Ishimura, a mining vessel which has mysteriously cut off all communication with Earth. Isaac is ostensibly there as part of a small crew sent to investigate and repair any problems with the ship, but he also has his own private agenda for going too.
As is always the case with this type of game, things go wrong pretty quickly, but to go into any real detail on the plot will spoil it for those who wish to play it. However, I can say that the back-story is very well told, through a combination of audio and video logs, controllable cut scenes, and the events of the game itself. The main tale is a strong one, with slightly predictable twists and turns, that really add weight to the direction of the whole game. Although certain sections can borrow heavily from established movies and games (it can be fun finding the nods to Event Horizon on your second playthrough!), as a whole, a game of this type succeeds or fails mainly on its story, and Dead Space certainly surpasses many of its peers on this front.
The game is played in an over-the-shoulder third person view, not dissimilar to the style of Resident Evil 4, or Gears of War. The control scheme is quite good, with the usual system of the mouse controlling the camera and aiming, and the keyboard controlling movement and interaction. The menu system is nicely integrated into gameplay by means of a 3d pop-up from Isaacīs wrist, which also plays all video and audio files too. This prevents the breaking of the flow of the game, and I hope we see more of this type of system. My only complaint would be that the mouse can be a bit slow to move, and this can be a bit unhelpful during hectic fights.
The voice acting is top notch, the enemies have distinctive noises of their own, and the weapons pack a real punch.
The ship itself is incredibly well designed, with each ‘level’ adhering to a design aesthetic based on each of the important areas (canteen, medical, science labs, navigation, etc.). Each zone really does seem lived in, with the day-to-day junk littering each section shared with workbenches, comfy chairs, desks, etc., all laid out in a believable style. These add further weight to the games atmosphere, and create a great tension when combined with the horror elements.
So, onto the combat, which is the second major staple of a good survival horror game. Dead Space does things in a new way, by requiring you to sever the limbs of your opponent in order to kill them more efficiently. Yes, you read correctly, no headshots for you in this game! Thanks to the clever design of the creatures themselves, it is usually quite straightforward working out where to shoot, and this creates a great bit of simple strategy within the larger fights. You can choose to slow down faster enemies before killing them, or perhaps limit an opponent’s attack first. You also have a basic stasis weapon, with which you can freeze enemies (which is used for basic puzzles too!), adding a further dimension to your fights.
The selection of weapons at your disposal is quite varied, and you pick up new guns at a steady pace throughout the game. These are generally made from blueprints you pick up along the way, and then build at workbenches; most are modified mining tools. Unfortunately, newer guns donīt really offer much improvement on older ones, which is a shame. Like many of my friends, I actually found that I used the first gun that I picked up for most of the game, and there was little need to change, unless I was running low on ammo. All weapons and armour can be upgraded by collecting nodes throughout the campaign, although these are rare enough that only a few of the weapons can be maxed out per playthrough.
The sound is of a high standard too, as we have come to expect of most blockbuster games nowadays. The voice acting is top notch, the enemies have distinctive noises of their own, and the weapons pack a real punch. The ship itself creates a lot of ambient sounds, further adding to the atmosphere, and there is a great muffling effect during the sections set out in space. This all adds further to your immersion in the game, and is another area that the developers should be credited on.
The main story runs at around 10 to 12 hours per playthrough, and apart from trying to further level up your weapons and armour, there is little reason to return. The game also has no multiplayer, so replay value is pretty low.
So, do I recommend this game? I certainly do, to anyone who is looking for a slightly different action/horror game. The pacing is excellent, the atmosphere really draws you in, and the combat is fresh and exciting. The story is great too, even if it does rip off most of the major sci-fi horror films of the last 20 years. It should draw in new players who are tired of the same old zombie/ghost stories that are currently recycled ad nauseum. I would argue that the lack of replay is a negative mark, but you can now pick up a copy at a low enough price for it not to be a concern. Dead Space really turns the entire genre on its head, by changing the setting and bringing the gameplay up-to-date, without losing the core components which make these games so enjoyable.
The Bad: Not much replay value; mouse aim is a little sluggish; weapons can be too tame.