Long ago, survival horror games were essentially a 3rd person action romp with poor controls, lack of ammo, and slow moving zombies always skittering about in the unlikeliest of places. While survival horror games are now turning into the shock schlock that many slasher movies have already perfected, spatter porn and all, there is no denying that the sense of terror, of pure dread, is craved by fans. Sure, Resident Evil and Silent Hill have grown up, and Fatal Frame is such a niche game to play, but a new crop of games are now carrying the banner for the genre, which is slowly rising from it’s grave once again.
Dead Space, a game that on it’s own is a great indication of what is truly influencing the survival horror genre, is such a game that is attempting to recreate that feeling of pure terror that is missed in many titles today. Part science fiction thriller, part Thing’s from outer space, with a mix of Bioshock for good nature, concocts a lovely brew that, while flawed with some glaring problems, manages to become a well-rounded third person survival horror game in the midst of space.
You star as Isaac Clark, the aptly named engineer who, in a homage to great Sci-Fi thrillers, is thrusted into the ship Ishimura, a crater mine in the midst of space that has unearthed an alien virus that breeds creatures known as the Necromorphs. As one of the survivors of a rescue party to find out what happened, it is up to Isaac and his surviving cohorts to uncover the truth of these creatures, and get out alive.
The story is a typical Sci-Fi, plot driven device with enough twists to keep it fresh and a deadly antagonist that would make the Thing jealous. The story does fall under the cliché syndrome real quick, however, because it takes a few seconds to figure out who will work/survive/betray whom by the time you get to the midpoint of the game. That being said, there are a few surprises that many Sci-Fi fans will enjoy, and the ending is such a poignant and a-typical cut scene it scores points on originality when in that regard.
The games nitty gritty comes down to the controls of Isaac, and while the game is in third person, I truly think it would have been better as a first person shooter. It is somewhat hard and tedious to control, turn and have Isaac sprint, especially when a giant necromorph is read to pounce on you from a distance. I felt the controls to be a bit sticky, and in all honesty, similar to the elder Resident Evil controls before it became a glorified action game. This is not necessarily bad, but it is definitely far from perfect.
The game does have the key ingredients right though, a sense of dread and near perfect immersion to go along with it. Numerous times Necromorphs snuck up on me and tried to rip my face off, adding some tension when I wasn’t looking behind me in most cases. I also felt somewhat frightened by some in game sequences, such as the first fight in Zero-G (which as a side note, is one of the fantastic feats in the game.) or another sequence where necromorphs attack you in an enclosed decontamination chamber. The game felt like a dilapidated ship, terrorized and tormented by an alien invader that has literally destroyed entire structure to its bare bones of functional capacity.
I did have some other issues though with the games main draw, mainly, it was trying to emulate Bioshock. The weapons in the game are all upgradeable, there is money (in the form of credits this time) strewn all over the place, which you use to buy supplies and weaponry from kiosks conveniently located in the safe, main hub of each level. You also have audio and text files strewn all over the place, giving the necessary backstory as to figure out what has happened on the Ishimura. The problem is for what it tried to emulate from Bioshock, it also took away from the whole experience. The weapons were severely unbalanced, for example. The games flamethrower is all but useless, while the plasma cutter, the first gun you receive, is vastly over-powered. I guess it is because to kill the necromorphs you need to dismember them limb from limb, making the plasma cutter the god-like weapon for humanity on this ship.
And this is just one example of the poor imbalance to the game. On the normal settings it was too easy, the weapons are hard to upgrade because of the power node’s system that is implemented, and the credits are literally thrown all over the place like popcorn in a movie theater. It totally detracts from that sense of survival in the game, because you can buy what you need and carry enough ammo to go through a mini army of necromorphs, it is kind of disappointing in my mind.
Fortunately, the games sound and graphics are spot on. The renderings on the necromorphs are monstrous, bloody, and so creepy it would make Pyramid-head weep in desire. The environments, while similar looking (you are on a military ship, after all.) in terms of color and corridors, feature enough sweet spots, such as the Zero-G sections and the spacewalking moments, to keep them varied. The voice-overs do a great job at projecting a sense of fear and uncertainty and the music is best when the enemies are literally on top of you, otherwise it’s standard, sci-fi sound effects.
Dead Space is a game that really is, itself a necromorph. It is the hybrid of survival horror and action shooter, an amalgam that Bioshock has pretty much set a precedent for now, and it shows. While Dead Space is far from the perfection that Bioshock was, it will definitely carve a niche into the ranks of Silent Hill and Fatal Frame as an atmospheric third person romp that is wonderful to enjoy.Final Score- B+