Let’s talk about fear. No, not that one. It has been said by many an eminent psychologist that for people to feel fear they need an object to focus their fear on. Without an object they just feel anxiety. Many horror movies use anxiety as a powerful cinematic device, and in many cases anxiety is a much more powerful emotion than fear. It’s always much scarier when the tension builds, stretching your nerves to breaking point, the music rising to a crescendo which bursts, along with the monster, onto your screen. And it’s at that point that the fear kicks in and it’s never quite as scary as the anxiety fuelled moments before.
It’s a shame then, that the people behind Dead Space forgot all of this about halfway through the game. Allow me to explain:
The first few hours of Dead Space are an almost perfect survival horror experience. The tension ratchets up along with the body count as your team is ambushed whilst you look on through some glass. The lights flash and you barely get a glimpse of the multi-limbed creatures as they rip through your flight crew. Unarmed, you have no choice but to flee, and as you are chased down a narrow corridor towards a dimly lit elevator you get only the most fleeting look at your pursuer, as its scythed arms pop into view at the bottom of your screen.
This, for me, was one of the scariest moments of the entire game. You don’t know what it is you’re running from, and you dread the moment that any second you’re going to hit a dead end, and then you’re going to have to turn around...
Inevitably though, you do get to see the monsters (it wouldn’t be much of a game if you didn’t get to shoot something), and although they are appropriately freakish looking you soon become accustomed to the sight of many tentacled creatures leaping towards you with unexpected turns of speed. You soon learn to spot the signs that mean one will pop out of an air vent, or will drop from the ceiling or jump out at you from around a corner. And although those moments will cause a few shocks at first, you can’t help wishing that the developers had tried slightly harder to create some real frights. The biggest crime is that eventually the game just descends into an all out action title, where the enemies are announced by flashing lights and speaker broadcasts. Apart from the sheer numbers, there’s nothing scary about that at all.
Although I’ve been exceedingly negative so far I should point out that there are very few other things that are wrong with Dead Space. The plot is fairly standard sci-fi fare but soon gets into its own unique swing; the graphics are very impressive, the character models are detailed and the sound production is exceedingly well done. A special mention should be made about the level design, which manages to stay fresh throughout, and is perhaps one of the most convincing representations of a large space vessel ever seen in the world of film or game.
The presentation is also striking, making use of a HUD-less interface whereby all important information is displayed on your character or weapon. Menus, audio logs and video feeds are all holographically projected a couple of feet in front of your character, meaning you can carry on exploring with no need for a break in the flow. This was one of the more innovative features and one I would like to see more of in the future.
At roughly 12 hours for a first play through, but with plenty of scope for subsequent runs Dead Space is certainly good value for money, and whilst it’s not entirely original, borrowing heavily from Resident Evil 4 (but thankfully eschewing the horrible quick time events) amongst others, it definitely deserves to stand up there with the best of the genre.
And all this from EA, a company with a reputation of releasing subpar, unimaginative yearly updates, and strange DRM policies. The fact that Dead Space has proved to be so good might just be the scariest thing of all.