The Butcher, the Baker, the Living-Dead Maker.
The generic term “survival horror” has never made much sense to me. It makes me think of Robinson Crusoe fighting off hordes of coconut zombies. Besides, isn’t the goal of every game to survive? If I had my druthers, I’d call it the “Oh, Shit!” genre instead since I can’t seem to say or think much else while I’m tearing zombies away from my brainpan. Regardless, the term “survival horror” has stuck, and my fantasy of island castaways fighting off tropical ghouls continues.
[image1]While Dead Space might be one of the most intriguingly designed and refreshing shooters I’ve played all year, it’s no survival horror game. Not in the conventional sense, at least. It’s not consistently scary or creepy, and there were very few “Oh, Shit!” moments. Yes, it’s got zombies and dark hallways, but the undead and an unpaid electric bill alone do not make a survival horror game. Genre considerations aside, Dead Space is far and away one of the most fun and innovative shooters I’ve played in a very long while.
Dead Space borrows some conventions from the survival horror genre, but it veers much more toward the science-fiction end of the spectrum. Even the main character’s name, Isaac Clarke, shows that Dead Space is far more in touch with its sci-fi roots than its horror ones. Like Bioshock and Metroid Prime, this is dark science-fiction at its best.
The plot begins familiarly enough: You play as one member of a small crew sent to check up on the spacecraft Ishimura in orbit around a distant planet. You arrive and discover that something has gone, wait for it… horribly wrong. Yes, it’s a groan-inducingly familiar set-up but once things start moving, the story proves to be much more complex and engaging than it first appears.
In the first few minutes, you’re guided through the “Look, ma, no hands!” display system, a remarkably intuitive HUD-less solution. All the information you need—health, ammo, and other details—is all incorporated into the character model. A health bar runs the length of your suit’s spine, and a smaller meter that measures your remaining “stasis” power appears as a small crescent shape near your right shoulder.
[image2]Weapons all include built-in displays, as does your frequently used oxygen tank. The menus for the map, missions, and inventory all appear via an in-game holographic projection that floats in three-dimensional space in front of your character. You can walk, shoot, open doors, and do almost anything else all while your menus are open, and all the videos, audio files, and documents you find around the ship also pop up as projections so you never have to break away from the action.
Similar to its closest kin—Bioshock and Metroid Prime—a major portion of Dead Space lies in exploring and investigating the Ishimura. Each level is a maze of hallways, rooms, and elevators flowing outward from a central hub area. But rather than having to switch to your map screen all the time or having to follow floating arrows to navigate complex floor plans, you can click a button to make a holographic blue line appear that leads you directly to your next objective. Despite what you might think, this “breadcrumb” feature doesn’t oversimplify the game and still leaves much of the ship to explore on your own.
Even though there is much wandering to be done, Dead Space is still a third-person shooter at heart so there are plenty of nasty enemies to kill along the way. Not satisfied with the stale conventions of the shooter genre, Dead Space finds yet another way to innovate. In most shooters, killing an enemy by shooting it repeatedly in the arm or leg is the equivalent of trying to kill someone by poking them to death with a safety pin. Dead Space flips that convention on its head by forcing you to aim at arms, legs, necks, wrists, and joints. If it’s long and connects one body part to another body part, shoot it. Limbs in this game come in all shapes and sizes among a varied cast of evil critters. And since you keep shooting off their legs, enemies continually have to find new ways of getting around through resourceful means of locomotion, which in turn forces you to change your attack strategy.
You’re also provided with a healthy array of weapons, each of which presents its own unique advantages and disadvantages to performing on-the-fly amputations. The saw gun—called the “ripper"—is easily the stand-out of the bunch. After a couple hours spent retraining yourself to aim for limbs, you’ll become an expert at using the saw to quickly turn an eight-legged zombie into an appendage-less doormat.
[image3]Aiding both in dismembering enemies and in your frequent puzzle solving needs are two key abilities: stasis and kinesis. As the names imply, stasis slows down any moving object for a short time while kinesis lets you pick up nearby objects and launch them much like Half-Life 2’s gravity gun. Further adding to your bag of tricks, store access points let you buy new weapons and ammo, and workbenches give you a chance to improve your current weapons’ abilities. Similar to the ability nodes upgrade systems seen in Final Fantasy X or Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction, the weapons in Dead Space are modified along nodal paths that unlock different abilities depending on the path you choose.
Just when you think you’ve seen all that Dead Space has to offer, something pops up that again drops your jaw to the floor with a fleshy thud. The level designs exhibit science-fiction artistry at its best. It has darker, more convincing environments than Bioshock and richer sound design than Call of Duty 4. Smokey, dimly lit hallways wind their way to beautiful starlit vistas. Whispers, voices, groans, and metallic clangs fade in and out over a wide array of deft musical touches. Around every corner lies a new sight or sound that will startle you with its attention to tonal detail. Art and sound design merge perfectly to create the sense of an isolated, cold, inhuman atmosphere.
What’s more, none of Dead Space’s more novel features ever feels gratuitous or under-utilized. Everything has its purpose and application, and many abilities serve multiple purposes both in combat and in exploration. Zero-gravity areas bring a new twist to the simple act of walking around, and fighting without gravity presents its own unique problems and tactics. Oxygen-less sections of the ship—both inside and outside the hull—add depth and variety to a familiar concept, and the occasional broken gravity panel gives you fun new ways to squish your enemies into unrecognizable messes of flesh.
To list every new and well-executed idea in Dead Space wouldn’t just spoil many of the surprises waiting for you, it would also take far more time than this review permits. The whole experience lasts about 12 hours but you’ll have missed many things along the way that deserve revisiting on a second or third trip.
[image4]Unfortunately, Dead Space isn’t without its issues. The plot takes a while to move beyond tired genre clichés. The story eventually grows into a brilliant science-fiction thriller, but only at the expense of sympathetic characters. In addition, enemies suffer from zombie-worthy A.I. that does nothing to evade your attacks or plan their own. Worse, Dead Space is a little too easy on any setting but Hard or the unlockable Impossible setting. There are also a few balance issues with money and weaponry. You’ll often have far more cash than you know what to do with which means that whenever you come across a more challenging section, all you need to do is spend your accumulated funds on more health packs and ammo.
Dead Space bursts into the holiday season with the pulpy cracking sound of someone being torn limb from limb. Its visual presentation, unique gameplay features, and emphasis on exploration show that this title’s coming into the ring swinging hard and will be a tough contender to beat. It’s an ambitious title that does so much right that it’s easy to overlook its shortcomings. Anyone who suspected that Dead Space might be just another also-ran shooter this season was dead wrong.