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Dead Space

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: EA
Developer: EA Redwood Shores
Release Date: Oct. 24, 2008

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PS3/X360 Review - 'Dead Space'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Oct. 22, 2008 @ 4:40 a.m. PDT

Set in the cold blackness of deep space, the atmosphere is soaked with a feeling of tension, dread and sheer terror. In Dead Space, players step into the role of engineer Isaac Clarke -- an ordinary man on a seemingly routine mission to fix the communications systems aboard a deep space mining ship. It is not long before Isaac awakes to a living nightmare when he learns that the ship's crew has been ravaged by a vicious alien infestation. He must fight through the dead silence and darkness of deep space to stay alive.

Genre: Survival Horror
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Electronic Arts
Release Date: October 20, 2008

Dead Space is one of those rare shooters that doesn't star a space marine, elite government agent or supernatural being. In Dead Space, you take on the role of Isaac Clarke, a mechanical and engineer who works for the Concordance Extraction Company. Along with a small crew, you're sent to the U.S.G Ishimura, a "planet-cracker" ship. Planet-crackers are sent to crack open planets and harvest the sweet minerals within. The Ishimura is the pride of the fleet, with the most planet-cracks on record, but it also has suffered a catastrophic communications failure, and Isaac is sent to repair it. Isaac also has a more personal reason for wanting to visit the Ishimura, as his estranged girlfriend is stationed there. Unfortunately, this is no routine repair mission. As soon as Isaac's crew steps through the front door, they are attacked by a mysterious race of mutant zombies called Necromorphs, who exist only to kill and convert corpses into more Necromorphs. These deadly creatures make short work of most of Isaac's allies, and Isaac barely manages to escape. He must now find a way off the ship before he joins the ranks of living (space) dead.

I wasn't expecting much, but I was still surprised at how weak Dead Space's plot is. It veers between copying other games and movies, taking wholesale from titles like Event Horizon and System Shock 2 and boring, often incoherent horror movie tropes. The Necromorphs are a boring and uninteresting race of alien-zombies, and it's hard to be interested in them when they constantly remind you of other, better implementations of the same concept. The human characters might as well not exist for all of the effort put into their characterization, with the only ones getting any attention being trite clich├ęs. The plot lurches toward an inevitable and boring end, and the ending is just insulting. Thankfully, the actual gameplay is good enough to make up for the lackluster story.

Before we get further into the review, I feel it is necessary to address Dead Space's biggest flaw: It isn't scary. It has a few "jump at you" moments, but by and large, it is a fairly tame game. The problems are fairly numerous in this regard. Dead Space has a small bag of tricks, and it plays them all very early on. By the third or fourth chapter (fewer, if you're familiar with horror movies), you're going to have a very clear idea of when a "jump moment" is going to come, and it takes any thrill out of it. From then on, the only really creepy moments come from the ship's audio logs, which don't hold a candle to the similar ones found in games like System Shock 2 or Bioshock. You can only hear someone get killed at his keyboard so many times before it gets boring, and Dead Space plays out this card very quickly. While Dead Space is a very fun action game, it isn't a very good horror game, and the weakest moments come when it tries to play up the lackluster horror aspect.

There are no head's-up displays in Dead Space. Your health bar, ammo counter, and everything else occur in real time and in a semi-realistic manner. Health and Stasis Energy are shown as glowing bars on the back of your character's suit. Ammunition is a floating counter above his gun, and your menu screen is a holographic interface that pops up from the front of your suit and must be manipulated in real time. Perhaps my favorite feature is the ability to call up a holographic line that guides you toward your next objective. The user-interface lends a wonderful sense of immersion to the proceedings and looks great. One thing that must be noted, however, is that this is not a game that is friendly to those on standard-definition TVs. Even on a good TV, the text is rather small, and on a standard set, it is so blurred that it's unreadable. While there is nothing in the text that is necessary for completing the game, it is still a potential problem.

The controls are simple and easy to pick up, with each available move being bound to a specific button or combination of buttons. If Isaac can do something, you can do it at the press of a button, which helps keeps things moving smoothly. Perhaps my only complaint here is with how medkits are handled. Since you can't exactly open menus while being bombarded by Necromorphs, medkits are bound to the X button. Press it, and you'll instantly use your lowest-leveled medkit. It's not a bad idea, but it can be a bit annoying when you're at low health and would rather be fully healed instead of wasting one of your small medkits. It's a small complaint, though, and having your healing accessible at the press of a button helps keep the action feeling tight and frantic.

The Necromorphs aren't exactly your usual zombies, so going for the head isn't going to help you much. These creatures are exceptionally durable and don't really have a single weak point to be exploited. The only way to badly damage Necromorphs is to cut off their limbs. Aiming for the legs, head or arms ensures the most damage, which is pretty crucial, considering the limited ammunition available to you in Dead Space. Fighting them starts off fairly simple, and killing one involves detaching two limbs from the creature, which promptly kills them. However, as the game progresses, it gets trickier and trickier to do this. Some Necromorphs have inhuman body shapes, such as a weird scorpion-shaped monster, which must be defeated by aiming for its elbows and long tail. Others are armored from the front and can only be damaged from behind, while others contain horrible monster leeches, punishing you if you accidentally hit the body instead of a limb. It's pretty fun to identify each Necromorph's specific weakness and find the weapon that works best against them.

Dead Space is rather unique in that you have only a single military gun, and it isn't very impressive. Your arsenal is primarily made up of various mining and repair tools that have been turned into makeshift anti-Necromorph weaponry. Ranging from plasma cutters to a pseudo-chainsaw called "The Ripper" to a "line cutter" that functions as a makeshift shotgun, these weapons are excellent at taking down Necromorphs. Most of your weapons feature a cutting ability, which is great for removing limbs, but each weapon also has a unique specialty, such as close-up combat or boss-killing charge shots. Every weapon also has a secondary fire mode, which can significantly increase its usefulness. My favorite was The Ripper's secondary fire, which shoots the chainsaw blade in a straight line and tears through multiple enemies — great for when a horde of Necromorphs is closing in on you.

While it's nice to have a wide variety of weapons, I found myself using the plasma cutter for most of the game because it's accurate, powerful and always available. Additionally, Dead Space's handling of ammo drops makes it a poor idea to carry too many weapons. Much like Resident Evil 4, Dead Space has enemies only drop ammunitions for weapons that you're actually carrying. If you carry a lot of weapons, you'll have extremely limited ammo for each, but depend on one or two, and you'll find yourself in a much better situation. Truly skilled gamers will want to play the game with just the cutter, which ensures you plenty of ammo and earns you an Achievement.

Beyond your primary weapons, you also have two secondary weapons available: stasis and kinesis. Stasis is another tool converted into a shockingly effective weapon. By firing a blast of stasis energy at something, you temporarily freeze it in time. Using it on a malfunctioning door or a rapidly spinning fan will allow you to slip by unharmed. Using it on a Necromorph makes it a prime target for your weapons, and even the most inaccurate of shots can easily delimb an enemy when it can't move. However, you have a limited amount of stasis energy available, and you can only recharge it at recharge stations or by using items. Kinesis is, of course, telekinesis. You can pick up objects around an area and move or toss them, which can be used for solving puzzles and chucking explosive barrels at Necromorphs. Unlike stasis, kinesis has infinite energy, so there is no reason to hold back with it.

Aside from your plasma cutter, which you find sitting on a workbench after a Necromorph attack, you can't find any other weapons in the game. Instead, you have to find schematics of the weapon and take them to one of the game's shops, which are the key to your survival. You can buy new weapons, upgrade your armor, get ammunition and medkits, sell excess items and treasures for cash, and even store extra items for later to free up some inventory space. You can't buy anything from the store without credits, but thankfully, Necromorphs tend to drop a lot of those. Weapons and ammunition are expensive, and if you buy too many useless items, you may find yourself broke when the pinch comes, especially if you plan on upgrading your weapons.

Your weapons and armor in Dead Space start off fairly basic, but Isaac is capable of using his mechanical skills to upgrade them at workbenches that are scattered throughout the ship. By finding Power Nodes around the levels, you can change a weapon's abilities, which is done like the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. Each weapon has its own "board" of slots that you can fill, with each Power Node filling a single slot. You'll have to advance along the board to unlock upgrades to the weapon, and there will occasionally be other paths for you to take, which will change how the weapon powers up. You can eventually take all of the paths on a weapon if you want, but this is a bit risky because there aren't a lot of Power Nodes in the game. You'll only find a scant handful, even if you search every nook and cranny. You could buy them from the shop, but at 10,000 credits each, that can take a serious chunk out of your ammunition budget. Even if you spent every cent you had on Power Nodes and found every hidden one, you wouldn't have enough to max out more than one or two weapons on your first playthrough. The New Game + feature lets you keep all of your items from the last game, though, so anyone eager to max out every weapon can play through the game multiple times.

Your powered armor (also known as a RIG) serves more than a combat purpose in Dead Space. The Ishimura is on the verge of collapse, and there are numerous areas where the gravity or oxygen is out. Your RIG, in addition to allowing you to survive Necromorph attacks, also provides some defense against these areas. In areas without oxygen, your RIG has a built-in air supply system. This only lasts for a limited time, and you have to run quickly if you want to make it through these areas. Be left outside without oxygen, and you'll die instantly. Thankfully, upgrading your RIG also upgrades your oxygen meter, so you can survive longer in a vacuum. Zero-G areas, on the other hand, are a bit more interesting. Your RIG has gravity boots, which allow you to walk on any surface and leap to any wall in zero gravity areas, which, beyond being a lot of fun, is very useful for solving puzzles and fighting Necromorphs. Unfortunately for you, Necromorphs have little trouble functioning in zero gravity, so these weightless zones provide no safe haven.

Dead Space is divided into 12 chapters, each one lasting between 20 minutes to over an hour, depending on your skills and how long you spend searching and exploring. The game is paced well and keeps you interested, although it flounders a bit toward the end, and the last chapter of the game is a real chore to play through. A skilled gamer can probably finish it in roughly eight hours or so, assuming he takes his time and explores. Dead Space tries to mix up the gameplay a bit, although it is only partially successful at this. There are a few completely out-of-place minigames, such as an aggravating and poorly designed sequence where you shoot asteroids flying toward the ship with a giant laser cannon, which breaks the tone of the game and is not fun to play at all. Dead Space also suffers from backtracking, and a few chapters will have you traipsing back to areas you've visited before. It makes sense as far as the "plot" goes, but it isn't really fun or interesting and tends to make the Ishimura feel small, which is problematic considering it's supposed to be a behemoth of a ship. There also isn't much replay value, with the primary addition being multiple difficult modes and the ability to play a New Game +. The game features downloadable content, but this appears limited to new suits for Isaac to wear.

Dead Space is a gorgeous game. The animations and visuals are spot-on, and the lack of HUD really helps the immersion factor. The Necromorphs are well-animated and creepy to watch, and the ship is filled with lots of great little touches. It manages to convey the dark and foreboding atmosphere of a ruined ship without resorting to the "everything is dark" approach of Doom 3. Perhaps my biggest complaint with the models is that once something dies, the body instantly flops around like it is made of balloons, which certainly weakens the horrific effect of the corpses. With that said, Dead Space also doesn't have much of a spirit of its own. There isn't anything really creative or interesting as far as the artistic design goes. The Necromorphs are well-animated but boring, and the Ishimura is visually indistinguishable from the Rickenbacker in System Shock 2, right down to the bloody messages scrawled on the wall.

Dead Space's audio is what keeps it from being a scary game. The music harms the atmosphere, with musical stings and dramatic tunes for every minor event, constantly reminding you that this is supposed to be scary. As a result, it quickly stops being scary and starts getting tiring. The voice acting is weak. Very few of the actors are capable of hitting their lines well, and the flubbed lines constantly weaken their visceral impact. One audio log had a techie describing how his friend was pulling his own teeth from his skull, but all he did was sound bored and slightly confused.

Dead Space is basically what one would get if one took System Shock 2 and pureed it into a blender with Resident Evil 4. That's not a bad combination at all, and Dead Space turns out to be a fun game. The combat is fast and frantic, the interface excellent, the controls responsive, and it provides an overall satisfying experience. While it's fun, though, there isn't much that's memorable about Dead Space. It feels like patchwork that's been slapped together from other franchises, and it lacks a spirit of its own to make it stand out from the pack. Dead Space is inarguably worth a rental, but the short length and lack of replay value make it a worthwhile purchase for those who love the gameplay.

Score: 8.3/10


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