Genre: Survival Horror
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Electronic Arts
Release Date: October 20, 2008
Survival horror's a genre in transition. It began as a sort of half-assed, 3-D subcategory of adventure games, and while the involved technology changed, many of the tropes didn't. From 1996 to 2006, you were still using tank-style controls to steer some luckless chump through a terrible situation.
Resident Evil 4, while not really horror by any stretch of the imagination, reinvented the genre while also giving action games a good swift kick in the ass. Dead Space is the first post-RE4 survival horror game, but unlike RE4, it actually is horror; it is designed to scare you.
The problem with that, naturally, is that it's also just the kind of game you don't want to see at E3 because survival horror thrives on immersion. It works best when it's you, a couple of like-minded friends, the controller, and a dark room. When it's you, at least 12 random jackholes from 12 random countries, an enthusiastic producer, and a well-lit room full of television screens and babbling journalists, you could not ruin the game more thoroughly without shooting the console.
Just the same, though, Dead Space is interesting. It's influenced by RE4 to a remarkable extent (and this isn't just me making things up, I actually asked about it and got a "yes"), but it builds upon that formula. It's about immersion, fluidity, and a very real need to take off alien babies' limbs with a plasma cutter. I believe that at least one of these things is relevant to anyone's interests.
Dead Space is set in a largely empty universe, roughly 500 years in our future. There are no aliens here; humanity is alone. Earth's resources have been exhausted, so humanity moves from uninhabited planet to uninhabited planet, blowing them open from orbit and mining their resources.
One such ship is the Ishimura, a planetcracker that was just about ready to break a fresh world open before it suddenly went dark. (There's a six-issue limited series from Image coming out now that sets the scene for the game, and unusually for game tie-ins, it doesn't suck. A lot of this is owed to the art of Ben Templesmith.)
Isaac Clarke is an engineer, sent with a small team to find out what happened to the Ishimura and fix it. Clarke's also motivated by the fact that his girlfriend was stationed aboard the ship. Unfortunately, he's separated from his team early on and left to fend for himself on a ship that's hosting humanity's first hostile contact with an alien race.
These necromorphs invade and mutate the bodies of the dead, transforming them into homicidal and destructive mutants. They've taken over the Ishimura and killed the crew. Clarke's job has just shifted from recovery to survival.
Dead Space, like RE4, is largely about point defense. Clarke isn't a trained soldier, and his weapons are all repurposed mining tools. In most of the combat situations I faced while playing the game, I was alone against overwhelming odds, with multiple fast-moving aliens heading toward me and a decidedly limited supply of ammunition.
The challenge is to figure out how to use what tools you have to slow, stop, and eventually eliminate your enemies. Toward that end, Dead Space employs a system that the designers call "strategic dismemberment," thus ensuring that this will never be a game that you discuss at length in public.
Most of Clarke's weapons are either jury-rigged, like a flamethrower, or were originally designed for excavation. Even the default weapon, a plasma cutter, can tear off an alien's limbs with remarkably little difficulty. The key to surviving most fights is to blow off an enemy's legs, arms, and waving death tendrils as fast as you can, limiting its ability to reach and injure you. Simply emptying the clip into its center of mass often won't get the job done, or won't do it in time to prevent you from getting hurt. You can also employ a stasis field to stop an enemy in its tracks for a short period of time, allowing you to take a few opponents out of a fight early on.
Dead Space further raises the ante by providing a limited amount of ammunition and health. Enemies can drop small amounts of either, but the idea is to make every shot you have count for as much as possible. Once you're out of ammo, you're pretty much hosed.
You can also use scavenged power cores to upgrade Clarke's suit at nanostations, improving your weapons or your suit's capabilities. You can't upgrade every part of the suit to its fullest on your first trip through the game, which forces you to pick and choose very carefully. The idea is to customize your weapons and equipment, making you better at the parts of the game you excel at. You can also improve some of your suit's survival tools, such as magnetic boots to help you traverse parts of the ship without gravity, or the on-board air supply to let you survive in areas with a poisonous atmosphere.
The word that got used a lot when discussing Dead Space, besides "dismemberment," was "immersion." You project your inventory as a hologram in front of you in real time, and you heal by simply pressing the X button. A lot of things in horror games are done by stopping time, so to speak, letting you manage your equipment or select a healing item in relative peace; Dead Space doesn't. It forces you to think fast and make snap decisions, which in turn, pulls you further into the game. You have to get involved and stay there.
Obviously, I wasn't in the best position to check out Dead Space, but the foundation's there. I got to play it for long enough to get an idea that the developers know what they're doing in this genre; they've put some real thought into it and have actually tried to improve upon it.
My one real concern is that as of the E3 build, the game does not have a quick turn; if you want to run away, you have to make the infamous three-point turn that fell out of fashion right around Resident Evil 2. Hopefully, they'll add that in before the game ships, as otherwise, the title's going to be a lot harder than it has to be.
With that caveat, I'm definitely looking forward to playing Dead Space on my own later this year, in a dark room at night, as nature intended.
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