One of the best horror games around
gameplay 95 / story 85 / graphics 95 / sound 99
There’s a saying: in space, nobody can hear you scream. Well some creative fools put that saying to the ultimate test in Dead Space, EA’s horror sci-fi shooter game that reminds you of why you used a nightlight as a child. Taking elements from previous horror games of the past, this game takes those tropes and takes advantage of them with force. Combining a tense and chilling atmosphere, superb and innovative gameplay, gruesome visuals, and a narrative ripped straight from a horror flick, Dead Space will make you jump as well as reach for your teddy bear.
It’s the year 2414. Interplanetary mining ships known as planetcrackers are used to gather resources that the Earth lacks. One of these ships, the USG Ishimura, has sent out a distress call from the planet Aegis VII. The USG Kellion is sent by the Concordance Extraction Corporation (CEC) to investigate the distress call. On board is Engineer Isaac Clarke (the protagonist), Commander Zach Hammond, and Computer Specialist Kendra Daniels. Upon reaching the Ishimura, however, the Kellion’s guidance system malfunctions, forcing a crash-landing on the mining ship. The crew enters the ship, only to find that something lurks within. Mysterious creatures have all but taken over the Ishimura, and it’s up to Isaac Clarke to travel the downed ship and discover what these creatures are, where they came from, and how he can save the ship as well as his fellow crew members.
The game does a fantastic job of throwing you into its universe without holding your hand. The visuals are the main grab. Excellent lighting effects, well-designed space ship interiors, and excellent space backgrounds all help absorb you into this dark and gritty game. Adding subtle touches like cryptic writing scribbled on the walls, blood stains here and there, and damaged or destroyed ship segments all sell the point that something has gone terribly wrong on the Ishimura. There are few instances of texture pop-in or screen tearing, especially on the console versions, which helps tremendously.
The atmosphere is also incredible. Very often you’ll find yourself traveling tight, claustrophobic hallways alone, with maybe one or two lights guiding your way. In the middle of your traveling, strange groans, crawling sounds along the vents, and inhuman wails will unnerve you in every possible way. Even open sections will leave you shaky as you try to figure out your escape plan while being surrounded by monsters. It will chill your spine to think that you could possibly die around the next corner.
Adding to the atmosphere is the absence of a traditional HUD (heads-up display) found in most other video games. Isaac learns information through the environment around him and his engineering suit. Whenever in-game hints pop up, Isaac’s suit pulls up a virtual display. The map system is also integrated in this manner. His health meter is displayed on his back, as well as a stasis meter for use with powers like slowing down enemies. This helps immerse the player even more into the game, adding to that tense atmosphere that makes sure you know how it feels to almost die.
But Isaac isn’t totally defenseless. Now, he might not be a soldier or superhuman, but as a deep space engineer, he’s skilled with many tools that can be as deadly as a gun. You move around at a walking pace, with a sprint button for fast getaways. Isaac can wield a plasma cutter, flamethrower, buzz saw, and even a plasma rifle in order to mow down the monsters, known as necromorphs, in his path. This might sound simple, but as in most survival horror games, ammo for these weapons is fairly limited, and if you run out, your best option is to…well, run away.
However, the necromorphs don’t just let a fresh meal get away so easily. They attack in loose patterns that make it difficult to figure out their next move. Some will charge head-on, others will stay back and wait before lashing out to rip you in half. Often, you’ll hear them crawling through the vents before you see them jump out and make you lose your head in more ways than one. Their design helps you fear them, making the creatures look like horribly deformed humans with razor sharp blades for arms, for one. There’s variety in the encounters as well, forcing you to fight juggernaut brutes, small tentacle babies that shoot acid, and even ones that transform dead bodies into more necromorphs.
The first thing you notice with them is that a headshot doesn’t drop them. If anything, it pisses them off further. The only way to kill necromorphs is to dismember them limb from limb. Placing slicing shots across their arms, legs, and tentacles is the key to making these creatures die. They don’t always stay down though, and so melee attacks like a curb stomp help tremendously. The only downside is the stiff animation of these melee attacks. It never feels as though you’re swinging or stomping where you want, and that gets bothersome at times.
There’s a shop system that allows you to buy things like medical kits, air cans for space sections, extra ammo, and suit upgrades. You find credits throughout the ship, and can sell certain items for quick cash, like semiconductors. You even find plans for items that the store wouldn’t normally sell to make them permanent purchase items. This normally makes survival horror elements of having scarce items and ammo moot, but there’s only one store per ship level, so this isn’t an issue. An upgrade system is also available, where you trade any power nodes you find and/or purchase in order to enhance your weapons and suit to be more powerful.
There are also environmental puzzles to solve throughout the game, having you resort to using the stasis packs to slow down malfunctioning doors, a kinetic enhancement that allows you to magnetize certain items to move them, and anti-gravity chambers. The latter is a unique concept, as you enter these chambers pinned down to the floor with magnetic boots. To travel across the room, you must target the area you want to go to, and leap across. This destroys any orientation issues and aimlessness that true anti-gravity mechanics could have, though it does slightly limit the amount of freedom you can have in these sections. However, it doesn’t make it any less fun or effective, so this can be forgiven.
Uncovering the story involves not only paying close attention to the in-gameplay cutscenes, but also exploring the ship for text and audio diaries. These diaries detail the events leading up to the distress call on the Ishimura, and give more background info into the world. Each audio entry is excellently voiced, even as they read out some admittedly cringe-worthy lines of dialogue. Barring some mediocre lines, the game’s narrative structure is well-paced, with set-piece moments revealed perfectly, and with each amazing boss encounter timed impeccably (even though the last boss is very disappointing).
The biggest flaw this game has is in its mission structure. The reasons for most objectives in this game fall into two categories: find an item at point A and bring it to point B, or travel to this specific part of the ship without getting killed. Aside from the environmental puzzles, this is all you get mission-wise. It’s for this reason that most missions quickly become stale and mundane, despite the abundance of necromorph encounters you face along the way. Given the numerous abilities and weapons you’re given, there should’ve been more incentive to play out these missions.
To sum it up, Dead Space is one creepy and fun game. I don’t think I’ve jumped more in any other survival horror game than this one. The spine-tingling atmosphere, intense combat, tight gameplay, and compelling narrative make this game a must-play for any survival horror aficionado out there. Even with the mundane mission structure and somewhat clunky movement and gravity controls, this game will grip you from beginning to end of its ten to twelve hour campaign. Don’t be afraid-explore the Ishimura for yourself and see how long you last.
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