Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Review: Dead Space

EA (Redwood Shores)

PS3, Xbox 360, PC

EA’s surprising turn last year towards the relatively uncharted waters of – gasp! – new IP paid off for the company and gamers alike. Mirror’s Edge caught the spirit of parkour in its first-person urban dystopia (and caused motion sickness in countless couch potatoes); and Dead Space hits the space horror nail firmly on each of its Giger-inspired heads.

Survival horror games can be a mixed bag at the best of times, as Resident Evil’s many imitators will attest – there’s a fine line between selling the story and pitching it too far for your average willing suspender of disbelief to accept. But the space horror genre – characters avoiding monster x while flanked on all sides by an unforgiving vacuum, the innate terrors of deep space threatening insanity to all and sundry – can be a little more forgiving.

There’s no doubt Dead Space borrows liberally from the sci-fi classics, both of literature and film. Shades of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke are readily apparent, and aspects of the Alien quadrilogy, Hellraiser: Bloodline, even Event Horizon are familiar strains throughout the game; but in the best tradition of adaptations, the old material has been made thoroughly new. Apart from the main character’s name, which is a bit of a clanger.

Controlling Isaac Clarke (wince) from an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective, your job is to unravel the mystery of the USG Ishimura, a “planet cracker” ship that has lost contact with the powerful Concordance Extraction Corporation (think Aliens’ Weyland-Yutani).

After receiving a confusing (delusional?) message from someone Isaac knows, then being separated from your team in the traditional convolutions of the genre, you soon find out that the former crew of the Ishimura has been turned into monsters, and you’re left to fight your way through them. But here’s the thing: it’s not a military ship, you’re just an engineer, and there are precious few weapons on board, so you’re forced to make do with the tools of your trade, which include plasma cutters, saw blades and mining explosives.

As a nice touch, there’s no on-screen heads-up display in the game – inventory management is projected holographically from your suit, which also ticks off your health indicator along its spine. It adds up to a compelling and immersive (and difficult as hell) experience, a far cry from the usual inventory-as-pause screen scenario.

Also slightly different from your average survival horror scenario, the monsters – called “Necromorphs” in the game designer’s least appealing nomenclature decision – can’t be killed by the traditional headshot or “three in the chest.” The only way to kill them is to employ “strategic dismemberment,” which basically means cutting off their limbs one by one, aiming carefully and switching between your weapons’ horizontal and vertical axes to do so. At first it seems like a cynical switcheroo, making you shoot the arm or legs rather than the heads – what difference would it really make? – but the net effect is that the difficulty (and subsequent freaky atmosphere) is amped up. It’s difficult to stop, aim precisely and shoot when there’s a big fuck-off ex-corpse with stabbing vestigial limbs rushing at you, after all.

In terms of sound design, Dead Space is a winner. There’s discordant music swelling dramatically as you’re backed into a corner, the corridor-amplified caterwauls of monsters or insane crewmates-who-are-about-to-become-monsters, odd scritching sounds coming from the corners of the room that make you wonder from which side you’re about to be attacked – in short, this is one of few games it’s advisable to wear a good set of headphones while playing.
Likewise, turn off the lights – it’s easier to be scared in the dark. The game’s palette is almost irritatingly bleak, but when played in a darkened room, it’s freaky as hell. Buy, beg, borrow or steal a copy of this game to play this Friday 13th, and you won’t regret it.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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