E3 Hands-On: Dead Space

Dead Space is one of those titles that is slowly and steadily building so much buzz that it’s gone from being little more than a blip on the radar to the top of several outlets’ “It” lists. This new survival horror title from EA promises a unique story, a new take on the genre, and, of course, a lot of moments that have you looking over your shoulder or checking the locks on the doors and windows.

First, a bit of story to set the mood. Dead Space takes place a few hundred years in the future, when humanity is in a bad spot. Years of mining and exploitation of the planet has left Earth nearly inhospitable, and the human race faces extinction if it doesn’t find a fresh supply of life-giving minerals and nutrients. In this hour of need, scientists and engineers craft the Ishimura, a “planetcracker” class ship which can go to dead planets, break them apart and then harvest the remaining precious resources to be transferred back to Earth. Due to its success, the Ishimura becomes the pride of humanity, and service aboard the vessel is seen as a true honor. That is, at least, until things go wrong.

During one of its trips to mine another dead host, the ship loses communication with Earth and seems to go cold. Assuming that it’s a simple error, central command sends a few security officers, a software technician, and you, Isaac Shepard, an engineer, to check out the problem and patch it up. As the team reaches the ship however, they realize something has gone horribly wrong, and the entire crew has been infected by an alien virus turning them into grotesque monstrosities. Separated from the rest of the team and cut off from escape, Isaac must brave the horrors of this once thriving ship if he is to survive and return home.

With that setup we eagerly jumped into our demo of Dead Space, which featured a very large boss with an equally bad attitude. As we prepped for the fight our guide explained that this battle took place about halfway through the game, and comes after a segment in a hydroponics lab where the player has to wipe out a number of poison-spewing plants in order to make the air breathable once more. The actual battle is situated in what used to be a food storage area, and judging by the things that floated by us during the fight (various heads, arms, and other body parts), it was also the site of a massacre.

As the stage began, we were greeted by a pussy, slimy creature with three tentacles. Each appendage had an obvious weak spot, so we knew fairly quickly where we should aim in order to inflict damage. Of course, the big fella wouldn’t just hold still and let us shoot him, so that’s where we had to use our tactical advantage to gain the upper hand. This particular arena lacked any sort of artificial gravity, so we could easily jump from one part of the wall to another in order to get a better shot. Then, as the monster prepared to hammer down with his tentacle, we jumped to another spot and then took a couple of shots while it was sweeping the floor where we once stood.

The weapons available for the demo were quite varied, and each of them had a particular usefulness when fighting this particular baddie. All the firearms are essentially mining equipment Isaac has modified to fend off the necromorph aliens, and our arsenal consisted of a shotgun, a pistol and a mining laser that swept out in either a horizontal or vertical line slicing anything in its way in half. Isaac also has some light telekinetic powers which can be used to grab metal objects and throw them at foes. In this particular battle, among all the man-meat floating around the battlefield, there were a few explodable barrels that could be grabbed and flung back at the boss, which caused considerable damage.

One thing you’ll quickly notice about Dead Space is the lack of a HUD. Instead, all pertinent information is relayed onscreen via holographs and clever design choices. For example, every weapon features a holographic ammo display that pops up whenever you’re firing, and the menu used to change guns is holographic as well. It’s also all presented in real-time, so in cases like this boss battle you need to move quickly, because hungry aliens aren’t polite enough to wait around while you choose whatever weapon you wish to use to destroy them. The health system is similarly ingenious, with your current state of being displayed in a series of lights along Isaac’s spinal column. As the boss thrashed us about with his tentacles the lights began to go out and change from green to yellow to red, and once they’re all gone, so are you. It’s a very elegant solution to the traditional problems of inventory and relaying information in games that rely so heavily on atmosphere, and now every square inch of free space on screen is used to draw you further into Dead Space’s world with the intent of scaring the pants off you when the time is right.

Meanwhile, back at our fight with the big, yucky boss, we managed to knock out all the creature’s tentacles and moved on to stage two. Now our host began spitting flaming wads of… something at Isaac in the hopes of taking our hero down quickly. However, by using the telekinetic powers mentioned earlier, players can grab the projectiles in mid-air and throw them back at the boss. After a few rounds of the most disgusting game of tennis I’ve ever seen, the creature exploded in a gory mess, and the demo ended.

So, for now it’s mission accomplished, but that was only one fight; and it was an epic one at that. We were left with depleted ammo, injured health, and an eerie sense that we still hadn’t seen the worst that Dead Space had to offer. And after that fight it’s right back into the thick of things with more zombified crew members and frightening surprises lurking around every corner. Make sure you pay up your electric bill before you play this game; you definitely don’t want experience it in the dark.

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