Review: Dead Space

Electronic Arts gets a lot of grief from gamers. Their catalog is heavy on movie-based games that have to meet a rock-solid release date, or sports games that have to come out on a yearly basis. These games are always released for multiple platforms on a short time table, and they almost always suffer in some fashion because of it.

So what happens when EA gets a chance to show what they can do?

Really good things, man. Really good things.

 

Dead Space was developed by EA Redwood Shores, who have created a dark, gritty, atmospheric fright-fest that can stand toe-to-toe with any game in the survival horror genre.

You play through the game as engineer Isaac Clarke, an employee of the Concordance Extraction Corporation. The CEC owns fleets of mining ships that literally tear planets apart for their mineral resources. One of CEC’s ships, the USG Ishimura, has broadcast a distress signal, and Isaac is part of a five-person team sent to investigate what is believed to be a simple malfunction. While docking with the Ishimura, your ship is destroyed, stranding your party aboard the damaged vessel. The Ishimura and crew have been horribly ravaged by unknown lifeforms, and you must fend off your attackers while following the guidance of your comrades to get the ship functional again.

The name of the game is survival horror, and nothing scares people like a good bump in the night. Dead Space has a lot of it. Your weapons cast a flashlight glow a short distance in front of you, and I found myself with weapon poised at the ready as much for the light as for the protection. Clicking down on the right thumbstick will place a blue line on the floor (as seen though your HUD) that points you to your next objective. You can also see the line in its entirety by hitting the back button, which brings up a map of your current area.

So here you are, Isaac the engineer, running these little errands for your crewmates and trying to get the ship ship-shape again. And there are all of these … things … that would love to rip you in half so your spleen can bob along in the vacuum of space.

“Strategic dismemberment” is the key to defeating enemies. You start off facing simple foes, with arms and legs that are quickly amputated with a couple of plasma blasts, but it’s not before you’re facing creatures from your worst nightmares. There are skittering little monsters that make no noise, that will climb on your face until you beat them away. There are bat-like monsters that fly at you, and tentacled babies that fire projectiles. Walls come to life and spit out offspring that can attack you from across a room. My favorite, and easily the hardest monster of the lot, is an enormous tree-trunk sized tendril that will wrap around your legs and suck you into oblivion. When one of these grabs you, you have mere seconds to fire a couple of well-placed shots or you’re a goner. That’s a real trick when you’re being whipped around in the air by your ankles.

Certain enemies will soon seem insignificant compared to those that truly fill you with dread. There are creatures with pods on their arms that will explode if they come into contact with you. One creature will open up to turn loose a variety of creepy-crawlies, and you can easily deplete your store of ammo trying to take them all out.

 

 
EA has chosen to abandon the typical HUD. Information about your health and power status is shown through markings on your armor, or projections seen in front of your helmet. Your crewmates give you directions and requests for assistance through a pop-up video feature on your heads up display. Weapon status is shown whenever your weapon is wielded. Weapons and armor can be upgraded with “power nodes,” or replaced with more advanced versions. Beware, though, because once you go up a level of armor, you can’t come back down. That doesn’t seem like a big deal until you try out that super cool armor you downloaded from Xbox Live, only to find out you can’t take it off again. Power-ups come in the form of ammo and health packs, oxygen for depressurized areas and semiconductors that are only useful for credits to spend on other things.

Your weapons are not your standard shotgun or rifle. Isaac is an engineer, so it’s ridiculous to expect him to be a crack shot with a firearm, but give him a plasma cutter, torch, ripsaw and the like, and he can do some serious damage. He does, however, bring a couple of extra skills to the table. “Stasis” is a slow-down effect that you can use on fast moving equipment, doors, or enemies. “Kinesis” allow you to force-move objects at a distance. Kinesis is also handy for pulling things to you in zero-g environments, and can be used to throw objects and bodies at enemies.

Parts of the game are played outside of the ship or in decompressed areas, requiring you to keep a supply of oxygen on hand. There are also parts of the game that take place in gravity-free environments. Point your weapon where you’d like to go, and if it’s an acceptable landing spot, you will be able to jump to it. The sections with zero gravity were a lot of fun, while areas without air were nerve wracking, like a clock ticking to your demise.

The visuals are near movie quality. I played the game on a projector that was crystal clear, but some of the text was so delicate that I’m going to assume SDTV users will have some issues reading it. The voice acting was excellent, as was the music and ambient noises, but the dynamic soundtrack often spoiled the surprises. When the music is aggressive, there’s still an enemy out there. When it’s peaceful, then you’re safe for a while. If surprise is everything, for gosh sake, don’t telegraph it like that!

 

The USG Ishimura is an enormous ship. Each chapter restricts you to a certain section of the vessel so you can’t just about, willy-nilly. Dead Space is most frightening when creatures attack you in a confined space. Unfortunately, much of the fighting occurred in wide, open spaces. Picking off aliens that are on the far side of a large room isn’t as scary as fending them off when you’re trapped in a tight area and they’re right in your face.

Still, I really enjoyed playing Dead Space. The game never felt repetitive, and hearing a noise and spinning around with two quick shots to take out an enemy’s knees never got old. The game is broken up into chunks that are perfectly sized to feed your gameplay addiction. I consistently found myself saying, “Just one more section” as whole chapters passed by. Should you feel the need to take a breather from the insanity, you can practice your targeting skills at the shooting gallery or play a few games of Zero-G Basketball.

Dead Space is a top notch game, and anyone who says EA can’t make a good game can be whacked with a copy of Dead Space, with my blessings.

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