The horror genre of video games has grown stagnant the past few years. Resident Evil 4 did a great job of reviving that franchise but it was more or less the same old game and story. Between Resident Evil and Silent Hill there has been little to no innovation in story or gameplay over the past several years. Both games were satisfied with throwing zombie after zombie at you, while using strange fixed camera angles, archaic control schemes, and retelling of the same story over and over again. Enter Dead Space. A game that takes you into the future on a massive spaceship that has been sending out distress signals that you and your crew have come to investigate. Shortly after entering the ship, disaster strikes and the story is off. It's up to you and a few other survivors to do whatever you can to get off this ship.
The game has been compared with some famous Hollywood movies, and rightfully so. Alien, Event Horizon and maybe even Red Planet are valid comparisons. The comparisons work in regards to atmosphere and scope of the spaceship, but also mirrors movie history in another way. While there were plenty of movies that tried to scare you with zombies (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Evil Dead, Dawn of the Dead, etc.) in the 70's, no one had yet gone into space to try horror out. Then Alien was released. It may seem hard to believe now, but when released, that movie was groundbreaking and more or less invented the genre of Sci-Fi Horror. Now apply that same scenario to the world of video games, and you see how the comparison works. There have been plenty of games that have tried to scare you, but none set in space and none as effective as this one. Does this game break ground like Alien did? Read on to find out.
As I mention above, the game is set in the future. You and a crew are headed out to a space ship that has been sending a distress signal. Almost instantly when you land on the ship, terror strikes and the game is in full gear. I love that there is 5 minutes or less of story prior to starting the game. Rarely are you allowed to jump into a game like this so quickly, often times you have to sit through a half hour of back story and then tutorials that almost no core gamer really needs to sit through in order to play the game. Here you witness your crew being attacked by God only knows. Most of the crew dies, while the other members have been separated throughout the ship. You are now on your own and the only weapon you have is a futuristic mining tool called a Plasma Cutter. This weapon shoots out a thin beam of plasma that would be used to cutting metal, but in this game you need to start cutting something else.
The enemies here are like no other enemies in a game before. Typically you shoot for the head and the monster ends up on the floor in a heap. That's not how things work here. Here the enemies are re-animated crew members (dead humans who have had their body taken over by an alien force) called Necromorphs. These creatures come in many different varieties, but all have the same weaknesses.... Their limbs. In order to kill these creatures you need to use "strategic dismemberment" of all four limbs. That's where you plasma cutter comes into play. Aim for a leg, fire, and off comes that leg. Same goes for the arms and when they are down, same goes for the head. Reading a lot of the pre-release hype on this game I constantly heard that enemies could not be defeated unless all limbs were removed. That isn't really true here. You can fire at their body and they will eventually go down, limbs intact. If you remove their legs only, sometimes that's enough. This isn't really a complaint here, but the notion that all limbs have to be removed for an enemy to die just isn't true. What is true, however, is that there will be a lot of times that a creature is coming for you, you remove the legs and that thing still is clawing as hard as it can to get a piece of you. This does make for some nervous battles when there are a large amount of Necromorphs around you. You may have killed 5 of them, but not the 6th and he is going to do anything he can to get to you.
In order to deal with these relentless enemies, EA has come up with some very innovative weapons here. As mentioned before, you start out with the Plasma Cutter which is a mining tool (which makes extra sense when you find out that you are a miner named Isaac). The rest of the weapons aren't really weapons at all, but they are all interesting ideas on futuristic tools. You can get the Line Gun which shoots a much wider plasma beam, but fires more slowly than the Plasma Cutter. There is a flamethrower which does exactly what you think it would. Then there is the Ripper, one of my favorite weapons. What the Ripper does is shoot out a saw blade which is suspended in the air and you can move freely to slice and dice your enemies. There are 7 total weapons in all, with only one of them being an actual gun. On top of having a nice variety of weapons with a lot of original thought put into them, there is an excellent weapon upgrade system. Throughout the game you collect or buy "power nodes" which are then used to upgrade weapons and armor. Once you get a power node you can go to any of the work benches scattered throughout the ship. When you get to a bench, you pull up a menu and selected what you want to upgrade. Once the weapon or armor is selected there is a blueprint of options which have to be filled out in order. This means if you want to upgrade to the maximum amount of power for a weapon, you are going to need a lot of power nodes and you will need to follow a line that may upgrade rate of fire or weapon capacity as well as power. This adds some strategy to the game in that you have to make a choice. Fully upgrade one or two weapons or hold onto 4 weapons that are upgraded halfway. You can't fully upgrade all weapons in one play through.
In the last section I mentioned that power nodes could be purchased at stores. This is one of the elements within the game that kind of threw me off. How are there dozens of stores located throughout a mining ship in the middle of space? Then I reminded my self that it's a video game, placed in the future so anything is possible. The store is used not only to purchase weapons and nodes to upgrade those weapons, but items such as health packs, air cans, upgraded suits or stasis refills (I'll explain that in a second). Also located at the store front (which looks like a futuristic CPU program) you have the ability to store extra items in your safe, as your suit can only hold so many items. Credits for use at these stores are dropped by various enemies and also found by searching lockers and crates. While at first I thought the store idea wasn't the best way to implement the supply system, by the end of the game it really made sense and I can't think of a better way to do it.
Another thing that needs to be touched on is the Stasis I mentioned, as well as your Kinesis abilities. I'm not sure that there is a great explanation as to why you have these powers, but again it's the future, so deal with it. Stasis is an ability you have which will slow enemies and objects. Let's say you have a fast Necromorph running at you and you need him to slow down, use your Stasis and it does just that, allowing you to take your time and aim. This ability is also used to solve puzzles by slowing down objects or doors in order to progress throughout the game. Stasis is not an unlimited ability, hence the Stasis refill packs mentioned above. The other ability you are granted is Kinesis. This one let you pick up items, move trams closet to you for use, or even shuffling large crates. This ability is unlimited and can be used for fun things like grabbing a severed arm out of the air and shooting it an enemy, taking its head off. Again, I feel like there is no explanation why you have these abilities, but you do and they play a big part of the game.
Furthering puzzle play is the Zero Gravity environments which you will encounter throughout the game. These areas let you jump from wall to wall and most of the time you need to solve a puzzle to get out of these areas. I felt these were the most challenging areas of the game as it's very disorienting to jump from wall to ceiling and have your view flipped upside down. But that's how it should be. I'm sure you'd be going through the same thing as Isaac if you were jumping around like this. One other obstacle that you will run into is vacuum areas. These areas are typically exposed to the space outside and your suit is not built to survive a long time in this environment. You suit gives you about a minute of air (which can be upgraded with power nodes) and the majority of time that is enough to survive these areas. Between the zero gravity and vacuum areas you see a lot of originality and creative thought that went into the game. These are some of the most exciting sequences in the game and I love the variety they provide.
Graphically, this game is top notch. The ambient lighting is wonderful, casting scary shadows and hiding enemies. Your character is animated very well, from his boot stomp to his "I'm being swarmed and I need to get this thing the 'eff off of me" animations. The Necromorphs all move in a very creepy fashion, almost like you would expect when seeing one. The ship is actually varied in its environments. There are tight corridors, large mechanical bays and even a brilliant control center that is all windows. I was stunned by some of the environments. EA could have taken the Doom 3 route and stick you in generic hall after generic hall, but they didn't, and I thank them for that. Another great idea is the HUD, or lack there of. Everything you need to know is on or in your suit. Your health is seen on a bar on your back and your stasis gauge is a half circle next to it. You see how much ammo you have left buy aiming with your weapon and seeing a pop up hologram with the number. When you pull up the menu it's a hologram that's being beamed from your helmet right in front of your face. The complete lack of the typically HUD is particularly useful in this game as horror is all about immersion. I would feel much less immersed in this game if I had a gaudy bullet and health gauge on the screen at all times.
Another absolutely fantastic element of the game is the sound. Just like the lighting, it's ambient and help sets the mood for terror. As you move, you will hear things scurry on the pipes above you. Crates and tools and metal will fall in the background, making you turn around to see what that was. Sometimes you come across a random human on the verge of death crying or singing in a very creepy tone. The Necromorphs have varied sounds and all of them work. There is also a great use of music here. Like horror movies, when something bad is going to happen, the music gives you a clue. That holds true here. When you enter a room with a bunch of enemies that you may not see, the music will clue you into the danger you are in. This isn't always the case, as enemies to pop out of nowhere from time to time, with no warning. It's a great mix that keeps you on your toes throughout the entire game.
So again, I am giving a great review and not saying much bad about the game. Here there is very little to complain about. The graphics are great, the sound is intense, the controls work very well and I think the camera is set up to be almost perfect. My only real complaint about this one is its lack of replay value. Granted, if you want every trophy you will have to play more than once. But other than that there isn't a great reason to go back. Playing through a second time ruins some of the scares and you also don't get the sense of excitement from the first time around. But besides that, this is a great, great game. I think it's even game of the year material because it executes on almost everything it set out to do. This may not be a must purchase, but it is a must rent. You can get through the game in 10 to 12 hours and its one hell of a ride. However you do it, play this as soon as you can.