Hot on the heels of the article about Survival Horror games I've been playing Dead Space for review, this recently released title (today) from EA marks the beginning of a new IP for the studio and kicks off to a strong horrific start, featuring solid controls and an interesting story. You're cast in the role of Issac Clarke an engineer sent out to repair the USG Ishimura, a deep-space mining vessel or rather a deep-space planet cracker that literally tears a planet apart for valuable minerals.
Something goes wrong and you're stranded aboard the Ishimura. It's up to you to navigate the labyrinthine corridors and decks of the ship, piece together the puzzle of what's happened and survive against a threat that seems determined to wipe you out along with the remaining survivors. It's pitched somewhere around Resident Evil meets Event Horizon with a dash of Clive Barker's: Hellraiser thrown in for twisted measure.
The first thing that you'll notice with Dead Space is that the game is intuitive, the controls are polished and throughout my stint with the title I haven't felt as though I was battling with the game, just the denizens of the Ishimura and the situations that arise throughout the ship. It all feels smooth, from movement to combat, you feel in control and in a game like Dead Space where you need to dismember your enemies to kill them, you need that level of finite control.
Dead Space is an immersive game and before you cry out, that you've seen it all before. Stop and take a long look at the game itself and what it delivers for you before the words of certain 'jaded' game reviewers take hold. Yes we might have seen it all before, yes it's been done on the PC in System Shock and so forth, however, it's done here extremely well with a great attention to detail and a lot of polish.
There is no HUD on screen in Dead Space; it's replaced by indicators on Issac's suit and weapons. Ammo counters are projected as hologram readouts, easy to see and simple to read. Your air meter only appears when it's needed in a vacuum and your life meter is a pipe on Issac's RIG (space suit) that depletes as you take damage from various sources. There is a meter that tracks how much Stasis energy you have, Stasis is useful, it slows time in a localised area and can be used to avoid fast moving broken doors or even slow a monster to let you get the drop on it.
If you get lost in Dead Space, click the right stick in and a handy nav-line will appear as a hologram displayed on the screen. It doesn't last long but it will orientate Issac towards the way he needs to go. Your inventory management is done in real time and it's wise to make sure the area is safe before you enter it, the game won't stop to let you select a certain item or check how many free slots you have in the suit. Again this is displayed as a hologram infront of Issac, projected by his suit. You can check your map screen, your objectives and display text logs you find throughout the ship. You can also access video and audio logs here for playback if you miss an important clue.
This entire approach works to keep you immersed in the game, you never truly feel as though you're in a video game and it starts to play out like a big budget Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster with a tense feeling and atmosphere as you unravel the fate of the Ishimura and confront nastier and nastier enemies. The game is split into fairly decent chunks of story, Chapters, which see you traverse the massive ship via the use of an internal tram system as you move from one to the other. It has a check-point system in place and makes use of liberal save stations to let you save the game roughly where you want.
Issac is an engineer; he's not a combat marine so his weapons are mostly geared towards that direction. There are some interesting choices here, some truly great designs and the plasma cutter will be your best friend since you can flip the aim vertical and horizontal to direct the thin beam. All weapons have an alternate fire-mode and the plasma cutter's flip mode is important since you need to dismember your foes, shooting them in the body isn't going to do much. Cut off an arm, a leg, their head and you might just take them down.
Even when you remove their limbs, some of the nastier creatures can still be a threat. You have to literally cut them into tiny bits to destroy them. Fortunately the developers have made the combat in Dead Space intuitive and pretty simple to do. Aim with the left trigger, fire with the right, launch alternate fire with the right bumper, run like hell on the left bumper. When you aim your gun it triggers the weapons in-built flashlight and holographic sighting system, you can see your ammo counter clearly displayed.
The game is in 3rd person so you are always looking over Issac's shoulder, the camera might seem a little close for some in normal navigation but once you get used to it you should find it's a comfortable fit. There's no quick turnaround button, but since Issac moves at a reasonable speed it's possible to flip him around 180 without the need for an automatic system (and a button to accidentally hit in combat). If things get up close and personal, you're given a button (A) to press rapidly to get the nasties off you in time before they devour you in a gruesome way. Issac can also stomp (right bumper when not aiming) and swing his weapon (right trigger when not aiming) to add to his arsenal of attacks.
Placed around the Ishimura are certain stores where Issac can sell items he finds, buy weapons and ammunition and most importantly get access to new RIG's. He can bring schematics he finds throughout the levels here and download them to add to his arsenal of tools and equipment. There are also power nodes to collect; these devices allow you to make use of the Work Benches on the ship to upgrade various aspects of the RIG and weapons that you find. You might want to add more hit points or air supply to Issac's suit, or give that plasma cutter an extra few rounds in the clip that might make all the difference later on when you're swarmed and reload in the middle of a group of bad guys.
Some doors can only be opened by power nodes, so there's a trade off if you want to get access to an area. You don't know beforehand what it might contain, so do you sacrifice the power node or put it in your suit. After all, something great might lie on the other side of that door. There's also a kinesis module that will be familiar to fans of Half Life 2's Gravity Gun, allowing you to solve certain puzzles and there are Zero-G environments where the game really shines. I'd have liked more of these since they were done extremely well and with the game's excellent control combined with the Zero-G navigation system, it was a breeze to navigate and once again I never felt as though I was at odds with Dead Space itself.
Dead Space has some fine controls, but the game also excels graphically. It is a dark forbidding place that oozes atmosphere and the Ishimura almost feels like the Event Horizon at times. The interiors can go from cavernous Zero-G areas to sparse, cramped corridors where the shadows thrown from Issac's flash-light seem to come alive as dust particles float around the claustrophobic environments. It makes great use of dynamic lighting and design to provide an immersive atmosphere that stands toe to toe with Doom 3 (only not as dark in places) and in some cases leaves Doom 3 standing with its jaw on the floor.
The attention to detail extends from the actual ship design, levels and corridors, to the textures and layouts. The controls look fantastic and the various elements of the science fiction setting feel as real as they can be. Issac's suits are various masterpieces of design that bring to mind some of the old Deep Sea Diving suits that were used back in the day with a rich palette of rusty browns and gold colours against the steel of the Ishimura's hull. Also, unlike Doom and other games of its ilk, Dead Space isn't just about the browns and the murky colour schemes. There are some clinically bright areas that are just as disturbing (if not more so) because they are so clean and untouched by horror.
The weapons look realistic as well; they are beautifully animated and have a lot of moving parts that change and morph when you activate the secondary fire. The plasma cutter is my firm favourite as you alter the weapon's configuration with a touch of a button. The animations in the game are highly polished, the lip synch on the characters is excellent and the enemy designs are truly disturbing. I won't tell you what I've encountered but some of it has left me with nightmares for weeks. I don't scare easily, and in truth, Dead Space doesn't scare me: it disturbs me, which is more terrifying than being actually scared.
EA have excelled in the use of sound as well, from ghostly whispers and metallic clunks, rattles, creaks and ambience to the fact that sound propagates differently in a vacuum. You hear only what the suit picks up when it's in contact with a surface and it's a truly immersive effect. Voice acting in the game is excellent with some truly well delivered lines and performances. The enemy AI varies and some of them are just rushers who'll charge you regardless; others will make use of vents and the like to get the drop on you. Some are adept at Zero-G navigation. There were some AI problems with pathfinding and one or two glitches that caught my eye, nothing major however.
All in all, I can't fault Dead Space really. It is a little shorter than I'd like, but you can begin a new game with the same gear and stats as before, building up your weapons and RIG as you play through another round of the game. It's not one of those games that I'd let leave my collection and for a limited time only EA are offering the Elite suit on the XBL marketplace absolutely free. There a lot of story packed in here and I have a feeling we're on the tip of the iceberg in regards to what we've seen from the developer, I'm just hoping that they don't fall prey to the inevitable sequel-it-is where the 2nd game is a cash in on the name of the first and they try to mess with the established gameplay system too much.
We shall have to wait and see.