Karma is a bitch.
Some people can malicious dimwits and rise to the most powerful posts in the world, not unlike a soon to be former U.S. president. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Take Isaac Clarke, protagonist of EA's new horrorfest Dead Space, as an example. He's just your average, hardworking, interstellar repairman, just looking to make his way in the universe. He wants to get back together with his girlfriend, who's been posted to a deep-space mining vessel known as the USG Ishimura. So he takes the job, hitches a ride to repair what is believed to be a broken communications link, and hopefully patch up his damaged relationship along the way. Of course, he lands on the ship, repairs the broken comm-link, fixes his relationship, and rides off into the starry sunset.
Oh wait, we were talking about bad things happening to good people. I digress. Nice guy Isaac is immediately attacked by bloodthirsty mutants and isolated from his crew. Everyone on board has been either transformed into disgusting abominations, or been horrendously butchered and then transformed into the aforementioned abominations. With no help coming, it's up to our nice guy to fix what needs to fixed to escape the floating hell hole, and maybe, just maybe figure out what is causing all this mess in the first place. It's a truth that will have you on the edge of your seat as you uncover its secrets.
Dead Space wears its survival horror roots like a badge of honour, liberally borrowing from many scary pop culture staples. Dead Space borrows significantly from films such as Event Horizon, Alien, and even The Shining, while cribbing gameplay elements from action games like Resident Evil 4, Doom 3, Metroid Prime, and BioShock. All these elements are combined into something that handles comfortably, controls great, and still feels terrifyingly new.
Dead Space is played from an over-the-shoulder perspective much like RE4. By holding down the left trigger, Isaac will aim his weapon with a laser sight and will fire with the right trigger.
Also like RE, disturbing monstrosities pop out of every nook and cranny, just itching for a chance to cause Isaac's head a little separation anxiety. Whenever you die, you're treated to a gruesome death animation, but then have to stare at a load screen for about 25-30 seconds while the game reloads your latest checkpoint.
The hook for Dead Space is that you're not meant to go for the standard head shot. You're informed early on in the game that the only way to take these beasts down is to dismember them one by one. You'll quickly learn that taking out an enemy's head just makes them faster, crazier, and more dangerous than before. So the standard head shot becomes the standard arm or tentacle shot, but remains a neat twist on standard shooter gameplay. Don't forget to stomp them down afterwards for extra gory fun.
The weapons you wield are both very cool, and feel very organic within the framework of the title. Isaac is not you gruff space marine, and therefore doesn't have access to an earth-shattering cache of weapons of mass destruction. Most of his weapons are actually tools that resemble guns. My personal favourite was the Ripper, a handheld circular saw that allows you to hover a spinning blade in front of Isaac, perfect for slicing off legs and arms. You'll also have a Plasma Cutter that resembles a pistol, the shotgun-like Line Gun, a flamethrower, a plasma rifle which acts as a standard assault rifle, and a Samus-like charge beam.
But that's not all! At no extra charge, you're also given a stasis kit and a kinesis module. The stasis kit allows you to slow down anything on the ship, from quick-shutting doors to the fastest enemies around. Slowing things down quickly becomes an essential gameplay mechanic, so it's always ways to keep your stasis kit charged. The kinesis module on the other hand, essentially works like telekinesis, allow you to carry around items without physically touching them. From there you can either drop it or fling it through the air at your enemies.
The game truly shines during the moments where you're thrust into the vacuum of space or in areas of zero gravity. There are moments where you'll enter a huge chamber, only to be greeting by dozens or floating limbs as corpses. During these sections, Isaac can jump to any wall or ceiling, and there's no true way up or down. Of course, this means that enemies can also come from anywhere as well. Adding to the tension is a constantly draining air tank that must be re-filled by leaving the vacuum or using one-time use air canisters. However, during combat it can be easy to forget that oxygen is a requirement to live, a very common problem in my life to begin with. One of the most memorable boss battles in the game has you running along the walls in a zero gravity tin can while avoiding the attacks of the creature nesting below. Or is it above? Or to the side? Now my brain hurts…
Objectives are somewhat repetitive. Isaac must go from deck to deck searching for a myriad of tasks, ones that usually involve fetching item A, bringing it to location B, and then repairing machine C. At least the developers at EA Redwood have been gracious enough to include a generous compass system. With a push of the right analog stick, Isaac will essentially display a line that leads you right to your next objective. During the game's 12ish hour length, the objectives may start to become a little stale, even if the gameplay never does. Once you beat the game, you can take all your items and upgrades and start over, although you can't bump up the difficulty, rendering the "new game +" mode rather pointless.
Much like BioShock and other action oriented RPGs, Dead Space has you upgrading your character throughout the game, but instead of Adam, you're using power nodes. Power nodes are used to upgrade practically everything on Isaac, from his hit points and air supply, to upgrading weapon capacity, damage, reload times, and duration. Even the stasis kit and kinesis modules can be upgraded. Even Isaac's suit can be visually upgraded with cool new glowing masks and extra armour. There's almost no way you'll be able to upgrade everything in one play through, so it's important to choose your upgrades wisely and consistently.
The interface for your inventory, objectives, and map system is elegant and fits perfectly within the design of the game. All this information, in addition to audio and video logs found strewn around the ship, are always holographically displayed in front of Isaac by his suit. Therefore, you've got to be sure that you're alone when checking your inventory, because all these menus appear in real game time. Nothing will make you wet your pants faster than a getting you Even information like Isaac's health is displayed directly on his suit, eliminating any need for intrusive HUDs. Visually, there's nothing between you and the intensity of the game.
Dead Space oozes atmosphere and tension from every orifice, and it all starts with the fantastic presentation of the game. Graphically speaking, Dead Space is one of the prettiest games of this generation, standing tall amongst the likes of the heaviest of hitters. The first thing players will notice is the unbelievable lighting effects. I can easily say with no trepidation that Dead Space has the best lighting I've ever seen. Hallways flicker and buss with faulty lighting systems, and everything in the world creates very convincing real time shadows. Once you head out into space itself, the game takes on an eerie beauty accentuated by the blinding light of a nearby star. There's also nary a jagged edge to be found. Even the different decks are varied visually, although most of them are dark and covered in blood and guts.
Enemies are smoothly animated, and their differing animations really help set the terrifying mood of the game. More so, Isaac's animations are terrific, and his model is one of the most detailed I've ever seen. Despite all these polygons flying across the screen, the game's smooth frame rate also never noticeably dips. This is a flawless visual presentation, on either system.
The game also makes fantastic use of its physics engine in ways that have yet to be seen. The zero gravity portions in particular boast supremely effective physics, as multiple objects will float around and collide with each other in convincing fashion. It's a visual treat when gravity shifts on and everything in the room falls to the ground with a thud. Also, there's a morbid satisfaction to be had when the vicious, snarling mutation that was just attacking you begins to lazily float away when it's killed.
As amazing as the graphics are, they wouldn't be nearly as effective without the unbelievable sound design to back it up. This game owes every single scare it gets out of gamers to its sound design. If there was ever a game that screamed at you for a surround system, Dead Space is it. While stalking the hallways of the Ishiumra, you'll hear enemies crawling through air ducts, steel piping falling off in the distance, and even screams, singing, and whispers that you're not even sure were ever there. When the action gets harried, a pulse-pounding orchestral score kicks in that really gets the adrenaline flowing, but the game lets the sounds take over and mess with your head when things are quieter. All of the weapons sound punchy and full of bass. Even the voice acting is simply magnificent, with convincing performances all around, even though Isaac has a bad case of silent protagonist syndrome.
Dead Space is a scary, intense, engrossing, and invigorating adventure into the heart of deep space. EA Redwood has produced EA's finest title in years and their best original IP since the glory days of Road Rash and Desert Strike on the Sega Genesis. Just don't hold it against EA for not including an extra pair of boxer shorts in the box. They had to draw the line somewhere. Now if only we could do something about that bitchy Karma.