There used to be a time when the survival horror meant solely Silent Hill and Resident Evil. Lately, there are more original properties, like the mind-boggling BioShock or the gruesome Condemned, sprouting up within the genre. Now EA has pushed itself into view with EA Redwood Shores’ inaugural leap into survival horror, Dead Space. Referred to on more than one occasion as “BioShock in space,” Dead Space brings gamers hundreds of years into the future to board the USG Ishimura, a planet-cracking ship that lost all contact with human life.
Sadly, the mining of other planets is a necessity for the human race as we have exhausted all of our natural resources. Considering the ramifications of this situation, fleets of vessels are scattered throughout the universe in order to transport these resources back to Earth for consumption. The USG Ishimura is mankind’s most glorified planet-cracker, as it has mined more planets than any other interplanetary vessel. Oddly enough, the USG Ishimura loses all contact with galactic command during a standard planet-cracking operation. In order to find out what’s happened, a maintenance crew is dispatched from a nearby vessel.
As expected, you’re a part of this maintenance crew. Gamers step into the boots of Isaac Clark, a quiet systems engineer that has a very cliché interest in the Ishimura – his lady friend is on board. The last contact Clark had with her was via an urgent holovid (holographic video) which was filled with cryptic messages. Upon reaching the Ishimura, Isaac and his fellow crewmates quickly become separated, and all hell proceeds to break loose. The maintenance vessel is destroyed, and most of the crew is violently murdered by abominations known as Necromorphs (space zombies).
With the Ishimura’s computer systems failing due to the Necromorphs, and the disadvantage of being nothing more than a systems engineer, gamers must make do with whatever weapons or tools they find lying around in order to survive. Isaac can also create weapons of his own, provided he can find the schematics necessary to build them. It is through this process that you acquire the bulk of your weaponry. Scattered throughout the ship are schematics for weapons – like the flamethrower – that you can create using work stations. These work stations also give you the ability to utilize power nodes that you may have found during play. These power nodes function similarly to the “Sphere Grid” in Final Fantasy X; they’re small nodes that fit into a “power grid” that will upgrade Isaac’s weapons, health, air support, reload times and even ammunition amount.
The nodes usage goes beyond the standard weapon and player upgrades, as you can use them to power up your stasis and kinesis modules as well. The stasis module allows gamers to (somewhat) slow down time in order to get through areas of the ship that would otherwise be death traps. One instance where this comes in handy is when a faulty door keeps yanking open then slamming shut. Utilizing the stasis module in this situation causes the door’s movement to diminish, allowing Isaac to run through safely. Meanwhile, the kinesis module gives you the chance to pick items up with your mind and throw them out of the way or turn them into thrown weapons. This is useful when you come across a hallway that may be blocked by some foreign object that you must remove in order to progress. Redwood Shores has created a title in which almost anything can be upgraded to the player’s content. This allows for a unique experience and most will have to play through the game several times if they hope to max out each possible item.
The deformed Necromorphs are susceptible to particular types of weapons. This is important to remember when upgrading your weapons, partly because enemies won’t be incapacitated in the usual manner (headshots). Most Necromorphs force you to dismember them limb by limb. As the game progresses, the Necromorphs become increasingly faster, leaving you less time to accurately dissect their constantly shifting forms. This will inevitably lead to several deaths by way of dismemberment for Isaac, so make sure to always think ahead and aim for those weak limbs from the start.
A very unique aspect to Dead Space is the complete lack of a visible HUD (heads up display). Redwood Shores chose to take a different route in order to display vital information to the player. In line with the futuristic tone of the game, players can view their life and air supply on the back of their body suits, and track their ammunition count on a display above each weapon. Additionally, your inventory opens up in real time via a holographic representation. This helps keep players immersed within the atmosphere because a Necromorph can attack at any given time. Much like in BioShock, the ship is littered with audio messages that detail things that have happened on the Ishimura. There are also messages written across the walls in blood, and notes Isaac keeps in a personal journal as well. All of these features help submerge gamers into the harsh world of Dead Space, something that isn’t always easy to achieve in the gaming industry.
Dead Space, unfortunately, isn’t without its problems. The navigation system sometimes tells the player to move forward and then backwards for no apparent reason. On the other hand, certain players may not like the chore of having to continually backtrack in order to complete objectives. While it makes absolute sense that you may have to search for a circuit board in a different part of the ship, sometimes the backtracking makes the Ishimura feel smaller than it actually is. Outside of these small quips, the only real technical issue seems to be the ability to stomp things with your boot that are out of reach.
An issue that isn’t relevant to the actual gameplay and more of a crippling effect on the game’s replay value is the way Redwood decided to set up the second playthrough functionality. While it’s awesome that you can replay the title with the same inventory as your original adventure through the Ishimura, it’s ridiculous that you must do so at the same difficulty level to retain that inventory. Considering you’re unable to max out everything on your original trip through the game, you’d think that Dead Space would allow you to progress Isaac Clark through tougher difficulties while still maintaining the possibility to maximize your inventory. This is a problem because it is hardly challenging to complete the game on the same difficulty setting when you already have a near-maxed out character. I feel they dropped the bomb with this decision and have truly crippled an offline-only experience by removing some of the potential incentive to play through the title once more.
Though Dead Space may be compared to BioShock in a stylistic sense, it’s in a league of its own when it comes to visuals. The developers have done a fantastic job of intricately detailing each segment of the Ishimura to be a tad creepier than the last. Whether you’re looking at the blood trails on the floor or the compartments that have had human remains literally strained through them, Dead Space is a sensory marvel that wholly engulfs you within its world. Furthermore, none of the chapters in the story ever feel like the last; each has a sense of individuality because of the careful design each section received. Isaac’s interaction with holographic messages are also visually believable because of the way you see him shaking his head and acknowledging what is being said. The character models are realistic enough to authenticate the experience, and the subtleties of your surroundings are only amplified by the audio provided.
You can tell the cast of actors in charge of each character’s voiceover cared about their role in the game, as the dialog is extremely impressive. That awkward feeling of forced conversation never arrives to cripple the flow of the title. When you combine this rare feat with the various sound effects of the weapons and the ship, you find yourself utterly entranced, ready to be frightened by whatever lies ahead.
EA’s Dead Space delivers in every conceivable way. Hop on board and see space like never before: dead.