I’m a big fan of survival horror. I like testing my survival instincts against all sorts of hideous enemies. It can, however, get fairly repetitive as a genre. Zombies are always the No. 1 enemy, and everybody knows that against zombies, headshots are the best way to go. It’s exciting, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve done it plenty of times before. Dead Space manages to give me all the horror I can handle in a brand new way.
Dead Space is a third-person shooter. You play as Isaac Clarke, a ship’s engineer onboard a shuttle headed to the USG Ishimura, a “Planet Cracker” mining ship. The Ishimura has sent out a distress signal, but as you attempt to dock, your shuttle is damaged in an accident, forcing you to seek shelter on the Ishimura. The mining ship at first appears empty; however, it is filled with enemies known as necromorphs. These are the mutated corpses of the crew, transformed from human beings into hideous blade-limbed monsters intent on slaughter. Any concern over the fate of the Ishimura pales in comparison to simply escaping with your life. Fortunately, Isaac has his engineering rig, a heavy-duty space suit with built-in engineering capabilities, and whatever weapons he can scavenge from the Ishimura.
Dead Space puts an interesting spin on combat. When fighting zombies, the headshot generally is king; nothing takes down zombies quicker. In Dead Space, headshots are worthless. Several times I let rip with a headshot in a panic, and the monster’s head would come completely off. This wouldn’t even slow it down; it would still come charging in, blades on the ends of its arms swinging. You are told early on, by both your companions and warnings scrawled on the walls in blood, to sever their limbs. The arms and legs (and in some cases tentacles) of the enemies can be blown off, resulting in substantially more damage than a standard shot. When injured, the enemies will change their attack patterns to reflect the mutilation you’ve inflicted on them. An enemy with no legs will continue to crawl forward to slice you, while an enemy with no arms will press in to bite. This makes for a completely different style of play than you get with the majority of survival horror games.
By far, my favorite part of Dead Space was the weapons. Isaac is an engineer and a pilot; he is not a warrior. He is forced to use the items and schematics he finds throughout the Ishimura to defend himself. The plasma cutter is a pistol-like device that fires a beam of energy that cuts through rocky materials and is perfect for cutting the limbs off necromorphs. The flamethrower is made by adjusting the flow on an acetylene torch. The only actual weapon he gets is a pulse rifle, capable of throwing out an obscene amount of shots in a short period of time. Ironically, I found this to be one of the least useful weapons due to its inability to effectively sever limbs.
Each weapon also has a secondary fire mode. The plasma cutter can be turned sideways, making it much easier to cut an enemy off at the knees. The pulse rifle can fire in a 360-degree rotating spray. Others can lay mines or set an area on fire. The secondary fire modes open a lot of new options for the weapons Isaac finds. The weapons can also be upgraded using power nodes that you either find or buy on the ship. By using the power nodes at workbenches scattered throughout the ship, you can increase a weapon’s reload speed, ammunition capacity, damage and more.
I have to make a special note here about my favorite weapon: the ripper. The ripper is described as “a remote-controlled industrial saw.” When I first read the description for this, I was incredibly curious as to how it would work. It fires a circular saw blade to a point about 10 feet in front of the gun where it just hovers. You can then work it back and forth and up and down. It’s awesome. I would actually have my friends come over so I could fire up the game just to show off this weapon. It’s an incredibly original idea, and it’s quite effective in-game. Whenever I was charged by an enemy, I would fire the ripper out at knee height, lopping off my enemies’ legs. I’d then work it over their arms, cutting them into pieces in short order. It’s brutal, and it’s everything you could hope for from a survival horror weapon.
Isaac’s rig has some useful abilities. It provides him with a limited amount of oxygen in case he is exposed to a vacuum or other hazardous environments. It has a stasis module that can slow time for a brief period. This can help give Isaac an advantage when fighting necromorphs, especially if Isaac is being attacked by multiple enemies. It can also be used to avoid environmental dangers like malfunctioning doors or live electricity.
The rig also provides Isaac with a kinesis ability enabling him to pull distant items to him and fire them back out. During combat you can fire debris, explosive barrels, even body parts at enemies to cause damage. The kinesis module is also used for puzzle solving, enabling Isaac to move incredibly large objects. The rig also has magnetized boots. Some areas of the ship have lost their artificial gravity. In these areas Isaac can leap around the room, and his magnetic boots will grip him to the walls and ceiling, giving him access to areas that would be impossible to reach if the gravity were functioning.
One thing I really liked is that Dead Space has no heads-up display. Instead, all information is relayed to the player through on-screen clues. The weapons have ammo counters on them, and Isaac’s health bar is represented by a meter on the back of his rig. Even the inventory meter and video communications are projected from the rig into the space in front of Isaac. If you pan the camera around while using those, you’ll see that they are two-dimensional projections and can even be viewed from the back. These are some nice touches that I think really help increase the player’s immersion into Dead Space’s creepy environment.
Unfortunately, the story of Dead Space can be a little difficult to get into. It takes quite a while to get any explanation as to what the necromorphs are and why they are on the ship. You are simply told to go and fix one problem after another (such is the life of an engineer, I suppose). Each event seems rather scripted as well, following a standard format of “Fix this and then we can escape” followed by “Oh no, now there’s a new problem to deal with.” This is a fairly minor complaint, though, as there are enough story points to keep you interested, and the action is incredibly good.
I tend not to notice the sound of a game very much. Unless there is something terribly wrong with it that jars me out of the game, the music and sound effects just tend to fade into the background for me. Dead Space is an exception to that, though. I was playing it in the basement, forcing my wife to watch the first bit of it. She kept saying to me “What’s that sound? I heard something upstairs, go check it out.” After the third time of checking upstairs, we realized that it was actually the sound effects for the game. The groaning and creaking of the Ishimura combined with the screams of the necromorphs really helps to heighten the level of terror you feel.
Dead Space is a great survival horror game. It’s a solid buy for the mature survival horror gamer who’s looking for some good, splattery action. Best of all, it takes some of the standard conventions of the genre and turns them around to make something new and original.
Survival might be just a little harder this time around.
I like a wide variety of games. I’m great at action and rpg games. I tend to be too much of a perfectionist with first person shooters and stealth games. I’ll spend 20 minutes in a level, only to reset it the first time a guard sees me. Platformers aren’t really my thing, I think the technology has better things to offer than that now. And I don’t do sports games.
I love games with a good story. I’ll play for hours just trying to get to the next plot twist. In a perfect world, I’d be writing my own video games someday