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X3F Impressions: Dead Space review

Way back (by internet standards) in September 2007 when EA announced a new space survival horror game game called Dead Space, we couldn't help but roll our eyes in expectation of mediocrity. But over the course of a year, things changed.

Over time, we heard more about its intriguing story, its gruesome dismemberment, stunning visuals and were introduced to the iconic look of main character Isaac Clarke. Suddenly, bloggers and reporters were coming out of E3 giving it praise and were actually excited for EA's survival horror game. That's when a sense of excitement spread as Dead Space's potential was realized. I'm proud to say that after playing through the entire Dead Space campaign, the game delivers a gaming experience as expected. But not based on those early, mediocre 2007 expectations. No, Dead Space delivers on the higher expectations that were set during E3, treating gamers to a solid survival horror experience as was promised.

Dead Space puts you in the suit of one Mr. Isaac Clarke, a galactic engineer that's on a mission to investigate a mysterious distress call from the "planet cracking" ship, the USG Ishimura. After finding the distressed ship and failing to communicate, Clarke and crew dock, thinking that the Ishimura only needs some mechanical work. But mechanical failure isn't the Ishimura's only problem, an alien species known as the Necromorphs (think zombies mixed with arachnids that have spiky appendages) have infested the ship and they're out for blood. From then on you're thrust into a twisty turny plot to find out what happened to the Ishimura, where the Necromorphs came from, and - most importantly - survive the hellacious alien onslaught.

Jumping into Dead Space you'll be instantly drawn in, immersed by the game's visuals and overall feel. Each chapter in the game has its own highlights and own eerie tension. The textures are crisp, lighting is spectacular and there's plenty of realistic atmosphere effects. As far as audio, it too plays an important role in setting the game's mood. Painful groans, clunky metal doors and the screams of Necromorphs are all the norm. Aside from the environment, you'll soon realize there's a visual element that's missing. The heads up display (HUD). Dead Space has absolutely zero HUD, instead the devs chose to display health on the suit's spine and other vital info on Clarke's backside. Any other in-game components including video or inventory are holographically generated on a screen in front of Clarke. And before you raise your brow in pessimism, know that the HUD-less thing works surprisingly well. It adds to the overall immersion, gives the game that cinematic feel and is visually impressive.

(click to embiggen)

Now that your graphic, atmosphere and HUD concerns have been quelled, I should inform you that Dead Space is violent. Yup, it's gruesome in its dismemberment effects and is bloody violent enough to live up to its "intense violence" ESRB descriptor. Blood splatters the walls, Ishimura crew member body pieces are scattered about and Necromorph goo litters each chapter. When you succumb to the Necromorph onslaught, which will inevitably happen, expect to witness some nauseating Isaac executions. Death executions that make us wonder what horrible events happened in the developers' childhoods to warrant such graphic scenes.

When attempting to take on the Necromorphs your goal is to aim for their limbs. A head decapitation or body shot is actually less effective than an arm or leg. It isn't uncommon to see a headless Necromorph, no legs, dragging its body toward you only to be finished off with an arm popping shot. You'll also get the chance to pick apart a variety of Necros, everything from the fat and explosive to the tall and thin to those resembling tiny spiders. This Necromorph decapitation is what really sets Dead Space apart from other games and it's fantastically enjoyable. Almost too enjoyable, because I found myself popping off human and Necromorph heads just to watch them roll down the hall. I'm not sure what that says about my sanity, but that's another blog.

The limb dismemberment and all your other destructive deeds will be done with a diverse (albeit limited) mixture of weaponry. There's a flamethrower (totally useless), a gun that shoots saw blades (too fun), a Plasma Cutter (old trusty) and a few others. Each has two firing functions, giving each weapon two distinct ways of dealing out Necromorph pain. Note too that this isn't a run and gun, shoot everything in sight festival of gore, because ammo must be conserved. I learned that lesson the hard way, running out of ammo and resorting to smacking Necros with the Plasma Cutter. Let's just say boxing Necros isn't as successful as slicing 'em to bits. You also have the ability to upgrade your weapons to shoot faster, hold more ammo and deal out more damage.

(click to embiggen)

Your engineer arsenal also comes complete with two special powers, Stasis and Kinesis. Stasis gives you the ability to slow enemies when things get chaotic or can be used to make picking off Necromorph limbs easier. The supply of Stasis does deplete, so you'll have to refuel through store purchases or handy Stasis refill stations. The other power, Kinesis, gives Clark the ability to pick up and toss or slide objects. Especially useful in situations where you want to launch an explosive canister toward a creepy crawly Necromorph. What's neat about the two powers is that they're used to solve mini-puzzles. If there's a door malfunctioning - slamming open and closed uncontrollably - simply apply Stasis, slow the door down, and walk on through.

Another major facet of the gameplay is inventory management, which will either have people screaming for joy or frowning with disgust. I'm happy to report that both inventory supporters and the "I hate inventory management" folks should be satisfied. I say this because there is enough depth to the inventory and upgrade systems, yet it isn't thrown in your face and is relatively easy to use. Items in your inventory are found or purchased through the store kiosks where you'll spend your credits on ammo, health and upgrades. To gain inventory access, just pull up your suit's display (again, hologram-like display) where you can drop, add, and use items, look through your objectives, and use the 3D map to see where you're headed. Speaking of which, that 3D mini-map gave us a headache. So, instead I used Clarke's built in blue line navigation where, with the click of the right thumbstick, a blue line appears on the floor pointing you in the right direction.

Zero-G is another one of Dead Space's signature features and makes an appearance throughout the game. Zero-G gameplay happens when trekking outside the ship into space where you'll step into an environment that's free of gravity and full of floating limbs. Now, here's where it gets crazy. With the press of the "Y" button, you can launch Isaac onto the wall or ceiling which will then re-orient the camera making it so that the ceiling you just jumped onto is now the floor. This is an admittedly nauseating experience that takes some getting used to, but can guarantee your first Zero-G experience will be a memorable one.

So, how about those technical controls. Dead Space's control system is ... well, good. Not great, we'll go with good. The button mapping took us a bit to get used to, but everything else in terms of character control was solid and responsive. The biggest control gripe would be when action gets up close and personal where the camera decides to go all funny. It can turn into a very "clunky" experience.

(click to embiggen)

On the story side of things, I don't want to get too detailed and ruin your ride, I'll just say that I was both surprised and impressed. Going in, I expected a shallow sci-fi story, but after the journey through twelve chapters concluded, I went through a spectrum of emotions. At times adrenaline filled, other times confused, in awe at others and (of course) scared crapless the majority of the time. Character dialog is also top notch and the in-game cut scenes are artfully crafted, which only aids in creating that cinematic feel. Sadly, the progression of the story in Dead Space leads to gameplay that is full of backtracking. In context of the story itself it makes sense, but it doesn't lead to much variety in terms of gameplay. Know that you'll be visiting the same area multiple times, collecting objects and completing various missions in the same locations. Oddly enough, I didn't mind the backtracking thanks to the immersive story and Necro killing. I sort of blocked it out and enjoyed the experience. But that's just me.

Also, don't think for a moment there isn't more to the game's story than has already been presented, because there's a bit more to discover. I'm not saying everyone will be engaged with how everything unfolds, I'm just saying there's more than what's at the surface. Trust that Dead Space was formed around the story and EA's goal was to build a franchise, so it's more than just killing aliens in space.

There you have it, our impressions of Dead Space. What more can be said? I loved it, even with the sometimes awkward camera controls and constant backtracking, I enjoyed the entire ride. The over the top gore, impressive graphics, entire atmosphere, engaging storyline, Issac's badass suit and creatively executed boss battles. It was a complete single player experience that satisfied and one I recommend you give a try. Admittedly, there isn't any multiplayer to add to its longevity and re-playability is limited to a newly unlocked difficulty level and some achievement hunting, but you get what you pay for: a solid single player experience. If you're cool with that (I'm talking to the BioShock loving fanboy) then give Dead Space a purchase. It's a top notch experience and it doesn't disappoint.

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