Dead Space has a lot going for it. It offers an exciting Aliens-meets-Event Horizon story, has drop dead gorgeous graphics and has some of the best audio I've heard all year. It's also a fantastic controlling game that takes the survival horror genre to brand new locations. It has enough interesting weapons to keep you going and a solid group of voice actors. Yes, Dead Space has a lot going for it. But there's one thing it can't claim to be, and that's original.
It's easy to explain Dead Space; it's the exact cross between Resident Evil and last year's sleeper hit, BioShock. That's not hyperbole, just about every idea found in Dead Space was taken from either Resident Evil or BioShock. Not that this is a bad thing, both of those games are fantastic in their own right, and it's hard to fault somebody from wanting to ape some of the best (and creepiest) adventure games of all time. But at the same time the constant aping is so over the top and obvious that I would be insane for not noticing it.
But I digress; the story of Dead Space is right out of a modern day science fiction movie. You play Isaac Clarke, one of the unlucky people sent on a routine mission to repair its communications array. However, things are not as they seem. Almost immediately the crew is attacked by these freaky humanoid alien creatures, forcing everybody to flee and (surprise, surprise) splits you up from everybody else.
Upon further investigation Isaac learns (to his horror) that something very bad has happened to this large mining ship. This boat used to hold a thousand people, yet now there doesn't seem to be anybody alive. Worse yet, in their place are these aggressive aliens who don't seem to like your company very much. And these aren't just your regular old aliens, either. Oh no, these guys only seem to die when you shoot their limbs off, either their arms, legs, and even their head. From this point on Isaac is on his own in an attempt to find out what happened to his girlfriend, get rid of the aliens and uncover just what the heck is going on.
Throughout the course of this 10 hour game you will work your way all over this abandoned ship solving puzzles and shooting up bad guys. Through BioShock-style audio diaries you will learn what happened to the crew of this ship and where these monsters came from. You'll have to get your mind around a couple of major plot twists, and an ending that doesn't withstand scrutiny. All this while looking at some of the best visuals produced by the Xbox 360. If you're one of the many gamers who can't wait until Capcom releases Resident Evil 5 next spring, then Dead Space is the game for you.
You play the game from the third-person over-the-shoulder perspective, similar to that of Resident Evil 4. The game's big gimmick is in its combat. Unlike most zombie-infested survival horror games, Dead Space isn't about shooting at the body or the head. Instead you want to take off one of the limbs. You can do this with a whole host of different weapons, from your standard Plasma Cutter (which works like a handgun, only with the added bonus of firing three shots), the Pulse Rifle (an incredibly destructive machine gun), the Ripper (a hover saw blade), the Force Gun (basically a shotgun) and more. From beginning to end, the whole game revolves around shooting off different limbs, so it shouldn't surprise you that all of the enemies (including the bosses) have numerous limbs to blow off. There's something strangely rewarding about shooting off hundreds (maybe even thousands) of different limbs while searching for your missing girlfriend.
Another thing that sets Dead Space apart from other survival horror games is its lack of a heads-up display. Everything that would normally adorn the top of the screen has been placed either on your ugly space suit or on the gun itself. For example, your life is displayed via a blue bar running up the character's spine, your bullets are displayed using a futuristic holographic display right above the weapon, and so on. This holographic display business goes way passed showing ammo; you will also communicate with the other survivors using a video screen that pops up right in front of your face. This means that you can actually get stuff done while you're having a conversation, such as fighting bad guys and picking up fallen loot. The fact that you still have control and can continue your adventure while these "cinemas" are going on is really a great idea, especially after coming off of playing the Metal Gear Solid games.
The other big addition to the survival horror genre is the location itself, a space station. Obviously this isn't the first game in this genre to take you to space (Dino Crisis 3 and Run Like Hell spring to mind), but Dead Space is the first to truly get it right. Each part of the ship is spooky in its own way, and there's a surprising amount of attention to detail in this world. In a lot of ways the world reminded me of Rapture, BioShock's underwater dystopian world. Obviously this game isn't going for the same atmosphere, but it's hard not to think of Andrew Ryan's new world when you see the destroyed environments and fake advertisements plastered on the walls.For the most part the space station doesn't feel all that different from your normal haunted house; however there are moments when the game breaks free and goes in a brand new direction. One example of that is when you get to step outside of the ship. Not only do you have to worry about running out of oxygen, but you also get to fly around in zero gravity. Being able to leap dozens of feet and land on what would be the ceiling is really a lot of fun, and it adds a lot to this tried and true horror game formula.
I can't accurately talk about Dead Space without mentioning the games that clearly inspired it. I am, of course, talking about Resident Evil and BioShock. Although the story is set in space, there's no doubt that the game is taking its cues straight from the Resident Evil plotlines. What's more, the narrative is taken directly from BioShock, one of last year's best games. Throw in some similar plot devices, transportation, telekinesis power, and achievements and you have a game that is a little too similar to BioShock for comfort. Unfortunately what isn't taken from BioShock is probably taken from Resident Evil; I couldn't help but feel like I had seen many of the best elements in other survival horror games.
As I played through the game I was somewhat conflicted, while I was certainly having a lot of fun, I couldn't overlook how derivative Dead Space is. It's not just elements from popular video games, either. Some of the game's plot devices are reminiscent of some of Hollywood's biggest horror films. If you're a fan of Sci-Fi movies then you'll likely see at least one or two of the big twists coming a mile away. In the end I can't say that any of this took away from the overall experience, but I wish I could say more about all of the brand new innovations this game brought to the survival horror genre.
What kept me going was the great sense of pacing and the interesting (albeit generic) plotline. Maybe I'm just a sucker for a scary story, but the game's unique location and great cast of villains kept me on the edge of my seat. Every element of this game is spot-on, from the fantastic voice acting to the stunning visuals to the way you get sucked into the struggle of these people. It's all done surprisingly well, which is even more impressive when you consider that this is Electronic Arts' first stab at this genre. It's clear that the developers of Dead Space have been taking notes of the other recent horror games.
Not enough can be said about the game's impressive visuals. Now that the Xbox 360 is nearing its third birthday, I figured I was done being wowed by silky smooth graphics. I was wrong. Even though much of the game is dark, you can still see the impressive attention to detail found throughout the ship. Where the game excels is when you're standing in front of a huge window and you can see the rest of the solar system. Or when you're stepping outside of the ship and watching the oxygen get sucked out of the room. Or when you're battling one of the enormous bosses. Or when you have one of the gooey alien monsters jumping right into your face. There are dozens of these examples, each one permanently etched into my memory. I could go on for the next three paragraphs talking about all of the little things that make this game look so good, but you have no idea how great the visuals are until you see it up close and in person.
It would be enough for the game to just look good, but it also features one of the best soundtracks of the year. The game is filled with haunting incidental music, the type of thing you would hear from a big budget Sci-Fi film. But even more impressive are all of the sounds that accompany the music, from the dozens of different alien noises to how powerful all of the weapons sound. And that goes for when you're outside, too. The moment you walk outside of the ship you are met with a claustrophobic muted noise, the kind of sound that you can barely hear but you know is there. It's an incredible effect that makes you feel the difference (and the danger) of being outside. Dead Space is one of the few games where the audio can give you an almost visual experience.
On top of the great graphics, amazing audio and ten hour story, you get a game that feel comfortable and precise. It's always easy to aim your gun and the buttons never feel awkward. Even when you're forced to hold down two buttons at the same time, the control scheme somehow feels natural. It's nice to see that Resident Evil 4's over-the-shoulder gameplay is being imitated, that was really a great change to the survival horror genre.
At the end of the day Dead Space isn't doing anything especially new or noteworthy, but the things it does it does exceptionally well. For a lot of people this game is going to come out of nowhere, but once they see it they're going to be impressive with how polished and solid this experience is. The game sets up a great story, and even though I have some misgivings with the ugly space suit and the twisted ending, I still feel that this is the best survival horror game since Resident Evil 4.