When word first got out that Dead Space Extraction, the Wii-exclusive prequel to last year’s survival horror hit, was going to be an on-rails shooter instead of a third person game, I admit to being pretty disappointed. How could a rail shooter ever be as scary as the first game? Would it be campy like The House of the Dead? Would the presentation live up to the high production values established by Isaac Clarke’s nightmarish journey through the USG Ishimura? I’m a big fan of the original Dead Space but I assumed that EA was following the lead of another horror series, Resident Evil. After receiving a great port of RE4, the Wii has gotten nothing but on-rails shooters from the series, with the official reason being that this genre was easier for the casual audience to get into.
That’s all well and good for the casuals, but for gamers like me who loved the first Dead Space and want to see it branch off onto the Wii, it looked like EA was just dumbing the series down and cranking out a spinoff to make a quick buck. I quickly moved Dead Space Extraction to the bottom of my “to play” list.
I guess I shouldn’t make assumptions. Let’s get this out of the way first: Extraction is not
a cash grab, a weak spinoff or a bone being condescendingly tossed to Wii gamers. It’s a professionally produced, skillfully developed and cleverly plotted prequel to last year’s scifi horror success. I’ve played through it and Dead Space fans are going to love it.
Visceral Games helmed this one themselves—Extraction wasn’t farmed out to some understaffed studio accustomed to churning out Wii minigames, but developed by the creators and curators of the Dead Space franchise. Even the menus are identical; you’ll feel right at home from the intro screen onward.
After listening in on a conference call
with the Visceral guys I could tell they were committed and enthusiastic about the project too; spurned hardcore Wii owners can rest assured that these people were serious about giving the Wii a genuine Dead Space experience. Still, the question remains: why such an abrupt transition to a different genre? In the end it’s all about story.
The developers said that one of the main goals behind Extraction was to tell an engaging story that made you feel like a player in a horror film, not the lone survivor but part of an unlikely team of them trying to find their way out. The story also had to paint in the immense quantity of back story that was merely insinuated in Dead Space. After finishing Extraction and playing through the first game again to refresh my memory, I understand where Visceral was coming from.
Isaac Clarke’s ordeal was very task oriented—Kendra and Hammond only bothered talking to you when they had a job for you to complete. Dead Space was about surviving the catastrophe, thinking about the matters at hand to get out alive and piecing together the reasons for the disaster later from logs and hints. Extraction is all about origins, how things got started and how the various factions are involved, represented in the four core characters. The end result is a very different kind of horror experience, a more immediate and active one, but it is no less Dead Space than its predecessor. You’ll still find crew logs (the audio recordings are played back through the Wii remote’s speaker) but a great deal more of the plot is happening around you.Visceral has broken up this plot between ten chapters, and you start out as one of the hapless miners excavating the red Marker, the “holy” relic that gave Isaac so much trouble in Dead Space. As we all know unearthing the Marker touches off the disaster, beginning with widespread dementia and later the Necromorph infestation. The first chapter acts as a control tutorial as the miners stumble through the base in the first aftershock. The basic controls are what you’d expect from a rail shooter, but Visceral has implemented nearly all of the mechanics from Dead Space to make the game more interesting and faithful to the series.
Isaac’s two special abilities, stasis and kinesis, are standard equipment for all Aegis VII personnel, allowing you to freeze enemies with the former and interact with the world using the latter by grabbing items, opening lockers and occasionally moving objects. Unfortunately the game gives you very little time to react with the environment; a few fleeting seconds to examine a room in free-look, or just a split-second to smash a crate or grab some stray ammo.
Stasis recharges over time so you can use it tactically from firefight to firefight, instead of hoarding it until you can find a stasis pack. Twisting the Wii remote switches to your weapon’s secondary fire mode; it’s quite intuitive for changing the orientation of the plasma cutter. Extraction also adds a Gears of War-like active reload, letting you top off your gun quickly with a well-timed second press of the reload button. I kind of wish Isaac had this ability back in Dead Space—I can’t tell you all the times I’ve had my gun go dry and been subsequently eviscerated.
Extraction brings back all of the weapons from Dead Space and tosses in three new ones: a rivetgun with unlimited ammo but a small clip and slow rate of fire; the P-Sec pistol, the standard semi-auto firearm of Planetside Security; and an arc welder, which takes more skill to use than you’d think. You carry the rivetgun at all times but it isn’t simply the bottomless pistol of most rail shooters. Its slow-firing rivets force you to be accurate, and its secondary charge feature is even used to bolt barricades in place. The remaining weapons like the Line Gun, flamethrower, pulse rifle and contact beam function about the same, although the ripper has seen a welcome improvement. Moving the Wii remote lets you twist its kinetic saw blades and adjust their depth, making it a much more dynamic weapon. It’s one of the few accurate, functional uses of the Wii’s depth sensing I’ve seen since the console launched.
Extraction also differs from the standard zombie shooter by virtue of how you use the weapons: namely, strategic dismemberment. The grisly method for dispatching Necromorphs is carried over to the Wii largely unchanged—I could use most of my strategies from the first game just as effectively, and in a first person perspective it was actually a little easier. Most of the gruesome enemies make a return so Dead Space fans will be severing familiar alien appendages.
As the chapters progress the perspective switches between characters, and this is where Extraction tells a different kind of story with different scares than the first game. After the ill-fated miners flip out and kill one another you take control of Nate McNeill, a P-Sec detective investigating the spreading madness in the colony. As the situation falls apart he is joined by three other survivors—Gabe Weller, an old military comrade; Lexine Murdoch, a tragedy-stricken surveyor; and Warren Eckhardt, a pompous CEC executive.
It’s tough to do effective monster closet scares in a rail shooter (it’s fairly normal for monsters to be jumping out at you) so Visceral plays more with perceptions in Extraction. The creeping dementia that subconsciously plagued Isaac up until the twist ending is more overt this time. Each character deals with madness in increasing severity, hearing voices and shooting at things that aren’t there. It’s pretty creepy when one of your teammates starts freaking out and mumbling to themselves about something you can’t even hear. In one chapter you play as a side character who battles her guilt and hallucinations while falling back on her rationality as a scientist. I also liked how the Unitology cult is more present as well, seeding paranoia and distrust amid the cast. Is all of this scripted? Sure. But in some ways it’s more disturbing than the first game and the perspective makes it more personal.The perspective and even the flavor of horror may have changed but the visuals certainly haven’t. Fans expecting a drastically downgraded presentation will be surprised to see just how good Extraction looks. The Wii isn’t pushing the shaders we saw in the original game but aside from that, it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes. The Necromorphs animate, bleed and dismember just like they did in Dead Space, and the human character models are impressive too.
You see many of the locations and environments from the original recreated faithfully in Extraction, with atmospheric lighting effects, flickering holograms, bloom glow and sparking particles. Each character has a “glow worm” torch, activated by shaking the Wii remote like a cyalume stick. The green pallor it casts on the environment is spooky and very well done, but glow worm sequences are strictly scripted—I wish I could fire it up at will, considering the environments get pretty dark even when you can’t use it.
In between the nostalgic revisits to the excavation point, med bay, Ishimura bridge and hydroponics, you get to see more metropolitan areas of the colony including a town square beset by madness and mass suicide. A handful of zero-g sequences intersect the chapters and the dead silence is just as creepy and atmospheric as it was before.
Occasionally you’ll get some framerate chop but only when a ton of effects are happening on screen, and considering the original game would chug when I spammed the flamethrower I think a little slowdown is forgivable. It’s ironic, when playing through the original for the first time, I noticed that Visceral relied on clever geometry as much as GPU intensive effects to construct their world, and didn’t slather shaders over every surface like Epic did with Gears of War. At the time I thought such an approach would make Dead Space feasible on Wii, although I never expected it could turn out so well.
The audio portion is just as good as the first game, if not better. Visceral once again assembled an experienced voice cast and this time you get to hear a lot more from them. There are a few campy horror movie lines but the majority of the script is tight and well delivered. The orchestral score reminded me of Jerry Goldsmith’s “Alien” music, rising dramatically with the action and crawling unnervingly during tense moments.
Extraction’s bonus features start with a drop-in cooperative mode. A second player can fire up a Wii remote at any time, even sans-Nunchuk, and start dismembering Necromorphs. There are usually at least two armed characters in the party of survivors at any time, and while it’s never explicitly stated who the second player is controlling, co-op broadens the game’s accessibility and is a welcome addition. A separate challenge mode lets one or two players run through the chapters just blasting enemies. The story mode is rather plot-centric so it’s a nice switch to just shoot Necromorphs, and for gamers who finished both Dead Space and Extraction on impossible, challenge mode gets much harder on the higher difficulties. Rounding out the package are all six issues of the Dead Space action comic, and while they get a little too crazy with the bloom effect the comic does add even more background to the already rich story.
Even though Extraction is a very different animal than its predecessor it retains enough of its atmosphere and style to be completely true to the spirit of the series. The focus on character interaction makes the plot and action much more immediate—it’s terror through chaos and split-second decisions rather than terror through apprehension. Newcomers to Dead Space will love it because it’s an exciting, accessible entry to the series that highlights all the important aspects and acts as a great introduction. Fans of the first game will love it because it illuminates so much of the nebulous backstory that was only hinted at, and builds some satisfying connections directly to Dead Space and its characters. There are crew logs, lines of dialogue and moments in Extraction that will mean a lot more if you’re a big fan of the first game. To make another Aliens analogy, the first game was the haunted house and Extraction is the roller coaster. It’s like being in a scifi horror film as opposed to a survival horror game.
Still, I have to wonder where Dead Space is headed, in general and on the Wii. I really enjoyed Extraction but to be honest, I would like to see the series branch out of the rail shooter genre on the Wii, maybe a traditional FPS to preserve the dementia and tension we got in Extraction. I’d like to see some of the memorable characters in Extraction again (yes, at least some survive, though I’m not telling who!), but not in the same setting. The Aegis VII disaster and subsequent downfall of the Ishimura have been covered extensively in two games, an animated feature and a comic series, and I think it’s time to take the story and surviving characters somewhere else.
Maybe on the Wii? I certainly hope so. I’d love to see a Wii-exclusive interquel or side story that sets up the inevitable Dead Space 2. Perhaps the characters in Extraction could show up primarily on Wii, while Isaac handles the Necromorph infestation on the 360 and PS3.
Regardless of what they have planned, we know that Visceral Games is perfectly capable of creating a faithful Dead Space experience on the Wii hardware. I just hope the series has a future on the console.