Terror is an emotion not often associated with video games. While there have been games in the past that invoke fear, very rarely does an interactive experience truly chill you to the core of your being. Dead Space is a brand new IP from EA that takes players on a rollercoaster ride of horror that is nearly impossible to put down. Sure it may borrow heavily from many places such as Event Horizon, Resident Evil and even the critically-acclaimed BioShock, but it meshes everything together so well that it becomes an experience that is easily game of the year material. If you only take a chance on one unknown game this holiday season, Dead Space is easily my most recommended.
You are tossed into the role of Isaac Clarke, an engineer on his way to a routine repair prompted by an enigmatic transmission from a ship known as the Ishimura. The plot thickens when you learn that Isaac has a more personal set of reasons to be on this mission including friends and someone very close to him being on the ship. Upon docking the Ishimura things go awry and you are suddenly stranded aboard a ship in the depths of space that has no power, no form of communication and a disconcerting atmosphere permeating from every vent shaft.
Much like any good horror or suspense movie the game starts off slow-paced, bringing you into the action and giving you background on the characters. The voice acting is done surprisingly well and you can begin to get a sense of each personality from the dialogue alone. Early on you are separated from your core team and sent on a mission to get things back up and running, which is when you first encounter the Necromorphs, a breed of creatures that appear to have human traits mixed with those straight out of John Carpenter’s The Thing. From here you embark on a substantial single-player affair spanning twelve missions and lasting anywhere from 12-15 hours depending on difficulty level and how much exploring you choose to do.
As I mentioned earlier the biggest draw to Dead Space is the pacing of the story. Not unlike BioShock the developers have done a remarkable job of keeping you immersed in the experience. Most of this is achieved by taking away inventory screens and making everything available to the player at the touch of a button. You bring up your inventory by tapping one button and instead of going to a menu you get a holographic projection of all the items in your stash. Your health meter is located on your back as is your stasis energy (which is used to slow down objects and enemies) so you never have to question when the right time to use a health pack is.
The story is also progressed through audio diaries and videos scattered throughout the environment. Picking them up will cue dialogue and back story on just exactly what happened on the ship. You will rarely find yourself watching a cut scene although I recommend not wandering too far around the environment while these are playing as you are never far from the dangers lurking around the Ishimura. This immersion is only interrupted when you happen to die, which in turn takes you to a loading screen. I have heard several complaints about the length of this action, but honestly it never detracted from my excitement to get right back into the game. Thankfully the game is so well-paced that you never feel cheated in death, but more like it was your own fault.
The combat and weapons system will feel familiar to anyone who has played Gears of War or even Resident Evil 4. The action takes place from a third-person over-the-shoulder perspective with left stick for movement and the right for camera movement. Pulling the left trigger takes you into aiming mode and even here the immersion continues. There is a small display that shows ammo count as well as a flashlight to illuminate those dark corridors. You also have two melee attacks that can come in handy in tight situations. Tapping the right trigger when not in aiming mode causes Isaac to swing his arm at enemies, while pushing the bumper instigates a ground stomp. The latter is best used for smashing boxes with goodies inside, but neither is recommended for the bulk of your combat arsenal.
The weapons in the game are very inventive and fun to use, including the base firearm the Plasma Cutter. Each weapon uses distinct ammo types and has various outcomes. The rifle is best for mowing down multiple enemies with quick bursts of ammo while the flame thrower is great for taking down massive onslaughts of smaller enemies. A personal favorite of mine called The Ripper, sends spinning saw blades in front of you that you can manipulate to slice enemies into giblets of glory. The weapons are all designed to allow you to dismember your foes, which is a good thing because that is what takes them down faster.
In addition to your arsenal you also have two powers that will aid you in combat as well as puzzle solving. The first is your stasis ability, which allows you to slow down objects and enemies giving you a chance to mow them down at will. Think of it as bullet time on one object and you get the picture. This is also handy for certain puzzles that require you to manipulate fast moving objects with the greatest precision. The second power is kinesis and much like you would imagine it comes in handy more often than not. You can literally pick up almost anything in the environment and toss it across the screen with ease. This is also used to various puzzles breaking up the monotony of moving corridor to corridor simply blasting baddies.
Everything at your disposal is also upgradeable including both of your powers. There are stores scattered around the levels that allow you to move items into your safe, purchase new ones and even sell extra items found in the game. Collecting credits from lockers and enemies gives you a chance to buy new weapons after you have found the corresponding schematic in the game. You can also obtain new suits here that give you more armor and inventory slots. The work bench is used to upgrade everything in the game and requires power nodes. Power nodes can be found in secret areas or purchased through the store. These are actually rare so use them wisely. It is also worth noting that you should always keep one extra node on you at all times as there is usually one room that requires on and the rewards inside are more than worth your time and effort.
The bulk of the game takes place on one massive ship (no worries though Dino Crisis 3 this isn’t) and every area feels unique thanks to the great level design. Each level is broken down into a new area of the ship with each chapter increasing in length and complexity just enough to keep you on your toes. The campaign lasts roughly 12-15 hours, which seems to be the sweet spot. There is no multi-player to speak of, but in all honesty this is the type of game that doesn’t need it t warrant a purchase. The visuals found aboard the Ishimura are certainly crisp. The amount of detail is incredible and the subtle effects such as the blurring of the camera when moving into zero-gravity really stand out. Frame rate is rock solid and the audio is simply terrifying. Music is all but absent but the ambience will send shivers down your spine when playing on the proper setup. Personally I recommend a solid set of headphones and a do not disturb sign.
Dead Space is the type of game that people will talk about five years from now about just how good it really was. The experience itself is more than worth the price of admission and when you throw in the fact that the game executes nearly flawlessly on so many levels it is hard not to recommend this game to anyone who enjoys a good horror/action title. There are very few games that capture your imagination and immerse you into the experience as well as Dead Space does and for that I have already tapped it as one of my top five for the year and strong candidate for game of the year. If you have even the slightest interest in the genre you owe it to yourself to play Dead Space.