HIGH Blowing monsters to pieces with futureguns is an incredibly relaxing way to spend an afternoon.
LOW The 'plot twist' is so cheap and laboriously telegraphed that when it's finally revealed it seems borderline insulting.
WTF Not being allowed to change difficulty levels during a New Game+. What's the point of keeping weapon upgrades if I can't use them on a harder playthrough?
Dead Space is set in the distant future, where thinly-veiled Scientology has become the most popular religion among humanity, imbuing its adherents with such a fervor to discover alien life that when they find a mysterious plinth on a distant mining planet, they choose to investigate it rather than just run for dear life, as any sensible person would do. Naturally, this expedition leads the miners both on the planet and in the refining ship above to be killed, consumed, and transformed into ‘necromorphs', which, if the name seems confusing, can best be described as the point where Aliens meet The Thing. This fleshy, bladed infestation shows up at exactly the right moment for the player, since they're controlling a technician out on a repair mission, which would have led to some dull gameplay had a third-person shooter not broken out.
Plot-wise, Dead Space is as generic as things can possibly get. All of the tenets of the genre are here—the treacherous teammate, the lost love, the crazed scientist who's somehow managed to convince himself that the mindlessly violent things with knives for arms that spew cancerous growths in every direction are somehow the next step in human evolution. The story is handled in a fashion that should be incredibly familiar to anyone who's ever played a survival horror game. All objectives are assigned by voices over a radio, and all backstory is meted out through crew logs left scattered around the ship's decks.
The art design is, by a wide margin, the game's most interesting feature. Not so much the enemies which, while effectively disgusting, aren't anything new. They're fairly generic as ‘corrupted humanity' themed villains go—only the bosses and a recurring ‘Nemesis'-style foe really stuck with me. No, the standout is the technology on display. The game's conceit is that the future is so utterly draped in holographic displays that HUDs are now unnecessary because the whole world has essentially become a cluttered video game screen. It's a great success, by and large, with guns offering glowing displays of their remaining ammo, and an interactive map hovering in midair. The one questionable element is the health bar running down the character's back—I'm not exactly sure what putting an indicator of someone's overall health in the one place visible only to someone hovering about five feet behind their right shoulder is meant to accomplish.
Another high point is the game's interesting use of its setting. Instead of just treating its spaceship like a boat or secret base, as so many other games have done, Dead Space goes out of its way to use some of its setting's more unusual possibilities. There are numerous zero-gravity areas, in which concepts like up and down cease to have meaning and the player is forced to leap from one flat surface to the next while battling enemies. Even more captivating are the areas without atmosphere, which the player has to get through quickly before their air supply runs out. These sections have some of the best sound design I've come across—since there's no traditional noise without air, all the player can ‘hear' are the slight muted noises that represent the vibrations traveling across metal floors and flowing up through the character's magnetic boots.
The game's combat is every bit as rock-solid as something that shamelessly rips off Resident Evil 4 ought to be. Aiming is a snap, and the ability to move while doing it frees the player up to fight tactically and use the environment to their advantage. The big tactical element that the game centers around is the idea that enemies can only be killed by having their limbs removed—the second they can neither move nor attack, they're nice enough to immediately die. It's this feature that cements Dead Space's place as one of the most absurdly gory games to come along in ages. This butchery is made somewhat simpler by the fact that the player has access to a ‘stasis gun' that temporarily create a slow-time field around anything it strikes. Time gimmicks are all the rage these days, but the stasis-gun is implemented well enough, both in giving the player a combat advantage and solving simple environmental puzzles, that it never feels tacked on.
While the game is extremely well-designed, it's not without its problems. First off, there's the fact that everything about it is extremely familiar, and although unoriginality isn't a crime, enough craft went into the gameplay and art design that a similar effort being put into the concept and storyline would have been nice. Also, there's the lack of a quick-180 button, which makes both fleeing and locating enemies fifty percent harder than it ought to be. Then there's the weapons, of which there are enough mistakes made that the discussion of them warrants an entire paragraph.
So then, the weapons. There's a wide variety of them available, which is the first problem. Players are generally given a variety of weapons to reflect either a variety of challenges or play styles. Unfortunately, there's only one challenge in the game—kill enemies—and only one way to do it, by removing their limbs. As a result, all eight of the game's weapons are essentially designed to perform the exact same task, so it's never a matter of the player choosing which weapon is best for a certain situation, but rather which one they like the best. Except for the flamethrower, which is so useless I can't believe it made it into the finished game. The really frustrating part is that enemy limbs aren't that easy to sever (except on Easy Mode, where they essentially seem to be spring-loaded), and all of the weapons start out offensively weak. Sure, they can be powered-up over the course of the game by obtaining upgrade cells, but over the course of a single trip through the game, the player will only have the opportunity to power up one or two of their weapons to the point where they're actually useful, which means that in order to even get a real taste of the game's arsenal, a player would have to go through the entire game three or four times.
Dead Space is completely competent action/horror. It's the perfect example of one company observing another company's success and aping it perfectly. What elevates Dead Space above the Cold Fears of the world is that it isn't satisfied with just copying the thing that inspired it. No, actual thought and craftsmanship went into making sure every part of the game was tight, tuned, and almost entirely hassle-free. This is the video game equivalent of a well-written beach novel or competently-made summer blockbuster. It's pretty and violent and even clever now and again. Lacking originality isn't a mortal sin, and it shouldn't keep anyone who likes action/horror games from giving this one a spin.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 20 was devoted to single-player modes (completed 3 times across all difficulty levels).
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, and strong language. If anything, the ESRB is too light in its warning. This game deserves its own new categorization: "Hypergory." There's literally not a minute that goes by without the player being asked to dismember an enemy that's recognizable as having once been human. Before you even consider procuring it for your children, ask yourself this—do I really want little Jimmy or Sally to freeze a mutant baby in place and then stomp it to death?
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You're going to have more than a few problems. Directions are given in text and dialogue is subtitled, but throughout the game enemies are always helpfully making noise to indicate when they're about to attack, and without that warning you can expect to get beaten pretty severely. Unfortunately, on the higher difficulties getting snuck up on tends to be an instant-death proposition, so be prepared for some frustration.
HIGH The game's final battle is pure spectacle.
LOW Realizing after four fetchquests that it probably wasn't going to get any deeper.
WTF I'm practically alone on a derelict cruiser and I still need to hoard money?!?
For the record, the only reason I bothered to finish Dead Space was so that I could review it without having to hear fans of the game wailing that I didn't play it all the way through. I knew after the first two hours that nothing at the end would redeem its shortcomings, but I had to push forward regardless, if only to deliver my criticisms with impunity.
Before getting to what's wrong, let me say what's right: the graphics. Dead Space is indeed a very attractive-looking game, with lots of detail everywhere and plenty of visual polish to spare. I also give the game points for the way they've integrated traditional HUD information into the character design. First impressions of the game are going to almost universally be good ones, since it's not until a player has spent some time with the title that the warts began to show.
In my opinion, Dead Space's biggest issue is that the gameplay boils down to walking down a series of corridors while killing aliens, flipping a switch or picking up an item, and then walking right back to where you started from, killing more aliens in the corridor you've just come down. The entire adventure is an unbroken string of menial fetch quests, making me feel more like an interstellar errand boy than someone fighting for survival.
Worse, these tasks are so false and banal that it was nearly impossible for me to remember what I was supposed to be doing or where I was supposed to be going without constantly checking my quest log and using the game's direction-finder. And really, it didn't even matter—all I needed to know was which hallway I was supposed to clear in order to progress the story. It's not until past the game's midway point that things start to get mildly interesting, but even then only in fits and starts. Dead Space is packed with boring, repetitive filler from start to finish, and its cumulative twelve hours of gameplay could have been condensed down to six, and been better for it.
Games with lackluster gameplay are nothing new, but they can sometimes be partially redeemed by great characters or an intriguing story. Dead Space has neither.
Failing on nearly every level, anyone who's seen more than three science-fiction films will be able to call out the generic and cliché elements that are the core of the plot, as Dan so ably noted. Exacerbating the cookie-cutter formula, the developers absurdly chose to make main character Isaac Clarke a silent protagonist, completely obliterating any chance of interesting characterization or dialogue. Clarke is (I guess) trying to rescue his loved one throughout the adventure, and multiple characters speak directly to him, but by not uttering a single word it's hard to feel anything or attach any sort of emotional weight to a man completely cloaked in esoteric fetish armor.
Grabbing beyond the sci-fi genre, Dead Space indulges in every survival horror trope as well. From constantly finding conveniently-placed audio and text logs, to ominous growling sounds when nothing's there, to endless monster-in-the-closet placements, to completely predictable "pull the switch, and then get ambushed" moments, everything that's supposed to be scary here has been done better in other games. The future-industrial level design is completely uninspiring as well, feeling not like a spaceship, but like a watered-down version of Doom 3 with a few more windows thrown in.
In addition to its severe lack of freshness, there are several incongruous or nonsensical elements that only serve to undercut the entire experience. For example, who thought it was a good idea to include a money and upgrade system? The main character is supposed to be an engineer on a high-tech ship, and he's got to deal with picking up credits and selling "diamond semiconductors" back to an automated store in order to buy the equipment he needs?
Also out of place are the "kinesis" and "stasis" powers. Feeling like nothing so much as some current-trend keeping up with the Joneses, both of these elements (responsible for moving objects from a distance and slowing time) are Dead Space's only efforts towards including puzzles to break up the combat, and they don't seem to fit thematically with the rest of what's been set up. So, Clarke is an engineer, but can move things with his mind and he can also stop time? That sounds handy, but where I'm from, technicians simply shut down the machines they're working on before they start repairs.
I also found it utterly baffling that the most interesting and appropriate segments of the game, the zero-gravity areas, were entirely too short and too few in number. A pity, since these novel segments could've been a real claim to fame if the game had centered more around them.
Finally, I also feel an obligation to mention EA's transparent effort to wring more dollars out of consumers by releasing a slew of insignificant mods and skins for download shortly after the game launched. I suppose I shouldn't let it bother me since these are completely optional and don't affect my evaluation of the retail release in any way, yet I can't help but feel that we are on the edge of an extremely slippery slope, and this is just one more piece of evidence in support of that. How long before developers start releasing full-priced games with half the content they should be shipping with, only to put "extra" bits that should have been included from the start up for sale on PSN or Xbox Live?
Dan's right when he says that Dead Space is the equivalent of a beach novel or competent summer blockbuster...although I think our levels of appreciation for such a thing are quite different. This has been a fantastic year for games, and as such, I think there is little room for titles who fail to bring something new and worthwhile to the table; should solid shooting mechanics and good looks be all we expect? If all of the fancy, high-gloss graphics were stripped away, what you'd be left with is something that feels a decade old and would be easily mistaken for one of the countless survival horror cash-ins that plagued consoles during the last generation. I suppose players who crave another go-round with this type of minimum requirement content can take Dead Space for what it is, but in my view, it isn't much.