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Dead Space (Xbox 360) artwork

Dead Space (Xbox 360) review

"Dead Space does not start out slow, as in cold blood slowly trickling down the hull-plating in low gravity. But simply slow. In fact, nothing happens. During the introduction, the main character sits completely still. Presently the ship you're on spins slightly dramatically out of control because of a malfunctioning autopilot, while a video of our hero's apparently desperately dying wife is playing in the background, and as a small mutiny is shaping up between the ensign and the captain - and ou..."

Dead Space does not start out slow, as in cold blood slowly trickling down the hull-plating in low gravity. But simply slow. In fact, nothing happens. During the introduction, the main character sits completely still. Presently the ship you're on spins slightly dramatically out of control because of a malfunctioning autopilot, while a video of our hero's apparently desperately dying wife is playing in the background, and as a small mutiny is shaping up between the ensign and the captain - and our hero sits completely motionless, nodding his head once in a while.

I really can't blame him, though, since the story wouldn't win any awards except in "science fiction clichés" and forced game-mechanical instructions masquerading as plot-drivers.

Then follows the tutorial level, which is equally harrowing. But it introduces you to the game's controls, the two different walk-modes: "skulk" and "panic", as well as the hud-less interface.

While we sit still and wait for the rest of the review to happen, I should probably point out that the screen is not completely free of hud-interfaces. Your hero's life bar is a light green tube running along your back up to the neck, embedded in a somewhat rusty full body suit slightly reminicent of a medieval armor. Yet it fits perfectly with the level-design and the art-direction - this pass-over between glittering advanced technology and rusty metal. If the green bar disappears completely, our hero has violently died. Your "energy" for spending on various techniques familiar to people who have played System Shock or Bioshock (but which are not explained within Dead Space’s universe) is a light green half-moon gauge on the side. But the gauges aren’t obvious when you are sneaking around the levels, and instead help you orient yourself in 3rd person when the streaks of yellow and red light washes across the dimly lit rooms in terribly forboding ways.

We now return to the rest of the review. So most of the hud has been masked away, and any crosshairs and menus have been replaced with projected lights and holographic screens. When walking slowly ahead in the dark with a mini-map sprouting from your wrist, or when aiming along the laser-sights, this simply takes you into the game in a way that solid overlays wouldn't. And this, along with the very clever perspective distortion when turning, made me catch myself twisting my head towards a sound a few times - since the game really tricked me into seeing the scene from the eyes of the hero, much more than from a disembodied eye stalking the hero’s neck.

The drawback is that the controls are not as accurate and fast, and instead force you to move more deliberately ahead. The same is the case for shooting - you need to conserve ammo in the game, even when playing on the easiest difficulty, and be strategic when crippling the slowly moving targets. Meaning the pacing of the game matches the control setup, slow and deliberate. But this is also where the game picks up speed, and the action becomes intense.

That is not because of "cheating" by invisible spawn-points inserted behind you (when waiting for a door to mysteriously stop malfunctioning), or because of the mandatory elevator cutscenes (as a monster tries to force the door open). But instead because walking down a hallway is a terrific and detailed experience on it's own. The shadows run down the rusty and broken hull-plates, the light stabs through the dust - and when a monster charges you, you have the perfect amount of time to frenetically attempt to aim at it's limbs. If you stress to much and fail, you can follow up with a few desperate melee swings. If luck wills it, you will hit one of the monster’s limbs and cripple it. Does it still move, though? Maybe it will leap out and stab you through the helmet? Our hero bashes it with a stomp-move until the bits stop moving, and then gathers his breath in the eerie silence that follows.

This part of the game is set up so well that it carries the title on it’s own. Some of the scripted encounters are very clever, of course - whether it is shooting down incoming asteroids until the auto-targeting system can take over, or if it is skulking for your life outside the main ship’s hull in zero gravity, launching from surface to surface while the perspective rotates around you. You also have the game’s variant of quick-time events, as you use the game’s normal controls to aim and shoot a vulnerable joint on a limb suddenly stabbing through the ship’s hull to take you away somewhere. There is some repetition, but the game keeps throwing something new at you fairly often. And because the solid (if simple) walking and movement mechanics are so successful, these segments isn’t what you look forward to - they simply add variety (and sheer horror).

So this walking mechanic and the close level-design wrapping it is a strong part of the game, and it is extremely well excecuted. The surrounding narrative, on the other hand is not quite so well done. If you have played System Shock, the build-up from reading and listening to previously recorded logs is familiar - as is the “super-powers” our hero has access to, even though they are not quite explained within Dead Space’s universe - but the story is disappointing and slowly moving, owing to an unfortunate amount of filler, and excuses for giving the hero a new challenge or new powerup (or game-mechanic): as mentioned, it is the close encounters and navigation through the levels that carry the narrative in Dead Space, not the surrounding story-telling (however well written the sentences are - dammit, Warren Ellis, what happened here?).

It is difficult for me to really conclude whether this is a good or a bad thing for the game, though - on the one hand, the close narrative really is so good that it does not need distracting talk except to remind you that there are humans on the ship. It also takes no less talent to weave these close segments as well together as they are in Dead Space, than it does to write a good surrounding narrative that lingers in your mind long after the disc lies forgotten in the attic somewhere. But it really is that interactive part of the narrative in games that will impress you the most - so it is probably an efficient choice to not let the story-telling connect with the action from segment to segment.

But on the other hand, I keep thinking about how much better the game would be if we were presented with a clear antagonistic will shaping your actions, rather than simply a series of random encounters - however terrifying and panic-inducing these are.

Suddenly, a panel blows open, venting the oxygen into space. Our hero now has 120 seconds to find an airlock to escape to a different module. On the right, there is empty space, the rotating stars pointing out that the ship is not in a stable orbit. On the left, debris blocks your way. Our hero makes a few dismayed wheezes through the helmet as the oxygen levels sink, before taking a leap to an adjacent panel outside on the ship’s hull. As the camera rotates to your new perspective, you see two monsters crawling out of a hatch towards you. The firefight that follows is silent, save for the thumps as clawed limbs bounce off the metal hull. The oxygen is still lower now, as you run towards safety in the direction the mini-map highlights. Our hero reaches the door, eventually, pulling the seal open, only to find another stabbing horror inside. Flailing at it with his arms, two blows connect and stuns the creature. Giving our hero enough time to aim the plasma cutter to the monster’s head.

Throughout the ordeal, our hero doesn't make much noise. But I know that underneath the mask, Isaac is screaming like a little girl.

Dead Space is a third-person horror game presented in grey and brown colour-pallettes beneath luminescent holo-screens. It should take you about 10 late hours to play through the game.


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Community review by fleinn (September 06, 2010)

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