Dead Space (PlayStation 3) review
"When it (Dead Space) sticks to its more original ideas; the zero-g environments, the severing of limbs with unique weapons, the lack of ammo, etc. it works very well. But it doesn’t capitalize on these innovations as it should. "
Dead Space is a game with an identity crisis. It wants to be RE4 in space, it wants to be Bioshock (in space), it wants to be Alien, The Thing, Event Horizon, Pitch Black, Sunshine, you name it, Dead Space wants to be it. But by trying to do everything, does it have enough originality to separate it from the rest of the sci-fi horror pack?
The game is set aboard USG Ishimura, a terra-forming "planet cracker" that's having a spot of communication troubles, so your character, Isaac (whose name is easily the wussiest thing about him) and his team are sent in to investigate. Oh, and Isaac's girlfriend is on board too, because just doing his job isn't motivation enough apparently.
The core of Dead Space lies in its combat. This is good, as it's one of the best things about the game. Much has been made of the "strategic dismemberment" system, where cutting off enemy limbs creates all new animations and attack patterns for the enemies. It's not just a detail, but rather the core of the combat as hitting an enemy's body or head results in very little damage. You HAVE to slice off their limbs. Doing so is extremely gratifying. I was particularly fond of cutting enemies off at the knee, then finishing them off as they'd crawl towards me. It makes you look at enemy encounters in a new light, and that is perhaps Dead Space's crowning achievement.
There's a great selection of weapons as well. Most of which are unlike the normal weapons we see in these sorts of shooters. The default plasma cutter shoots a blade (of plasma) that can be shot either horizontally or vertically, whichever is best for slicing off the limb in question. Other weapons include the ripper, which uses spinning saw blades that can be shot out or controlled remotely at close range, or the line gun, which sends out a very wide horizontal beam or plants an explosive timed mine depending on which form of fire you use. While the first couple levels get off to a bit of a slow start and you'll find yourself relying solely on the plasma cutter, you'll soon find that ammo for all weapons is scarce, so you'll have to mix it up a bit. Experimenting with different guns on different enemies is one of the greatest joys Dead Space offers.
There's more to it than simple shooting, though. You also have “stasis” and “kinesis” i.e. slow-mo and telekinesis respectively. I couldn't find a whole lot of use for kinesis outside of puzzles, except for the rare moment when I'd be able to grab an explosive canister or enemy sac and toss it back at the riff-raff, but stasis is invaluable as it makes severing those hard to reach limbs manageable. These are available to you in addition to your guns at the press of a button, so you really have a lot of different ways to deal with enemy encounters, making for some tense skirmishes.
While Isaac is far tougher than he has any right to be, the game does do a rather good job at making you feel vulnerable. Much of this is due to the fact that you can level up by cashing in power nodes, but nodes are scarce and each individual power up sounds woefully underwhelming. For example, your ammo capacity for the line gun may go from 5 to 6. Big whoop! Even if you collect all the nodes in the game, you'd barely have enough to max out just one weapon. You'll also have regular currency to buy items, but they don't come cheap. Figuring out how to spend your money and level up can be maddeningly difficult if you're an indecisive bloke like me, but I mean that as a compliment. It made me worry "am I making the right choice" which created more anxiety than any of the "necromorphs." It's ironic that by allowing you to level up, it makes you feel less badass as it only confirms how much stronger you could be. It also helps with the replay value as you could go through again trying a different leveling up strategy.
Aside from "strategic dismemberment," Dead Space's other big innovation to the genre is its zero-gravity environments. These bits of the game are extraordinarily disorienting in all the right ways. In these areas, you can point your aiming reticule at a surface, hit the triangle button, and voila, you'll jump straight to that spot. It doesn't always work, though, as the game can be fussy about what surfaces you can stick to. Thankfully, such occurrences are rare.
Especially great are the set-pieces that take place outside the ship. You won't have oxygen, so these sequences are timed, but the brilliant thing about them is their presentation. Without oxygen, the sound dies out, your flamethrower won't work, and everything takes on a pale blue sheen. It's wonderfully atmospheric. These sections are where Dead Space feels like something we haven't seen a million times before. The game is all the better for it. The down side: these sections are few and far between.
So with action so great, how is it that Dead Space is such a slog to play through? Usually the devil is in the details, though here it's just the opposite. The details of the presentation are good, it's the main things that EA has dropped the ball on.
The level design is particularly bland. Every level begins in a tram station, where there will be a nearby savepoint and store. There will be a hub that will fork in usually three directions. You'll have to perform some kind of fetch-quest in each direction, then hoof it back to the main area hub, go down one of the other paths, and do the same ad infinitum. If that wasn't enough repetition, the game makes you travel back through previous areas you've been to multiple times. In essence, it starts to recycle levels that already contained too much toing and froing.
Worse yet, you'll be fighting the same few enemy types throughout the entire game. There are only three bosses in the game, though one of them must have been such a minute boss that I only know of its existence because I got a trophy for killing it. Granted the very few boss fights that are there are a lot of fun, but three is a very small amount for a game this long.
Also, the game isn't scary... at all. And I'm the kind of guy who thought Bioshock and Silent Hill 5 were scary. The prime reason for this is the incredibly predictable enemy placement. You'll likely know before you even set foot in a room if a battle is going to ensue or not. There's nary a surprise throughout the entire game, save one or two cheap scares. Given that the game is billed a survival-horror affair, I can see many gamers woefully disappointed by this aspect of the game.
The mission structure is awful too. Each mission is comprised of you running back and forth to fix stuff. That's it. For 13 hours. Granted it's all an excuse to put you through a gauntlet of battles, but some kind of more interesting narrative motivation would have helped. For example, one level had me trying to activate some poison so I could kill something called "The Leviathan." This brought with it the promise of seeing and possibly fighting some giant alien creature. That was enough to motivate me to see the level through. Though most of the game has much more rudimentary goals, like finding keys to open doors to flip switches to find more keys. As a result, the game feels very padded and far duller than it should.
Aesthetically Dead Space has its charms, but not enough of them. There are a few wonderful set pieces such as the bridge with asteroids fluttering about outside, or the aforementioned moments where you have to go outside the ship. But most of the game settles for a generic grey and brown palette that we've seen all too many times before. I know there's only so much you can do with a derelict spaceship, but watching movies like Alien and Sunshine, it's clear that they could have given the USG Ishimura a more distinct identity than they did. Looking at the game’s concept art from the main menu, it seems like they did set out with a more unique look and couldn't quite pull it off. A lot of the concept art had the ship flying around bright red and orange nebulae, and the ship design itself was great. I feel like having more windows showing the vastness of the ship and some interesting space backgrounds could have made it less boring to look at.
One important aspect that Dead Space gets just dead (no pun intended) wrong is its portrayal of Isaac. He's supposed to be a vulnerable everyman, the engineer, yet he looks like a ninja cyborg engineer of death. He looks tough and is extremely competent in battle, making it hard to buy him as just an ordinary guy. Furthermore, we're supposed to sympathize with him, but he has no personality. Literally. He doesn't talk. Silent protagonists work best in games where you don't have close personal connection to other characters ala Metroid or to a lesser extent, Zelda. But here Isaac has a girlfriend. Who talks to him. And all he does is stand there and look around. He's also always wearing his helmet, sans the opening and closing cutscenes, though there's really no reason to show his face if they're not going to do anything with it. We see it for about ten seconds total, just enough time to prevent players from using their imaginations. The game is constantly contradicting itself. He’s a badass angel of death that would be at home in any sci-fi slasher movie, but he also inexplicably has a girlfriend and looks a bit like Neil Patrick Harris. Nothing about this character makes any sense.
And that's really what Dead Space boils down to. It's competent, but generic. To answer the question I posed at the beginning of this review as to whether the game has enough originality to make it stand out amongst the crowd, the truth is it does, but not very often. When it sticks to its more original ideas; the zero-g environments, the severing of limbs with unique weapons, the lack of ammo, etc. it works very well. But it doesn’t capitalize on these innovations as it should. It plays things too safe, resorting to repeating the same shootouts in the same corridors that would feel at home in any number of shooters. It’s too afraid to really take any risks, like adding more zero-g environments, or cutting the game length in half (keeping all the good bits and doing away with the filler). There's still a pretty good action game at its core, but don't be surprised if the last few hours bear more than a passing resemblance to the first.
Freelance review by Jeffrey Matulef (October 23, 2008)
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