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Dead Space (Xbox 360) artwork

Dead Space (Xbox 360) review

"Visceral wove traditional jump shocks into a surprisingly subtle art form. They know, as you do, that horror isnít just about making an ugly monster jump out at you; itís also about making you think that an ugly monster is going to jump out at you, and Visceral balances these two with startling finesse."

What was that? Is there something behind you? Look around. No, thereís no one Ė nothing Ė else here. Those wet footsteps mustíve just been the sound of your own boots clomping through the mangled corpses that cover the floor. Best to keep moving. Wait, there it was again. Are you sure youíre alone? Check the vents. Check the ceiling. Shine your flashlight in every corner. Whatís projecting those moving shadows? Oh, itís just an anonymous piece of running machinery. Thereís nothing else in this room. Just you and a whole bunch of dead bodies. WaitÖ are you sure theyíre all dead?

I was more than a little shocked to find such shaken words bouncing around in my head every couple of minutes while playing Dead Space. Let me rewind for a moment. Dead Space is a dark science fiction tale in which an engineer named Isaac Clarke (hey now!) and his team are sent to investigate a mining ship thatís been overrun with an alien infestation. To that end, developer Visceral employed every trick in the book: steely grey corridors, flickering lights, blaring alarms, sputtering sparks, bursting vents, messages written in blood, and so on. This is a game in which a computer voice tells you obvious things; it is also a game in which characters give speeches behind bulletproof glass. And despite a camera that hangs perpetually in third-person, the writers nevertheless took the Gordon Freeman-esque silent protagonist approach.

Yes sir, Dead Space is absolutely neck-deep in sci-fi horror clichťs. And itís executed so well that it doesnít matter.

One of the biggest components of survival horror Ė and certainly one of the easiest to pull off Ė is the jump scare, in which something unexpectedly leaps out at you with an accompanying orchestra shriek. For certain, Dead Space has this down pat. The disgusting creatures that have overtaken the USG Ishimura could come from anywhere at any point, and theyíre sure to make very loud noises when they do so. These necromorphs, as theyíre called, sport long scythes that they viciously fail about and donít even try to wield elegantly. You donít want these creatures to even get close to you, let alone take you by surprise, and youíll quickly lose count of the number of times Dead Space makes you jerk in your seat.

It would have been easy to stop there, but Visceral instead wove traditional jump shocks into a surprisingly subtle art form. They know, as you do, that horror isnít just about making an ugly monster jump out at you; itís also about making you think that an ugly monster is going to jump out at you, and Visceral balances these two with startling finesse.

Take the gameís opening sequence. When the nercomorphs begin attacking, youíre separated from your companions and youíre not armed. You bolt as fast as you can towards the nearest elevator, but a reanimated corpse stands in your way, flailing its blade-arms maniacally. You maneuver around it (somehow), tuck yourself into the elevator, and shut the door. Youíre safe now HOLY CRAP ITíS PRYING THE DOOR OPEN AND YOU STILL DONíT HAVE A GUN! ITíS ALMOST INSIDE and then the elevator starts moving and the creature is sliced into who knows how many pieces. Youíre seriously safe, but for a second there, man.

It works both ways, too. You might be running down a corridor when suddenly an automatic door slams shut in front of you and the lights go out. You instinctively spin around and point your plasma cutter down the hallway, fully expecting a necromorph to come bursting through the grates. But then the lights come back on, the door opens, and nothing happens. It was a fake-out, but a damn effective one.

Being one of those games that gives you overpowered weaponry and lets you buy ammunition, Dead Space has inspired endless debate over whether itís a true survival horror game, or an action romp masquerading as one. Iíve come to the conclusion no matter which direction you lean, the game works. During the intro, youíre told by no less than four sources (the tutorial, your comrade, an audio log, and writing on the wall) that the best way to kill the necromorphs is to sever their limbs. That core dismemberment mechanic and the weapons that have been designed around it are a bloody and rewarding twist on the old ďshoot the zombie in the headĒ formula, and as a shooter, Dead Spaceís combat offers a distinct, exciting edge.

And as a horror game? Itís relentless. Dead Space erupts into all-out, claustrophobic chaos often enough Ė and suddenly enough Ė that the periods of quiet in between battles are unbearably tense, and the folks at Visceral frequently prove masters of clever misguidance. Some rooms go into a security lockdown when necromorphs invade. Hey, at least youíre given a heads-up, right? So you thoroughly scour the room of any visible necromorphs and feel triumphant and relieved when they're all dead. Then you come to the stinging realization that if the enemy threat was actually vanquished, the room wouldnít still be in lockdown.

As Iíve said before, fear is all about uncertainty, and Dead Space covers such a wide spectrum of volumes Ė ranging from silence to taut escalation to all-out mayhem Ė that itís virtually impossible to ever feel entirely at ease. Visceral was smart to make Dead Space both functional and unique as a shooter when things inevitably go to hell, but they were even smarter to not focus entirely on that.

Dead Space, like so many of its predecessors, owes a lot to Half-Life, starting with its many atmospheric touches and certainly not ending with the inclusion of what is basically a gravity gun. It also attempts to mimic that seriesí first-person storytelling approach, and thatís one of the few areas in which the game truly stumbles. Isaac (whoís visible in almost literally every shot in the game) is presented as a silent protagonist, and the addition of a huge subplot involving his missing girlfriend hits all of the wrong notes. You can either opt for full immersion or you can develop your main character, but you canít do both. Isaacís reaction to what should be a devastating revelation is laughable, because itís the only time in the game he emotes.

Dead Space picks up a few bad habits from the BioShock games as well, partly in its liberal use of audio logs (an increasingly lazy method of covering back-story in a first-person narrative) but mainly in its level design, which is overly tangential and too reliant on backtracking. The reason Iím not as bothered by it, again, is because of that feeling of unease that hangs over the game: Even when Iím retracing my steps, anything could come from any direction. (This is especially true of the gameís zero-gravity bits.) The roaring machinery of the USG Ishimura often makes it impossible to hear the pitter-pattering of your attackers; other times, itís dead silent and you can hear them perfectly. Dead Space dares you to answer the question of which is worse.

P.S. Hey, EA? The next time you need a voice actor to do a convincing American accent, call me up. I do a great American accent.

Suskie's avatar
Featured community review by Suskie (February 28, 2011)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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Masters posted February 28, 2011:

Nice job, Mike.

I especially like the all caps freak out. Really got me going.

Is the backtracking as prominent as it was in DS1? Cuz that killed that game for me. Or well... it seriously wounded it.
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Suskie posted February 28, 2011:

Erm, DS1 is the game I reviewed.

Though, from what I've played of it so far, DS2 moves at a much brisker and more linear pace. I'm still not liking the game as much, though. It's too crass to be as patiently terrifying as the first game often was. I'm still not very far into it, though.
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Masters posted February 28, 2011:

Haha! Massive fail. I just assumed you were reviewing DS2 cuz it was recently released and you're usually on top of the newer games. But yeah, so it makes sense that you mentioned the backtracking as detracting from the experience. From what I've heard, the second game mostly eliminates this flaw. True?
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Suskie posted February 28, 2011:

Pretty much. I'll try to finish it and review it by the end of the week.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted February 28, 2011:

Great review! Really captures the game's the atmosphere.
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Suskie posted March 01, 2011:

I have to return DS2 tomorrow, so I'm gonna have to try and finish it tonight. I need to take a break, though, and give my massive headache a chance to wear off.


I got the headache from playing the game, in case that wasn't clear.

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