Backlog: Dead Space

Developer: Visceral Games (Formerly EA Redwood Shores)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platform Played On: Xbox 360 (Through Xbox One)

Despite approaching a decade since its original release, Dead Space remains one of the most atmospheric experiences to have been made. While there’s not much in the way of a personal story, instead there’s tense corridors and disturbing monsters are enough to keep you on edge. EA describes the game as “a bloodcurdling interactive horror experience,” which is a little hyperbole, but not far off.

Upon its release in 2008, Dead Space won several sound design awards, and it’s not hard to see why, even now it’s still impressive in comparison to current generation titles. Composed music is used as an extension rather than the focus. Instead, sound effects are left to create the atmosphere, and the music works alongside it, producing an eerie environment to explore.

Controls are borrowed, and I say borrowed but what I mean is stolen, from Resident Evil 4. You interact with the environments using button prompts, aiming your weapon as you walk through corridors and dismember enemies. You can select up to four weapons using the directional pad, and heal yourself with the touch of a button.

One of the most impressive parts of Dead Space is the user interface and HUD, or lack thereof. The health bar is a physical part of Isaac’s suit, travelling down the outside of his spine. Right next to it is a dial that shows you how much stasis you have left to use, and information, such as your ammunition count, pops up when you aim your gun. It’s genius design, especially since you spend the majority of time staring at the character’s back. This is a third-person shooter after all.

Upgrades come in the form of ‘Power Nodes’ that are sparsely scattered across the USG Ishimura. You can choose to upgrade your guns or suit using a circuit like display, with different attributes. You can upgrade the damage that a gun does, or its reload speed, or improve your armour. You find schematics along your journey that can be downloaded to the Shop, and then bought using credits.

Speaking of guns, combat is immensely satisfying. ‘Unlearning the headshot’ was coined around the time of Dead Space’s release. Aiming for limbs provides enough of a difference to make gameplay a little more challenging. Different enemies require different strategies to be taken down, but for the most part they all share the same weakness; arms and legs. Different guns let you attack in a variety of ways, but I found myself sticking to the tried and tested Plasma Cutter. It gets the job done and toward the end of the game I had it fully upgraded. Useful in any situation, I never felt the need to buy or use any other gun.

Alongside your gun you unlock a couple of abilities too. Stasis allows you to slow enemies and objects down, great for when you’re being overwhelmed, and Kinesis allows you to pick up and move or throw objects. Stasis uses ‘stasis charge’, so can’t be used all the time, meaning you’ll need to conserve it for emergency situations. One of those situations being zero gravity, which adds a touch of frustration but also a lot of fun to the combat. Creatures jump at you from all angles, and snarls echo all around you, making the hair on the back of you neck stand up.

But the game does suffer from pacing issues. It’s wonderfully tense and slow at the beginning, but as you enter chapter 4 and 5, it comes to a halt and you’re in a constant state of going to a location and fixing a problem. Then, next chapter, go to a new location and fix another problem. Next chapter, go to another location and fix problem and so on. The first couple of chapters loom a sense of dread around you, but that soon wears off after you’ve been scared by the same tactic numerous times. Monsters travel through air vents and will probably catch you off a guard, dropping from the ceiling down right into your face. But if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a million times, and the tensions wears thin.

The protagonist Isaac Clarke is your average stock character. Outside the start and end, you don’t see his face, nor will you likely care about him. He’s essentially a proxy for the player, but occasionally the game remembers he’s an actual character and something personal will happen to him.

Sure, by today’s standards it’s no longer a graphical masterpiece, but the game holds up well enough to be enjoyed with little compromise.

There’s a couple of terrible sections. The final ‘boss’ is an argument for never having bosses in games, and there’s an average-to-awful shooting section where you have to stop meteors hitting the ship using a turret, like the developers decided Dead Space needed a mini-game halfway through. The game could have done without them but I guess the developers needed to find a way to make sure the entire game wasn’t on edge.

If you haven’t played Dead Space already, it’s definitely worth your time, especially if you’re looking for a decent horror game to fulfill your needs. It’s currently free on Microsoft’s Games with Gold program.

7/10

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