They say in space, nobody can hear you scream. This is true because space is a vacuum, and sound is vibration – if there are no particles to vibrate against, sound has nothing to travel through.
The phrase is doubly true for Dead Space, because the dead space is the area of your body where air breathed in is not used for breathing – that’s just wasted – or dead – air.
Thankfully, Dead Space (the game) is not a waste by any stretch of the imagination; released in 2008, the game is part Event Horizon and part Alien – third-person survival horror game that launched the franchise we all know and love today. Since its release, Dead Space has seen 2 sequels, a (dreadful) minigame spinoff, an iOS game of the same name, a rail-shooter prequel (Dead Space: Extraction), a comic (which is a prequel to Extraction), 2 animated movies, and yes – even a novel.
The Dead Space universe has grown a fair amount in these past 6 years.
In Dead Space, you play as Isaac Clarke, a silent engineer who is sent to repair the USG Ishimura – one of the oldest planet crackers in the business. In true horror story fashion, the Ishimura was sent to an area of space where it really shouldn’t be, to mine a planet it really shouldn’t mine. As a planet cracker, the Ishimura pulls a large chunk of the planet into orbit, using special gravity tethers. The plan was to mine this chunk for minerals which they could transport to another planet; the problem is that the ship went dark. Isaac has been sent in to find out why and to fix the problem.
There are two problems here initially – the first is that Isaac’s lady love interest, Nicole, is the medical officer aboard the Ishimura. We are introduced to her in a short SOS video in the opening sequence. We later discover that Nicole has only taken the job because of his encouragement, and so when the ship goes dark, the onus is on Isaac to rescue her from the position he inadvertently put her in.
The second issue is that the rescue shuttle delivering Isaac crashes into the Ishimura, leaving him and his two crewmates stranded.
After a quick tutorial, you’re forced to run for your life from the first of the many, many Necromorphs in the game. As you run, your crewmates do the same – splitting your team into three. This gives you two more people to save – as if an entire mining ship wasn’t enough.
A short elevator ride later, and you get your first weapon – the plasma cutter. This comes with a helpful tip from a dead guy: “Cut off their limbs” seemingly written in his own blood. You soon learn that it’s advice worth taking.
The problem with Necromorphs is that they will keep coming until you remove anything they can move with. If you cut off their legs, they’ll will crawl towards you with its scythe-like arms. If you cut off their arms, they’ll attack you with their head. They will keep on coming, until either you dismember them completely or they slaughter you.
Fortunately, you’re not entirely powerless; the plasma cutter is like the pistol in Halo: Combat Evolved, in that it’s pretty powerful for a default weapon. In fact, it’s possible to complete the entire adventure using just your starting tool. The vanilla version of the gun is powerful enough, but when you upgrade that gun to its maximum level at the various crafting stations strewn throughout the Ishimura, you don’t need any other gun in the game – the plasma cutter can dispatch even the toughest of foes with ease. There is, in fact, a gold trophy/achievement for completing the game with just the plasma cutter, which is surprisingly easy to get – we did it on our first run through the game.
The only potentially difficult decision here is how to upgrade your weapons. Upgrades require Power Nodes, which are both rare and expensive. They also allow you into locked rooms, which contain the best loot. Do you put that last power node down on extending your health bar, or do you save it, hoping to open a door with a tonne of health and ammo? The choice is yours, though we heavily recommend the latter.
The vast majority of the weapons available to you in Dead Space are other mining tools you find lying around: buzzsaws, flame throwers, and even a telekinesis (TK) tool which allows you to move large objects – savvy players will conserve ammo by shooting off the Necromorph’s scythe-like arms, TK them towards you, and launch them back out at the oncoming enemy, harpoon style. It’s not until the last act of the game that you lay your hands on your first actual gun in the traditional sense of the word.
Your weapons are just one of several things that make it clear how important world-building was to Visceral Games (formerly EA Redwood Shores) in making Dead Space. During development, one of the creators sat his colleagues down with a presentation, and showed them a scene from a scary movie. He then showed the scene again with a display screen overlaid, showing the health of the protagonist, ammo reserves, and all the other information which makes you feel safe in a game; the player in Dead Space has no HUD screen – all of the clues you need as to Isaac’s condition are on screen in ways that Isaac could actually interact with. Heath is displayed on Isaacs’ suit as a vertical strip down his spine, while his oxygen reserves and ammunition are displayed on his suit and gun respectively; anything that could break the immersion that the game so carefully builds has been scrapped.
Story-wise, Dead Space is pretty solid. Horror games tend to have one foot grounded in reality, and the other flailing off in crazy-land. Dead Space tries to be relatively believable – a nice change from the likes of Silent Hill or Amnesia. The problem, once again, is the Necromorphs. Through logs found throughout the game, you come to realize they are the old crew members of the Ishimura, who became wrapped up in a sinister cult called the Church of Unitology. Unitologists revere The Marker (Altman be praised), a mysterious artifact found during the ship’s voyage, and believe that through the Marker we are born anew through death. While Unitology clearly draws its inspiration from Scientology, it takes science-fiction-based-religion to the literal extreme with the Necromorphs .
We love Dead Space – it is one of our favorite franchises to date, and it is this game is where our love started; the main problem with this game for a lot of us (though our illustrious leader Dale will disagree wholeheartedly on this point) is that the game just isn’t scary .
We’ve already mentioned the beautifully crafted tension and atmosphere. The scariest bits of the game are when you’re alone – and that isn’t very often unless you are forced to backtrack; necromorphs jump out of the walls at you like the bogey man at every available opportunity, unless you have already cleared the room. Like the movie Alien, Dead Space draws heavily from the idea that the necromophs could come at you at any time. They are in the walls; they are in the ceiling vents; they are in the floors; they are standing right behind you. This can be pretty terrifying if you’re just walking forwards – let’s say you max out on ammo though, and a few minutes later, you deplete it all in a particularly vicious firefight. You remember leaving some ammo on the floor about 10 minutes ago, so once you’re done, you head on back and pick the ammo up. You then realize that you could use a little health, and think you left some a few more rooms back. You trek back to where you left it, safe in the knowledge that the necromorphs have retreated from the area because one engineer with a mining tool is… what? scary? They should be everywhere – but they are not. Sure, there are a lot of them – but they are all telegraphed and in incredibly obvious hiding places, ready to jump out at you when you trigger scripted events. It is, essentially, a carnival Ghost Train.
Remember how in the Doom series, enemies would spawn behind you the second you hit a button? You remember how you just turned around before hitting a button so that you could just shoot the worst that Hell had to offer, the second they appeared? Sadly, Dead Space suffers from the same level of predictability. Yes, you will shit yourself when you get jumped at the first time, but that’s just a jump scare, and those don’t count as true horror. A fourth grader can jump at you from around the corner shouting “ooga booga!” and you may jump – but it doesn’t make him the master of all things horror. The same goes for Dead Space.
It’s nice being able to examine the thing which you have just killed – knowledge is power when you’re in a position like Isaac’s – but the problem is that the Necromorphs are divas. If you see a choke point, a kill box, or even just a particularly well-lit lamp, you can put money that you’re about to be visited by one of your dead little friends. This takes all of the suspense out of the game. Amnesia is a beautiful example of how horror should be done. If you see the enemy close enough to count its teeth, they are in your face and you are dead. In Dead Space, the Necromorphs are there to party more than they are there to actually cause you any harm.
Not only are the Necromorphs in the limelight for the entirety of the game, but their transformation is actually a gameplay mechanic: there are certain Necromorphs which fly towards they corpses that once inhabited the Ishimura, stabbing them in the head and turning them into Necromorphs. The idea is to kill the flying enemies first, in order that you have less to deal with later – a sound tactic by all rights. The problem is that these necromorphs change from a dead body with rigor mortis to a fully flexible super-zombie with drastic anatomical changes that happen in seconds. 10 seconds is all it takes to turn a room of corpses to a room of “shitfuckshitfuckshitfuck” and that shouldn’t be the case considering how much effort went into realism and tension building.
All in all though, Dead Space is a damn good game that is WELL worth playing. It isn’t perfect – and it’s no Edgar Allen Poe – but it is a game which you will play in one of two ways. With Dead Space, you’re either a Dale, or a Nic. If you’re a Dale, you will play it for an hour and take a break with a warm cup of cocoa, sitting under a very bright light and shaking in fear; if you’re a Nic, you will play it at midnight with the lights off and headphones on.
But either way, you should play it, because despite its faults, it’s one hell of a game.