I’m not really a scary movie type person. It’s not that I dislike being scared but I feel like finding a good horror movie amidst the giant sea of absolute crap that comes out is very difficult. I want the scares to be EARNED. I want a plot that at least makes sense. Most movies fail miserably. One game that surprised (and scared!) the hell out of me though was Dead Space. An original property from EA (weird, I know) that supposedly was less about action and more about making you curl up in the fetal position had me intrigued. If the now Gears of War style Resident Evil games make you angry, Dead Space is what should be in your console.
The actual plot of Dead Space will be familiar to anybody whose seen the film Event Horizon. The protagonist is one Isaac Clarke, an engineer whose a member of team sent to perform repairs on the insanely large “planetcracker” class ship called the Ishimura. The planet cracking part refers to the type of mining the ship does, where it will literally break planets up into pieces and process them for raw materials. It is during one such endeavor that all communication was lost and the repair team is sent in. It turns out the planet was full of Unicorns and all the horns got jammed in the communications array. Ok that last part isn’t true.
What actually happened isn’t clear and you spend a good chunk of the game trying to figure out the details. Upon boarding the ship, Clarke and his team are almost instantly attacked by some sort of mutant creatures that look like how H.R Giger would illustrate Lovecraft stories. Clarke becomes cut off from the remaining members of his team and effectively trapped on the Ishimura. This plot isn’t breaking new ground in the old sci-fi horror department, but the production values are sky-high. The game takes the plot seriously, the voice acting work is solid, and the atmosphere is the one game that I think could legitimately compare to Bioshock’s Rapture.
Really, this game is beautiful. The opening scene is a shot of the Ishimura before you actually land on it and it really rivals any sci-fi movie as of late in the looks department. The animations of Isaac are fluid, as well of those of the various beasties he encounters throughout his travels. The environment and the atmosphere are the real stars though. PLAY THIS GAME IN THE DARK! At one point in the game I was exploring a room that had a flashing yellow alarm light constantly going off. My whole room would be bathed in yellow light every two seconds, to the point where the neighbors would probably wonder what the hell was going on if they looked at my window. Despite taking place almost solely on the Ishimura, the environments themselves are actually quiet varied. The ship is huge and the developers took advantage of the multitude of areas a huge ship with a crew numbering in the hundreds would have. Incredibly tight corridors that can barely allow one person to move through in the depths of the ships mechanical sections give way to huge open spaces in the garden area (come to think of it, Sunshine is another movie that draws easy comparisons here) . The different sections of the ship are reached by taking an in ship tram system, but it basically serves as a loading screen between the large areas. Six or seven seconds of loading isn’t something you want to be sure, but the different sections are so large and contain no other load times that I forgive the game for the long transitions. There is also never a point where you have to use the tram six times in a row to get backtrack insanely far, so in practice the load times are few and far between.
The return to the survival horror style over the more action oriented style is really done by how Isaac Clarke is presented. Isaac is not a soldier, he’s an engineer. As such, most of Isaac’s “weapons” are not even truly designed for combat. The gun Isaac starts with is called a plasma cutter and is in theory used as a cutting tool. This proves advantageous for you as a player, because combat against the so-called “Necromorphs” is far from traditional. The game calls it “strategic dismemberment”, which sounds like it will get you on all kinds of government watch lists if you google it. In game terms, it means that a head shot isn’t the best thing to be going for most of the time. To truly put down the necromorphs, one must remove limbs. Arms, legs, other limbs that most creatures aren’t supposed to have but necromorphs do anyway, all go flying in ultra bloody detail. Despite the lack of “true” weapons (exceptions being an assault rifle and flame thrower) Isaac does have a few more tricks. His suit has a built-in tractor beam, which basically is an excuse for this game (along with most every other game that can fit it in) to include Half Life 2’s gravity gun. Objects can be picked up and moved, as well as flung at high speeds at baddies. Also built-in to Isaac’s suit is some sort of kinetic dampener, which basically slows down anything it hits, organic or otherwise. This comes into play with some puzzle solving (ie: the rapidly opening and closing doors that would cut you in half get slowed to a crawl so you can slip through) and serves as a kind of last-ditch effort in combat, enabling Isaac to practically halt a necromorph in its tracks. The real fun comes from slowing down the foe, putting a few plasma cutter shots into all of his extremities, then watching them all fall off at once when the slow effect wears off. Wicked. All the wickedness does not come from Isaac, as the game is really good at killing you in fantastically gruesome ways. When health is low and an enemy gets you within its grasp, prepare for the twisting off of your head, the loss of your internal organs, or some literally bone crunching smashing going on. My general response was “nnoooo……eeww….NNOOOOOOOO!…..Damn it.”
The bit slower pace of the action is also served by the fact that ammo, while there is generally enough available to deal with any encounter you have, is not plentiful. There is a definite sense of “oh shit” whenever you use some of your ammo and end up missing your target. Dead Space strikes the balance perfectly of giving you enough ammo to do the job, but making you consider every shot you do take, and always thinking in the back of your head that your probably screwed. The balance is so strong that the few times I did build up a healthy amount of supplies, I was even more freaked out than usual, because I realized the game was being too nice. (Why do I have all this ammo…WHAT IS THAT NOISE OMG THE DOOR IS BUCKLING OUTWARD HOW DO I GET OUT OF…..F#$#!…..((7 minutes later))….”What the hell was that thing and I have no ammo again!).
Two other awesome things that deserves mention are the zero gravity sections the game employs and the ventures out of controlled atmosphere. Some sections are sans gravity, enabling Isaac to literally jump from floor to wall to ceiling and back again, which is really fun and pretty awesome for some environment puzzles. Combat in these sections is actually pretty hilarious, as necromorphs will float by you slowly and reach for you, but with no way to gain any friction to actually move toward you until they hit a wall. Zipping to and from walls and ceilings as creepy looking monsters do the same and try to directly intercept you is like scary as hell futuristic frogger, and I loved it. The second awesome thing is the loss of atmosphere sections where Isaac ventures out into space, mostly in broken areas of the ship or actually walking on the hull a few times. The first thing I noticed when I hit these sections was the almost total lack of any noise. The music drains out, the sound effects drain out, and it’s all replaced by a soft almost muted hum and Isaac’s heavy breathing. The breathing leads into the next thing I noticed, which was the timer in the corner of the screen that let me know how much time I had left before my air supply ran out. This gives a terrific sense of desperation to all of these sections which ends up being aided by the lack of sound. If you thought hearing a necromorph somewhere around you was creepy, try not being able to hear them at all and only realizing one is directly behind you when it impales you through the stomach.
Dead Space is not for everybody. This 3rd person shooter moves at a slower pace than most any other “shooter” out right now. The controls are a tad on the clunky side, albeit deliberately, as Isaac Clarke is not a super ninja, but merely a lowly engineer in a somewhat clunky space suit. Those looking to run and gun through nasty looking baddies are better served picking up Resident Evil 5. All that being said, Dead Space is a breath of fresh air for fans of the genre. The relentlessly bleak atmosphere is truly stunning. The Ishimura feels like a real place that was once inhabited by real people, which makes the fact that anybody you meet by now is either dead or bat shit insane all the more creepy. I hesitate to talk about the plot, but do know that in true Bioshock fashion, you find video and audio logs scattered throughout the ship that flesh out what exactly has been happening, and they are excellently done. I love being scared when it is done right. Dead Space doesn’t really invent anything new in the genre, but it takes the best elements of science fiction and horror films, mixes in the best dose of survival horror video game seen since the first three Resident Evils, and combines them all into one game with absurdly high production values. As much as I loved it, I could never play Dead Space for more than an hour or so at a time because it was too intense. I consider that a rousing success.
Filed under: Games | Tagged: ammo, Bioshock, creepy, Dead Space, EA, EA Redwood, Elrood, flamethrower, freaked out, frogger, gravity gun, H.P. Lovecraft, HR Giger, hull, Isaac Clarke, Ishimura, kinetic dampener, lack of atmosphere, Lovecraft, necromoprhs, plasma cutter, scary, strategic dismemberment, survival horror, Xbox 360, zero gravity |