You can count on any work of space horror to boast some time-tested elements: An abandoned experimental ship, a frightened crew sent to check it out and massive death and dismemberment as said crew is taken apart by whatever creature, virus or mystic force is left on board. And, of course, a lot of this happens in extremely poor lighting.
What I like about Dead Space is that it doesn’t run from these elements. Rather, it embraces them and weaves them together with such skillful efficiency that it enables the player to fully enjoy other important things, like story and atmosphere. It’s a tense, frighteningly exciting experience that can easily be called one of the best of the year.
You play Issac Clarke, a member of a repair team sent to the massive starship Ishimura to fix its communications problems. Long story short, all the lights are off on the outside, you and your team end up crash-landing on the ship, then you eventually find out that everyone on board has been mutated into monstrous creatures and raging nutcases. Naturally, you’ll want to try and get off the ship.
The story, though slightly predictable for extreme sci-fi buffs, is a cool mix of horror, religion and a dash of personal tragedy. It serves as the undercurrent for the game’s creepy atmosphere.
You can tell the designers had fun working with this brand of terror, devising ways to screw with the psyches of players. The ship’s empty halls rattle with the sounds of the creatures running through the vents. Metal randomly crashes and clanks in the distance, while a blanket of shrieking and quivering violin riffs always seem to play at the right moments.
Then, there’s the gore. There is unmerciful bloodletting in this game, which actually adds to the tension. Issac himself has plenty of weaponry he can use to take apart the creatures he encounters (which the game encourages), such as plasma cutter or a weapon that shoots out buzzsaws. The more limbs you cut off, the more damage you do, and there will be many instances where the limbs will fly.
One of basic fears people have in a survival horror game isn’t just dying, it’s dying horribly. Consider your fears confirmed as far as this game goes. One nasty monster with bony blades for arms not only impaled Issac, but also cut off all his arms and legs before deciding he didn’t need a head anymore. You can also get crushed by some of the ship’s larger machines or get splattered by a malfunctioning anti-gravity panel. This all adds to the feeling of perpetual danger throughout the game.
Among the cooler elements in the gameplay is the concept of zero gravity. Much like Prey did its best to alter perspectives by having people walk on walls and ceilings, players are going to enter certain areas where they have to physically “jump” on walls and ceilings to get to certain doors.
Of course, the mutated freaks also find their way into these rooms, which leads to some intriguing moments in terms of sound and visual appeal. Nothing quite beats the thrill of seeing corpses of your own making floating around in a zero-g environment.
The last things I wanted to mention were the visuals, which turns what could have been a drab environment into the intergalactic equivalent of a haunted house. The Ishimura is a gigantic ship, and Issac finds himself traveling everywhere from the engine room to the chillingly eerie crew deck, which is littered with candles and pervaded by someone singing a tune that sounds like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” That not what I want to hear when I’ve been fighting screaming monsters for 13 hours.
Dead Space got a lot of buzz at E3, and it should get plenty of recognition now, even in the crowded holiday field of games. It’s been called gaming’s answer to “Aliens” and “Event Horizon,” and influences from both of those movies can be found here. If you’re looking for some extra horror this Halloween, this is a game you want.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Rated: M for Mature