Destructoid review: Dead Space

It’s very easy to have doubts about a game like Dead Space. As popular a genre as survival horror appears to be amongst gamers, there are only a handful of series that manage to do it justice. Something new entering into that sphere has a lot of stiff competition and frequently disappoints. That’s without even mentioning the sci-fi setting, which has worked well in horror films, but seems to fallen a little flat when applied in their gaming counterparts

EA has done a remarkable job of allaying those fears through its marketing and the game quickly began to get excellent press as we got to see more of it. Many of us at Destructoid were very eagerly awaiting the release. Now that it’s here and we’ve had a chance to play it, we’re ready to offer up the skinny on Dead Space

For this review, I am joined by the exquisite Dale North. Hit the jump to see what we thought.

Dead Space

Dead Space (360 [reviewed by Conrad], PS3 [reviewed by Dale])
Developed by EA Redwood Shores
Published by EA
Released October 14th, 2008

Conrad Zimmerman Conrad Zimmerman

You’ve probably heard the basic premise of Dead Space already, but I’ll provide a brief synopsis. The game takes place on the USG Ishimura, a mining vessel, which has sent a distress signal and is in need of assistance. A small ship, bearing engineer Isaac Clarke, has been sent to make repairs on the vessel. It quickly becomes apparent that this is more than a routine maintenance request, as the ship has been overrun with a strange and deadly alien threat.

I’m just going to come right out and say it: Dead Space is the scariest game I’ve played in as long as I can remember. Many of the scares are of the “dogs jump through windows” variety, which might feel cheap in other games. The difference here is that Dead Space constantly works to earn the right to scare you in such a way by maintaining a pervading sense of dread throughout the game. The key to doing this lies in immersion.

Dead Space

There are a few ways in which this game, very ably, tries to keep you locked in to what’s going on around you and build tension. The camera, for example, is a huge contributor. With a third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective, there’s a limit to your view range. The camera also moves a bit sluggishly, making it harder to turn around and face something which has snuck up on you. 

A complete lack of HUD icons also keeps you focused on the environment. Isaac’s suit, the RIG, displays all information relevant to Isaac’s condition with a health bar running up his spine. The map and inventory are displayed in a window in front of him, projected from the suit, in real-time. This makes it quite difficult to access a much needed item in the middle of combat but it’s rarely necessary to do so (healing items are mapped to the X button for quick use) and it further keeps you on edge. It’s a very slick presentation.

Most important, however, is the sound. The ship creaks and groans and sudden explosions could happen at any time. It makes you constantly feel as though something horrible is waiting around every corner. It really deserves to be played on a surround sound system (or some high-quality headphones), as the effect is so much more powerful. Another brilliant part about the sound is how terrifying it can be when it’s gone. Stepping into a vacuum puts a near-deafening silence on everything. Rounds fired from your weapons sound like they’re wrapped up in blankets and you may never hear an enemy coming to get you. This is incredibly creepy and made me long for the time when everything around me was clanging together.

Dead Space

Through the course of the game, Isaac gains new equipment and abilities. Stasis allows him to slow time around objects and is useful in combat as well as navigating the environment and solving puzzles. He can also acquire six different weapons. What makes them interesting is that they are almost all equipment which could be used in the day-to-day operations of the Ishimura as a mining vessel instead of weaponry. Every weapon offers two different firing modes, to allow for different attacks. The Plasma Cutter, for example, can be switched between firing its beam vertically and horizontally, making it easier to cut through enemy limbs regardless of their current angle. Isaac’s rig and all of his weapons can be upgraded at workbenches using a slot-based growth tree. 

Ammunition for these weapons is never really in short supply, as there are many cabinets containing more and enemies almost always drop some. The problem becomes having the right ammunition for the weapon you want to use. The game is very forgiving in the sense that it rarely gives you ammo for weapons you don’t currently have on-hand but, since Isaac can carry four different killing instruments at a time, it’s easy to wind up with a huge supply of rounds for a weapon that you use less frequently.

This makes inventory maintenance a major issue for most of the game. Isaac’s suit can hold a limited amount of equipment, with more inventory slots opening up through upgrades. Between carrying ammo for up to four weapons, medkits, spare oxygen and stasis energy, running out of space happens fairly frequently. Extra ammo and items can be kept in the store for later retrieval, which helps to keep the clutter down a bit but you’ll be more than halfway through the game before you have adequate inventory space.

Dead Space

The combat in Dead Space is incredibly intense. Enemies go down much more quickly when you’ve sheared off their appendages but they can move so fast that it becomes hard to draw a bead on the specific parts. Meanwhile, there’s almost never only one thing to kill at a time, and you’ll often be focused on taking down one creature while another is running up behind you. Necromorphs have excellent variety in their forms and many react differently depending on how you kill them. Killing certain enemies in the wrong ways can result in making them far more deadly. It’s never exceedingly difficult if you can keep a cool head but still challenging and a bit of a rush at times.

Level design is another major plus. Every area of the ship is accessed via a tram running through the middle. Each of the chapters start and finish on the tram’s car. While you will revisit a few of the areas during the course of play, backtracking happens rarely, with alternate paths leading back to the tram station or the central hub of a location which open when you’ve completed necessary tasks. The levels also break up the action in different ways, with zero-gravity and vacuum sections that keep the campaign from feeling repetitive.

Zero gravity is pretty novel. Most sections which feature weightlessness are cavernous affairs where you can bound off the walls. Jumping from one surface to another is merely a matter of aiming your weapon where you want to land and pressing a jump button to fly in that direction. It can be a bit disorienting, as the camera swoops about a bit after you land, and you’ll sometimes have to take a moment to make sure you’re heading in the right direction, which can be scary as hell if you have a couple of necromorphs hot on your tail. A complete game played int his style would be too much, but EA hasn’t overused the gimmick here and the mechanic remains fun throughout.

Dead Space

The one area where Dead Space comes up short is in its story, particularly the characters. Nobody is ever really developed. Audio, video and text logs lay scattered throughout the USG Ishimura which describe the events that led to the current state of affairs as told by the people involved. Sadly, we’re never really given a reason why we should care about them. They lack personality, for the most part, making the history as cold and inhuman as the present. The characters we do get to know are largely two-dimensional and not very interesting.

But the most tragic example of unrealized potential lies in Isaac himself. We know next to nothing about him and that changes very little through the course of the game. The opening cinematic features a great hook regarding the relationship between Isaac and Nicole, one which is teased many times in the course of the game. Then, after being strung along with it for so long, the payoff winds up disappointing. 

The story really only serves to push Isaac along through the game. It is never unpredictable despite several attempts at a plot twist. I’m surprised at how comfortable I am with that. The game is so focused on its action that it forgets to tell a story, but it’s so gripping that I forgot to ask for one until it was all over.

Dead Space

Finishing the game will unlock an additional difficulty level and a new game + mode where you can restart the story with all of Isaac’s weapons and equipment. A second run-through proves to be a bit too easy, but completionists may enjoy it for completely upgrading all equipment (an impossible task on one play).

When all is said and done, Dead Space is a lot of fun to play. The final product lives up to the promise of being a scary action game. It may not have the most gripping story but it positively shines from a gameplay perspective.  In a season filled with highly hyped releases, Dead Space manages to largely deliver and is a game worth giving some attention to.

Score: 9

Dead Space

Dale North Dale North

Survival Horror titles are nothing new to this gamer, but one from EA definitely is. To be honest, they’re the last developer I expected to come in and shake up the genre, but they have. I’ll go as far as saying that the Japanese developers of the other survival horror series’ should be taking notes.

Dead Space seems like a movie I’ve seen before, or even a mix of several movies. A space Sci-Fi wouldn’t have been my first pick for a new survival horror franchise, but I suppose it’s better than another zombie game.

Much like a Hollywood movie, Dead Space shines with high-end production values. This definitely comes across in the visuals, which manage to be dark and detailed at the same time. The textures are crisp and realistic, and the views of space are breathtaking. Some of the rooms in the USG Ishimura are incredibly vast, and it seems no expense was spared to make it seem like you’re really in a floating space vessel.

Dead Space

Those production values carry over into sound. As Conrad said, the sound design is fantastic, and easily the most scary part of the game. Monsters seem to mutter in your ear, making you turn around constantly. Far off metallic pings keep you nervous the whole time. Grotesque sputterings have you watching your feet. When played in a surround sound setting, the sound is incredibly effective at letting you know which direction baddies are coming from, which can save your hide in a pinch. Every time things seem to calm down, you’ll hear something else, putting you back in a defensive state. Brilliant.

While the sound is great, the music is not. The game is packed with cliched cues straight from that Hollywood horror movie. These fortissimo brass blats on surprise cues are so predictable that they take some of the scare off. The low string drone and the high violin trills are painfully tired, but they’re overused in this soundtrack. While Dead Space may have a leg up on some other survival horror series as far as looks and control go, they have a bit to learn about creativity as far as music is concerned.

Dead Space

Where Dead Space really shines is with the game play and control. Your ability to control Isaac is spectacular, and is spot-on for a survival horror game. Movement switches from a forward walk to a strafe perfectly, allowing Isaac to circle items while keeping focus on them. The camera is nicely balanced, showing a slight restraint in speed to keep things scary. Aiming and targeting is also superb, and is probably one of the best set-ups I’ve experienced in a third-person shooter. Trust me: you need that accuracy when you’re under attack by countless baddies at once.

The weapons are tons of fun. Instead of regular guns, you’re stuck using futuristic mining equipment. This may sound lame at first, but when you get ahold of the tools that slice things up, you’ll see where the fun comes in. At “benches” found scattered about the ship, Isaac can use “nodes” to level up his tools. Maxed out, some of these tools are a joy to fire.

Being stuck in this big of a ship, the game has to gently guide gamers in the correct direction. Dead Space does a fair job of doing this, though your goals do become lost in some instances. Your missions or objectives are always clear, which is nice. They’re always displayed on the map screen, a screen which also shows a 3D representation of the ship and your recommended path. In game, a press or the R3 button drops a beam onto the floor, showing you the correct path. It’s hard to get lost on the USG Ishimura.

The problem is that you’ll sometimes become stuck when you’re not sure how to complete your objective. There are a few instances where you’re left to figure out competition conditions for yourself. Normally, that’s fine, but some are aggravatingly unclear. Unfortunately, disclosing these instances may spoil the story for you.

Dead Space

While levels are mostly nicely designed, there are some poor choices and bugs when it comes to puzzles and obstacles. Some monsters are actually tethered to a room. You can actually open a door and shoot them without fear of them attacking you. Other instances put you in a stupidly difficult situation that almost seems unnecessary when compared to the layout of the rest of the game. These are minor in the overall design, but I feel they’re something each player will notice.

Dead Space falls short when it comes to story and characters. Without revealing too much, we’ll say that you’re constantly working to get out of a crisis on the USG Ishimura. This has you constantly running item quests. Granted, item quests are not uncommon for survival horror titles, but Dead Space does a poor job of attaching a story to the journey for, say… the key card. Or DNA sample. Or energy pack. They just seem like meaningless items you have to find to proceed. The characters are few and far between in Dead Space, but you never feel an attachment to them. In the end, they’re equally as disposable as the baddies you kill on the ship. And, as Conrad said, even Isaac himself doesn’t have much going on in the way of a story line. In the end, I fear that you’ll be slightly disappointed by how the story wraps up.

Dead Space

The scare factor is debatable. I never felt that creepy sort of mentally disturbed or mystical scared that you’d feel in other survival horror titles. The scares in Dead Space are more about surprise attacks and general nervousness. I prefer the more disturbing kind that Dead Space lacks, but there are still some pretty frightening moments in the game.

In the end, I can live with a lackluster story with this level of combat and game play. Dead Space is a beautiful videogame, showing incredible polish and detail in both the visuals and the control. The amount of love and attention packed into this title is apparent, as scares and action are perfectly blended. What an incredibly impressive way for a new survival horror franchise to debut!

Score: 9

Overall Score: 9 (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won’t cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)

Editor's Choice

Conrad Zimmerman