I don’t scare easily. I used to think I didn’t scare at all. Hell, I’ve watched every minute of every episode of every season of Dancing with the Stars, and I sleep just fine. (Lame excuse: My wife covers DwtS for her blog.)
But Dead Space changed all that.
It isn’t scary in the Silent Hill sense: eerie, foreboding, cerebral, and lonely. Dead Space is more along the lines of a Universal Studios amusement park ride or a high-budget haunted house, and about as subtle.
As you walk down a mostly predetermined path, shit jumps out at you, you scream “Eff you!” at your TV, and then you dump an entire clip of hard-earned ammo into something that you could’ve killed with a couple of well-placed shots — if only you weren’t still so ratcheted up from the last time this exact same thing happened, two minutes earlier.
Basically, it’s about twelve straight hours of this:
For the first several chapters of Dead Space, I could only play for an hour or so at a time. The game wasn’t too creepy or gross, but it made me so tense that I started to get a headache. Eventually, I was able to remind myself that videogame death, while undesirable, is often inevitable and always temporary.
A good deal of credit for the game’s effectiveness goes to the sound design — specifically the music. There’s almost always music playing in Dead Space, though you often won’t even notice it, because the music matches your mood so well. It’s more reactive than evocative.
In most games, music is used to elicit feelings: excitement, joy, sadness, dread. But in Dead Space, the music seems to react right along with you, reinforcing your emotions rather than altering them. When you’re in a safe area, the music is almost unnoticeable. When you accidentally kick a metal box in in a dark hallway, the music thumps and swells a bit, like your heart in your chest. And when a creature drops from the ceiling right in front of your character, a string section squeals (likely in sync with your voice from your couch). The cacophony lasts until you’ve killed the beast and taken some time to catch your breath.
There are few actual musical themes in the game. The score feels largely aleatoric (random and/or improvised). Combining this randomness of content with the reactive nature of the music makes the score almost feel more like sound effects than an orchestral soundtrack. It’s an interesting approach, and I loved it, in concept and execution.
The game looks good, too. The ship’s interiors and exteriors are detailed and gorgeous, the characters are well-designed, and the game’s humanoid monsters, called necromorphs, are suitably nightmarish. The occasional epic set piece really does look epic, even on my measly 32-inch screen. (The game’s concept art is well worth checking out, too, once you’ve completed a playthrough.)
Occasionally, though, I felt that the creators mistook dark and claustrophobic for atmospheric and spooky. Games like Shadow of the Colossus, Disaster Report, Raw Danger, and Indigo Prophecy (Hey, the first half of it was good!) have shown how true atmosphere allows the coolest and creepiest moments to happen in plain view.
But Dead Space doesn’t always trust itself enough to scare you with the lights on. When you’re in an empty room, and some necromorphs suddenly drop in, the ship’s security system locks all doors — to quarantine the area, sensibly — and then…shuts off the lights. Why the hell would the ship’s designer make it that much more difficult for the crew to spot, capture, and kill invaders? There is no reason, of course. It’s just an obvious excuse to stack the deck against the player, and it brought me out of the game whenever it happened.
And it took about two chapters (of the game’s twelve) for me to get tired of the long, twisty, cramped hallways between almost every set of rooms. Even if there were no monsters onboard, it would be a chore to make it to the nearest bathroom in an emergency.
Fortunately, the game’s designers added a cool technique for navigating the ship. Instead of the little maps that often appear in the upper-right corner of some games (e.g., Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy), you press in your controller’s right analog stick, and a line lights up on the ground, directing you to your next destination. You never have to worry about the frustration of being lost or wondering what to do next. I sometimes depend so much on those little maps that I watch them more than what I’m supposed to be looking at. Dead Space’s on-demand pathfinding was much better for keeping me immersed.
And I was immersed, despite a story that kind of sucks. The mythology of the game is interesting, if cliched: something about mystic artifacts, religious zealots, and eternal life. And I liked learning about the Ishimura’s last days from the video, audio, and text logs you find laying about. But your own story is just stupid.
You play Isaac Clarke, an engineer on a small spaceship, the Kellion, that responds to a distress call sent from a big spaceship, the Ishimura. After crash landing on the Ishimura, the Kellion is disabled, so you need to find another way home for you and your surviving crew members.
Your ex-girlfriend, Nicole, happens to be stationed on the Ishimura, so I guess you want to save her, too. At least I’m assuming that’s the case. It’s hard to tell, considering that Isaac never says a single word throughout the game. There’s never any reason for you to care about Nicole — or Isaac, for that matter.
And why make Nicole my ex-girlfriend? What kind of incentive does that give me? You couldn’t get me to lend one of my real life exes twenty bucks, much less run through a ship of zombie-aliens. Nicole should have been a family member, or at the very least your current girlfriend, so there’s some sense of emotional consequence connected to her survival.
Apparently, the only way to save Nicole and get off the Ishimura alive is to embark on a series of fetch quests. Your Kellion compatriots order you to get this part and that part to fix this machine. Then, get this chemical and that chemical from different labs to make a poisonous solution. And so on. Each of these quests is, of course, really just a way to set you up for a series of ambushes by the necromorphs that lurk inside the ship’s ventilation system.
When the necromorphs show up, it’s time to start shooting. Isaac has plenty of weapons to choose from, though you’ll probably settle on a select few that you like best. I just used one, the Line Gun, for almost the entire game, because it could hit from long range, did a ton of damage (after upgrades), and had a wide enough area of effect that I didn’t have to worry so much about my horrible reflexes and aiming skills. It was the one weapon that didn’t really have a downside, except that its Line Rack ammo was sometimes at a premium. When I was low on Racks, I temporarily switched to the game’s default weapon, the Plasma Cutter, a laser pistol for which it’s almost impossible to run out of shots.
When you can’t find the ammunition and med packs you need inside one of the Ishimura’s many supply boxes or strewn among the viscera of slain enemies, you can always purchase them from one of the automated stores stationed around the ship. I felt a little guilty that I always seemed to have enough money to buy the weapons I needed to commit monster genocide, and yet the hundreds of Ishimura crew members before me were so poor or foolish that they apparently never combined their meager resources to buy themselves a few guns and some armor.
Speaking of armor and feeble civilians, I’ve always thought it was silly in videogames that the faceless extras in cutscenes always die from a single gunshot or stabbing, while the main character can somehow take a dozen bullets to the face before slowing down. In Dead Space though, this actually makes some sense. Isaac himself isn’t any more invulnerable than a normal human. His armor, however, is. Your hit points aren’t really yours; they belong to your armor. It’s a small detail, but I appreciated it.
Dead Space’s standard combat is fun. The mechanics are similar to other third-person shooters (e.g. Resident Evil, Uncharted), and the difficulty is well-balanced. There are spots where you’ll die a few times. But because the necromorphs are programmed to pop out of the exact same place at the exact same moment each time you enter an area, it’s easy to prepare yourself for subsequent attempts after a restart.
The trick to fighting in Dead Space is retraining yourself to keep from targeting the usual body parts. Unlike most shooters, going for the head or chest hardly does anything to your enemies. Instead, you kill them most efficiently by going for appendages: arms, legs, tentacles. This can be tough, especially when your instincts scream for you to blow off the head every time something jumps into view. But that’s part of what keeps the game fun and tense; you decapitate an enemy, and he still comes running at you.
If things get too frantic or your ammo gets too low, you can use Stasis and Kinesis powers, which allow you to slow down enemies and hurl nearby items (including detached body parts) as weapons, respectively. I didn’t use Kinesis too much. But I grew addicted to Stasis. It gives you a few seconds to duck out of the way of an incoming attack and put yourself into a better position for retaliation. Your supply of Stasis Juice (or whatever gives you the ability) is limited, but I used a cheat code to get more whenever I was in real danger. I’m not proud.
Though every enemy encounter seems like an event of some magnitude at the beginning of the game, the sameness of the hallways and small labs and control rooms — and the endless battles that occur within them — eventually seem like filler to make sure the game lasts at least ten hours. Almost every chapter is essentially the same: fetch this, fetch that, fetch the other thing, and then leave the deck. And sometimes, even the locations are the same. By the fifth chapter, you’re already revisiting areas you’ve previously scoured.
But amidst the filler, there are some truly epic set pieces and some innovative twists on typical shooter gameplay.
At several points in Dead Space, you’ll enter zero gravity areas. In these, your magnetic boots turn just about any surface into a floor, from your perspective. So, you can leap to a ceiling a hundred feet overhead, and the room will flip over for you. This adds a truly three-dimensional feel to the game, it can make a single room feel like like several different ones, and fights become much more complex — and less predictable.
The scale of some of the set pieces is awesome. In particular, a task that consists of placing an SOS beacon on an object suitable for launching into deeper space provides one of the most memorable sequences in the game.
And all of Chapter Six (Hydroponics) is a blast. Rather than strict fetch quests, it’s more of a Hide and Seek or Capture the Flag level. Plus, it has what may be the best battle of the whole game. I enjoyed that chapter so much, I was a little disappointed when the fetch quests returned.
Overall, I enjoyed Dead Space a lot. Sure, I have some complaints, but I almost always have complaints. The combat was fun, the visual design was fantastic, the music was outstanding, and — most importantly — it was truly scary. At twelve hours, it did feel a little padded. I’ll take a tightly executed four (Portal) or eight (Heavenly Sword) hour experience over a longer good-but-repetitive game every time. But, all in all, it was twelve hours well-spent.