Monday, 3 November 2008

In space no one can hear you plagiarise

The seasonal glut of must have games is upon us, leaving many of us with difficult decisions of where to spend our hard earned cash and time. I chose to spend my Halloween in the company of the xenomorphs courtesy of Dead Space, a chilling survival horror from the team that bought you er, The Simpsons Game.

With so much quality gaming almost upon us, should Dead Space divert your attention? Well, yes, yes it should.

It's been a long time coming, a decent sci-fi horror. Possibly not since the last Aliens Vs Predator game have we had a chance for some silent screaming terror. Dead Space is very much in the mould of an Alien spin off, set as it is aboard a monstrous "planet cracker" class spaceship, not called the Nostromo, that you arrive to fix having received the obligatory distress call. You are Isaac Clarke, mute engineer extraordinaire with a snazzy line in exoskeleton work suits and a girlfriend somewhere on the spooky ghost ship, which after crashing on, disabling your ship (natch) you set about fixing up to try and survive. For you see, the ship has gone quiet not due to a blown fuse, but because of a ship wide invasion of murderous abominations, the necromorphs, who have a habit on jumping on the nearest person and chomping them to sloppy gibs. For it emerges that when the miners "cracked the planet" something(s) came out, and now they're in all sorts of bother. Luckily for Isaac, as a trained engineer with a knack for wielding a plasma cutter, these horrible creatures' weakness is not a grenade up the nose. The obligatory "message scrawled in blood on the wall above a grisly corpse in a pool of blood and guts" informs us, "cut off their limbs!" Lop off a leg or an arm and they'll stop coming. Go for the head or body and its a different story.

What follows is a deeply atmospheric and gore laden creep through the bowels of the ship as you are dished out missions by your two surviving team members who boss you about from their safe hideyholes they've found themselves, and set about dismembering the army of ungodly horrors. The ship itself is the star of the show here, as you move through tight corridors that never feel generic or forced, but functional. These connect to key destinations where some feat of engineering is usually required to ensure the ships' and your, continued survival. These areas are some of the most impressive locales of recent memory, on a grand scale unexpected after the claustrophobia of the tunnels and lift shafts. These sections also typically make use of the cleverly implemented use of gravity; zero-g areas feature corpses and junk floating about in a (I imagine) tremendously realistic way. The necromorphs have no problem flying about in this state however, and are just as likely to leap on your head out of nowhere as in normal gravity. Likewise you are able to fly about the place and walk about the place Space Odyssey style, thanks to your magnetic boots. Aim at a distant ceiling and marvel as you fly across the expanse to gracefully touch down the right way up. It's a dizzyingly fun experience.

The mood of the game generally however is resolutely dreadful. That's a good thing remember. Fear pervades these halls, stalking you like a hungry mutant, and Redwood Falls play every trick in the book to make you jump. These are not always entirely successful, it's so easy to miss your cues after all, but generally the scares come thick and fast with rarely the same jump delivered twice. Praise has been showered on the soundtrack in particular, and rightly so. The sound design is brilliantly realised, with naturalistic and unnerving bump in the night effects that caused me to press pause and remove my headphones to listen on several occasions. The Ishimura creaks and groans. Sound in a vacuum is reduced to muffled thumping footsteps and your shrill breath as your oxygen ticks down. The necromorphs shriek and roar as they attack. Excellent stuff.

Your arsenal is similarly correct, being full of tools and slicey things. The saw blade that suspends itself in front of you to allow strategic carving of creatures is a particular favourite, and each gun comes with an alternate firing mode. Each one takes some getting used to to find the best way to use it effectively. Combat is best approached systematically, one limb at a time, and this can become a huge feat of prioritising later on when you're being attacked from all sides. Gunning and running becomes a panic inducing necessity, and when the strobes kick in and creatures are bursting though the walls, it can be hard to keep cool. Luckily your stasis module allows a limited slowdown of creatures (or fast machinery) to buy you some time, but the small energy bar it relies on means just a few burst before you're on your own again. Likewise, ammo is scarce enough to keep you in a perpetual state of dread, so you may want to make use of various exploding tea flasks dotted about the place which you can manipulate with your kinetic module (gravity gun) into the faces of unsuspecting beasties. The interaction of these two add-ons and your expansive arsenal makes for a variety of approaches, but remember, there is a tool for every job. The presentation of your various gubbins is also worth a mention; to keep you in Isaac's shoes there is no HUD - every part of your various menus and gauges are represented in game. Health is displayed as your glowing spine, inventories and video messages are projected in front of you. It's a slick and considered approach that is generally successful, although some camera issues can rear their head when you least need them to.

The creatures themselves are a diverse bunch and come in distinct flavours and classes from fast and lethal to small and swarmy, they can inspire serious shivers. Should they get too close, each has a series of attack animations where you must button mash to prevent dismemberment, but it's often entertaining to marvel at the horrifically inventive ways Isaac meets his demise. I was shocked by the Thing style head on tentacles that leapt onto my shoulders, knocked my own head off only to replace it with itself, pushing its tentacles into my chugging neck and lumbering off with my body, as the screen fades out resident evil style. There are too the occasional boss fights, and a few other pace breakers - and while a somewhat welcome change from the norm, these sections aren't as fun as they imagine, but do keep the gameplay from stagnating nicely.

That Dead Space is so obviously influenced by other games and films isn't an issue. Of course this has all been seen somewhere before. The quality of the execution goes a long way to excuse apparent unoriginality, and only the good stuff has been retained. Add in the interaction of all these diverse elements, and the game never feels unoriginal to play. In truth, only the hammy script lets it down in any real sense, and various revelations that come to light really aren't revelatory, and the plot that emerges is full of cliches of mad scientists and religious cultism and conspiracy.

Despite the ham and cheese, so well polished and tightly orchestrated as an experience, Dead Space asserts itself as one of the finest videogame lessons in horror yet, and while it might not keep you up at night pondering the plot, you may need to keep the light on for a while anyway.

Treehouse Rating




Anonymous said...

my boyfriend has been dying to buy that game but he decided to wait until he played it first to make sure it was worth his money. the only problem is, they've been completely rented out every time he goes to blockbuster. so my question, is dead space a wise buy? any help appreciated.

Munial said...

I say yes. As evidence, I give you the massive review above ;)