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Review – Dead Space

posted on December 19th, 2008 by d. olsen

In April of 2007 a man by the name of John Riccitiello began work as the new Chief Operating Officer of Electronic Arts, one of the two largest video game conglomerates on earth. EA had fallen victim to its own massiveness in the years prior. In order to grow it had purchased and then cannibalized smaller, more imaginative game developers, absorbed the talent into their own offices, and centrally ran all operations.

As a result, the people and projects they assimilated became infected with the shortcomings of the company entire: there was too much bureaucracy and too many levels of hierarchy. This took decision making and creativity away from the game development teams. As a result EA earned a rather poor reputation for making nothing but thin sequels, movie tie-ins, and sports games that did little to differentiate themselves from year to year.

One of Mr. Riccitiello’s first tasks was to issue a surprisingly frank mea culpa for the company. The big, bloated, centrally operating model was called a mistake. Instead the company would be divided into ‘city-states’ that would enjoy more autonomy and be able to make its own decisions about the games they were creating. Also, the company turned away from focusing on obtaining licenses to make games with other people’s intellectual property and instead create their own fresh ideas.

Over the past year and a half video game enthusiasts saw encouraging signs resulting from this shift in leadership structure in games like Army of Two, Battlefield: Bad Company, and Spore. Now with the arrival of Dead Space I think it’s safe to say that the company has truly turned a corner and is once again a best friend of the hardcore gamer.

Dead Space is a story-driven horror shooter that takes place on board a massive mining spaceship that the main character has been sent to repair. The player soon learns that something has gone terribly wrong aboard this star-faring factory and by game’s end the full nature of this evil will be revealed.

From start to finish I found this game to be one of the most polished and engrossing video game experiences in memory. Video games are large affairs utilizing dozens of people working with very advanced technology and usually on tight time constraints. There is usually something or other that doesn’t work right and leaves room for improvement. I honestly found none of this in Dead Space. It is one of the most finely made games I’ve ever played.

I played Dead Space on the PS3; it looks absolutely fantastic and it plays just as well. The USG Ishimura is a spine-chilling place to visit, just brimming with atmosphere. The environments are subtle and solid, conveying both the super-science required to construct such a thing and the patina of age that convinces you of the ship’s sixty-plus year history.

The Ishimura appears somehow both old and new, making every room captivating. Add to this the absolutely superb lighting and sounds and you have a place you dread entering further even while you cannot wait to see what’s next.

The entire ship is set up as a series of dungeons through which you travel back and forth, using a type of subway system as the main hub. Each of the twelve chapters brings you to one of the ship’s section, some of them twice. Some players might not like the re-using of levels in this way, preferring to be set in one direction and the player moves constantly forward seeing new things. Being a spaceship, I thought it made sense the way the game is laid out; the Ishimura is packed with so many overwhelming set pieces I didn’t mind having to revisit them from time to time. Some of the rooms in Dead Space are straight from a madman’s funhouse and will have you gaping at them in wonder.

Combat in Dead Space takes the average shooter conventions and turns them on its head. The monstrous enemies seem fine with you shooting them in the body, instead you have to take off their limbs to stop them from eating you! Dead Space is dozen hours of gruesome dismemberment and to this end they give you the right tools for the job: cutting lasers and saw blades abound.

Other games have had realistic damage models on their enemies but none I know of use the technology to create the core mechanic of the game. It is not only immensely satisfying, it results in your character being as big a monster as your foes are. It’s not enough that your enemies are scary, you have to kill them in ways that scare you too!

Like many games in the survival genre, Dead Space has you collecting credits, ammunition, health packs, and other tools that you can store in your inventory. The wealth you discover can be used to purchase weapon upgrades and more powerful suits of armour. This isn’t anything new but it is done very well and creates an excellent inventory management system.

True survival fans can play the game without ever buying health or ammo, leaving themselves at the mercy of the random loot drops. This can create a great deal of tension, as fans of games like Resident Evil 4 will attest.

There were many times in my play through where I had to favour weapons that I was constantly finding ammo for while others languished. Dragging myself through the game at half health with none in reserve made for some nerve-wracking encounters. In a display of smart design, ammo and health can be purchased by those who need the help but then the money spent can’t be used for weapon and armour upgrades, which is the true survivalist’s reward.

The story in Dead Space is truly excellent, the characters are believable and the plot is a tightly twisted conspiracy. There are not only plenty of scary thrills and revolting gore but the psychological overtones of some of the plot points are truly disturbing and had me thinking about them for days afterward.

Once I had completed the game I jumped right back in to see it all again rather than play new games sitting on my shelf. The game allows you to play a second time with all of your upgraded equipment, though you can only do so on the difficulty level you initially chose. You cannot take your medium difficulty character and play on hard, for example. This might irritate some, but I appreciate this choice because hard with a fully decked out character isn’t really hard at all. The variety of great looking armours, plus the fact that not every weapon can be even half upgraded with a single completion means this game can be enjoyed many times.

Dead Space is a full-spectrum package and EA has planned to go multi-media with the concept from the get-go. To that end there are comic books and an animated feature already out. Other movies and of course sequel games are apparently in the works. As games get more expensive to create the recouping of costs by maximizing exposure of the property is probably the future. I can’t speak to the quality of those other products but I’ll obviously vouch for the game itself, emphatically.

It seems one of the ongoing themes of this generation of video games is products with great potential marred with serious flaws. I think one cause of this is a great many software developers are still learning the new technology. Another cause is the compromise developers are facing in trying to make their product more approachable in hopes of selling to a wider audience.

Dead Space is remarkable because it has steered clear of that design philosophy. It’s a game without casual compromise, relying on tried, tested and true mechanics from the genre it exemplifies. In avoiding too much new ground it perfected what it was offering and in doing so comes off as a flawless experience. I cannot recommend this game highly enough, it has become one of my all-time favourites.

Buy from Amazon: Dead Space

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2 Comments

  1. tertius said on December 27, 2008:

    Hey Mr D Olsen;

    i just finished this baby, been playing it non stop for days…erm i mean nights into wee hours of the morning..my verdict…awesome this game was just stunnng, it was really or rather felt like i have just gone through a marathon of predator meets alien meets event horizon trilogy. EA deserves all the credit they can for such a peace of art. it’s been a while since i had such a great experience in the cosmos and cannot wait for the next. also played it on ps3 and it just looked gorgeous!!

  2. Kendall said on January 21, 2009:

    D,
    Great review. What I would add is that “Dead Space” is the most atmospheric game I have ever played and thus its most redeeming quality for me. The degree to which one feels immersed in the game setting is second to none, even surpassing first-person shooters such as Doom3, Half-Life 2, Far Cry, etc. which have the inherent advantage of being presented in the first-person perspective. The graphics, as you mentioned, are nothing short of phenomenal (I played the PC version w/ a GTX280, 1680×1050, all settings on high) and are the chief facilitator of the ambiance with the beautiful lighting effects being of note and the meticulously designed claustrophobic environments really providing a sense of tension and nowhere to run. However, I cannot emphasize how much the sound plays into it as well, especially if played on a surround system. And by sound, I mean sound effects as there is no music to speak of. I was taken initially aback at how powerful and convincing the basic foot stomp sounds. You get the impression of the force exerted and the heaviness of the suit your character bears. The distant voices that are occasionally heard mumbling/chanting can get downright disturbing. Don’t get me started on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

    Another notable are the fatalities. Getting killed in “Dead Space” is a treat. I enjoyed the grotesque fatalities so much that any time I encountered a new enemy, I would immediately die. And sometimes I would die again just to relive the creative, unadulterated carnage. I have been a fan of the MK series from the very beginning – this game brings back the shock and awe of the old SubZero / Kano fatalities. And remember, there were no standards at that time (Technocop, maybe?) so getting floored was pretty easy – today, excessive gore is the status quo, making it much more difficult to stand out.

    Other than that, I commend the game being able to stand on pure gameplay and atmosphere alone. The story is pretty awful and it is really only revealed in the last 3 or so chapters. Any other game, I would’ve quit as an involved story is typically what keeps me playing. For the first 75% of the game, it was unlock this door, fix this generator, untether that asteroid, etc. Gameplay is actually highly reminiscent of Doom 3 except that the Dead Space formula somehow does not get tiresome even though it is disgustingly repetitive:
    1) Get new frivolous task.
    2) Walk into new area.
    3) Get crap scared out of you by onslaught of monsters.
    4) Dismember said monsters before being be-headed, cut in half, swallowed alive, possessed, etc.
    5) Complete task, upgrade equipment.
    6) Repeat ad nauseam.

    Although most games may be broken down into a similar simplistic formula, there will often be an intriguing story to make it stick. Here, it was simply that I couldn’t stop craving the desire to get that feel of tension and discomfort that the next room or corridor would provide and the sadistic satisfaction of severing the legs off a creature and making it walk on its hands towards me while I finished it off.

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