We’ve all heard it said about originality being overrated and all that, but in the case of the latest project to emerge from EA’s Californian creative hotbed, that’s pretty close to the mark. Dead Space makes no attempt to disguise its influences: Aliens, Event Horizon, Resident Evil, BioShock, Half- Life 2 and Gears Of War to name six classics it’s borrowed significantly from. But call it economical rather than derivative, this sci-fi survival horror amounts to far more than the sum of its parts.
You’re Isaac Clarke, an engineer unfortunate enough to be aboard a small repair ship bound for the damned-to-hell mining vessel, the USG Ishimura. You don’t know that of course, just that there’s a distress signal being transmitted and all communications are otherwise dead. As these things go, you’re being lead by a bone-headed superior who, rather than trust his survival instincts and hot-tail in the opposite direction from the accursed craft, insists you all follow through with your orders and dock to investigate. While you’re making your approach, you’re hit by a chunk of debris, forced to make an emergency landing in the docking bay, stranding the four of you aboard the Ishimura with all its nightmarish denizens. Oh shit.
Dead Space takes its first lesson in player immersion from Gears Of War: third-person perspective, camera just over the right shoulder with Isaac placed to the left-hand side and an appropriate amount of bob. Isaac is equipped with a life-support suit called a RIG, which projects holographic images of objects he can interact with onto your field of view. His inventory, map, mission log and journal can be brought up at a single button-press and are displayed in the same way. As is fashionable in shooters these days, there’s no HUD either, so Isaac’s health is lit up in vertebrae-like segments along the spine of his RIG, while ammo is shown on your weapon. It’s very cinematic and, despite seeing the back of Isaac’s noggin for most of the game, very effective in drawing you in… especially when faced with the horrific Necromorph infestation.
EA has used every single one of Capcom’s tricks used in the Resident Evil series to scare the brown pants off you, plus a few more. Horribly disfigured and disturbing human parodies? Check. Said parodies bursting out of walls and ceilings? Check. Parodies pretending to be corpses and leaping up at the last moment? Check. Parodies wearing women’s underwear and posing provocatively for you… well, no. But think of any other horror convention previously used to disturb the viewer and you’re pretty sure to find it in Dead Space. The Necromorphs come thicker and faster than Resident Evil’s freak show did, plus ammunition isn’t in as short supply, so past the first chapter, the general fear factor begins to wear out. It still has the capacity to shock you though, especially once you’ve let your guard down a little, and EA has also taken advantage of Dead Space’s setting to change its own rules and up the ante for the player.
No matter how disturbing and unpredictable your time aboard the Ishimura is, at least you can rely on the laws of physics – most of the time. Unfortunately, the mining ship, through sabotage and neglect, has suffered a few major prangs resulting in areas of zero gravity and breached sections exposed to the vacuum of space, sealed off by the ship’s safety systems. Opening an airlock results in your very limited oxygen supply ticking off a timer next to your health bar. The rush to reach the next airlock before your oxygen expires is complicated by the lack of gravity; down and up no longer exist, so using your zero-g jump to get about can be incredibly disorientating.
Getting lost in a three-dimensional maze of debris isn’t hard, and even if you do find your way to an airlock with time to spare, it takes an excruciating few seconds for Isaac to hack the door open, the door to close, the lock to reseal and the air to return. All that, and we haven’t even mentioned the fact that nasty undead space monsters don’t need stuff like air, warmth and pressurisation, so they’re quite inclined to take advantage of your duress and hunt you down at your most vulnerable. And all the while they’re coming to get you, the only thing you’ll hear is Isaac’s increasingly heavy breathing, his heartbeat and the muffled thump of his gravity boots, because, as everyone knows, there’s no sound in a vacuum…
To tackle the bipedal, flying, face-hugging, wallcrawling and even foetal Necromorphs, you have access to a small amount of specialised weapons, including a pulse rifle and flamethrower, though you begin with the plasma cutter and a simple melee haymaker, plus a heavy stomp for anything hugging the ground. Necromorphs are extremely resistant to being hit in traditional target zones, and while shooting them in the face or chest will knock them back, you’ll get much better results from blasting limbs away and stomping on the twitching remains. Limb shots take time to line up, so Dead Space’s combat system is complemented by your RIG’s statis ability, a focused version of bullet-time that temporarily slows a target. Stasis can also be used with Kinesis, which works much like Half-Life 2’s gravity gun, to help solve the physical puzzles thrown at you from time to time, such as rapidly slamming doors and heavy objects obstructing your path.
The list of comparisons goes on – Dead Space plays like a top 100 killer gameplay features list of the last ten years, but we never found ourselves questioning whether EA had made this game its own or not. It’s immersive, disturbing, clever, challenging and disgusting in equal measures. Best of all, with a medium to high-end PC it will look even better than it does on the 360. It’s a no-brainer for us, you absolutely must play this game.