Reviews: DEAD SPACE (Video Game)

Posted by Peter Hall - October 19th 2008 @ 8:43 pm

No, that is not a typo in the title, for the first time ever HND has multiple reviews for the same item.  Today we talk DEAD SPACE, a survival horror video game on 360, PS3 and PC from Electronic Arts.  I’ve always wanted to have multiple perspectives on the same thing run at the same time, so this was the perfect opportunity.  It isn’t exactly a round table discussion as there are only two people involved, but hey, gotta start somewhere.

First up is a take on the game from guest Matt Jordan.  Next up is my own take, but instead of writing an additional, typical review, I’m going to supplement Matt’s thoughts and play devil’s advocate in some regards.  Maybe down the line we’ll have a third person come in and do the same to mine.  I apologize if this results in a loonngg read, but unlike a two hour movie, I think something you’re looking to spend 10-20+ hours interacting with needs a comprehensive vetting.

Oh, and just so everyone knows, Matt and I both played DEAD SPACE on the 360; I have no reason to believe the experience will be any different on PS3 or PC.

DEAD SPACE, Developed by EA Redwood Shores, published by Electronic Arts
Review written by Matt Jordan

I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I’m sitting in the basement, lights off(per my best friend’s orders. I am creeping down the hallway of an abandoned mansion, gun at the ready. I’m concentrating on the corner at the end of the hallway, just knowing a zombie will be around it, waiting to eat my flesh. I pull back on the thumb stick to slow down and take a deep breath. Suddenly there is a crash of glass and a zombie Doberman is on top of me. I scream… I jump …I’m dead. And damn it, I forgot to save.

Those of you who have been gaming since the original Playstation days remember this scene well. It is from RESIDENT EVIL. Many games have tried to duplicate that fear-induced adrenaline rush we all got from RESIDENT EVIL (BIOSHOCK, the DOOM remake for 360 and SILENT HILL are a few recent ones to look into), but none have been able to capture what we horror movie fans love so much… until now.

The first choice you will be faced with is adjusting the dark/light level of your TV for the game. Be careful not to make the game too bright, trust me on this one.

I’m not going to give the whole story; I’m sure anyone reading this knows it by now, and if not you can check the web. The main character is Isaac Clarke (I’ve heard this is a nod to author Arthur C. Clarke). You arrive on the Ishimura to investigate why the ship’s crew and the colony on the planet below stopped communicating, as well as to find Nicole, Isaac’s girl. After that the shit hits the fan. The ship is filled with former humans called necromorphs reminiscent of THE THING monster and extremely well animated.

The first thing about this game I fucking love is the camera. Instead of seeing the action from behind the main character, the angle is slightly askew, kind of over the shoulder. You see more on the right side of the screen, forcing you to turn sharply to the left when aiming to that side. It also leaves you wide open for necromorph attacks coming from your left – I was caught off guard a couple times during the first few levels.

The controls are very smooth. The melee combat actions are a blast. You have the option to ‘curb stomp’ – try this after you’ve killed one of the necromorphs… very fun. Right trigger will allow you to punch, or swing, with the chosen weapon. The reaction time when choosing melee takes some getting used to: it’s not fast, and the necromorphs are smart and may duck your attack so you have to time them perfectly.

There is no traditional HUD display, instead there is a holographic menu that appears when you need it or when NPCs are contacting you. This leaves the screen open to enjoy the graphics. You’ll be able to pick up data tapes and journals with tidbits of story info as you explore. By clicking the right thumb stick you pull up an objective line showing which direction to go if you get lost in the hallways, very helpful. There are areas of the ship that are zero gravity. Naturally movement is different in these rooms. You can jump from floor to ceiling or vice versa.

As you explore you will come across “power nodes.” These will allow you to upgrade your suit, weapons, and many of your accessories at “benches.” They also will give you access to some locked rooms. The nodes are rare and hard to find, so you have to be careful how to use them. You can purchase them at the store locations but I suggest you save your credits for the weapon and suit upgrades.

There are five main weapons which can be upgraded and/or bought at store locations throughout the ship. Your main weapon at the start of the game is the Plasma Cutter, which is very fun to use. I am impressed that the game forces you to take it slowly; this is not a run-and-gun type of game. The necromorphs have to be taken apart piece by piece, literally. You have to take out the legs and then the arms before they go down and some are fast.  Very, very fast.

Along with the weapons you have two unique abilities, Stasis and Kinesis. Stasis allows you to slow down the faster necromorphs as they approach, which has saved my ass countless times. This comes in very handy in some of the small corridors and cramped rooms where more then one necromorph attacks you. It’s also fun to use in the zero gravity rooms. Kinesis can be used to move objects and fire projectiles.

The graphics in this game are creepily stunning. Particularly, the developers knew what they were doing with shadows. You have to take it slow when rounding corners and some of the rooms have a very cool strobe effect. The sound design is one of best I’ve heard, surrounding you throughout the game. You can hear Isaac’s boots on the floor, his breathing when he gets pumped up. And everywhere you go the necromorphs are close… and you hear them. Always, always hear them.  There is an echo effect to every sound that makes it hard to pinpoint where the necromorphs are coming from or even if they are in the same room. The voice work is not bad, but not the best I’ve heard in a video game. An interesting side note, horror fans: I’ve heard Dario Argento voices Dr. Kyne.

The game has all the elements that are missing from so many recent horror movies. A good story, interesting characters, and is genuinely scary. Overall I haven’t had this much fun playing off line since BIOSHOCK.

Also, go to the XBOX Live Marketplace for two suit upgrades available until October 28th.

Counter Thoughts, by me, Peter Hall:

Ah, where to begin…

Well, first off, I agree with most of what Matt has said, which is to say DEAD SPACE is one badass game.  We haven’t had a survival horror game this original in quite some time.  I could recommend it on that foundation alone, as I think EW Redwood Shores deserves a severe severed arm pat on the back for thinking as far outside the box as they did.

The first bit of intuition comes in the method of dispatching enemies, which as Matt pointed out is take them apart piece by piece.  Sure, you can take them down with enough shots to the midsection, but the fastest way is to cut off any combination of head(s), arms or legs.  Sounds easy, but it proves quite difficult when the monstrosities go from slowly shambling to end zone rushing, flailing their nightmarish limbs wildly all the while.  Making this even worse is the need to conserve ammo, so you’ve really got to make the dismembering shots count.

Setting the story on a failing spaceship in the future is a perfect fit for the genre.  It allows for moments of zero gravity or zero oxygen, in which case you no longer need to watch ammo or health, but your air supply as well.  And this is where the brilliant lack of a HUD comes into play.  I have got to give EA a hand for the no-HUD interface.  Not that this is the first game to ever do so, but none have done it as eloquently as DEAD SPACE.  It leaves the screen wide open, forcing you to pay attention to every grisly detail of the massacred, alien over run spaceship.

Unfortunately, that last bit is what holds me back from loving DEAD SPACE, resigning me to merely like it a whole hell of a lot.  The story is not up to snuff with the rest of the game’s innovative presentation or game mechanics.  I hate it in games when the character you play rarely speaks.  I despise it and cannot understand the reason why developers take that route.  How am I supposed to get involved with a story when my avatar in the story never gets involved, just gets bossed around.  I see why this was necessary to DEAD SPACE’s methodology, but that doesn’t mean it was ideal.  Show me some cinematics, some heavily scripted interaction, not occasional sequences inbetween huge bouts of finding tape recorders and text logs.  Yep, turns out DEAD SPACE is just another game in which you solve minimal puzzles or go from one corridor to the next to find bits and bobs to make a machine work again.

That formula is tried and true, working just as well here as it did in RESIDENT EVIL.  That’s fine, but if you’re going to innovate in almost every other department, why settle with average storytelling?  Give me some choices to make other than how to best cut the tentacles off of an alien baby looking thing.  Maybe I was spoiled by MASS EFFECT (another 360 Science Fiction set game that was actually engrossing in its story), but I find little investment in DEAD SPACE’s plot.

Even the stasis mechanism in the game, which allows you to slow down time, is rarely utilized as a puzzle solver.  Save for a few scarce instances, you could get through the entire game without using it.  Maybe I was spoiled by the magnificent time-bending platformer BRAID, but I’m underwhelmed by the feature here.  Sure, I love slowing down a necromorph, slicing his legs out from under him and then watching time catch back up with his helpless fall to ground.  Other than that devilish use, the feature is largely under funded.

And while I’m on a roll with complaints, let’s talk weaponry.  The Plasma Cutter, the first gun in the game, shoots out a small linear beam that will slice through flesh with a sizzle.  The alternate fire on it changes the beam of the gun from a vertical to a horizontal slit, allowing you to compensate for creepy crawlies that may have more than just arms to cut off.  It is a brilliant gun perfectly designed for the gameplay and that’s the problem: you don’t need any other weapon.  Sure, there are flamethrowers, plasma rifles and even a saw blade that levitates in front of you, but they’re not nearly as effective or as fun as the first gun you get in the game.  The developers even added an achievement in the 360 version (and presumably a trophy in the PS3 version) for beating the game using only the Plasma Cutter.  And you could do that without any extreme difficulty, as there are no enemies or situations in which any weapon other than the cutter is hugely preferable.

Those are relatively minor complaints in the scope of the game, though, and are complaints that only register because DEAD SPACE is so unique in more important areas that you expect it to be as unique elsewhere.  But even with said caveats, this is the best hybrid of Sci-Fi and Horror that us genre nuts have had the opportunity to get our hands on so far this year.  DEAD SPACE is a frightening, gory and, to an unsettling extent, truly fucked up, meticulously developed and innovative game.

For the new generation of gamers that weren’t weened on the thrills of the original RESIDENT EVILs, I have no doubt that DEAD SPACE will be as signficant a landmark to their gaming legacy as RE was to us seasoned gamers.  Having played far too many games to be considered casual, I regretfully declare DEAD SPACE a great game, just not the greatest game.  But if you’re casual and a horror lover lusting for a new drug, dust off that controller, DEAD SPACE is worth checking out.

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  1. October 19th, 2008 | 11:51 pm | #1

    I can’t read this review, must be unbiased. I gotta get this for my PC, I’ll be sure to throw in my 2 cents and make the multiple perspective thing perfect-er.

  2. October 20th, 2008 | 8:37 am | #2

    “there are no enemies or situations in which any weapon other than the cutter is hugely preferable”

    This is a disappointment. A good portion of the pre-release “developer’s diaries” and so forth had the designers talking about how you’d have to think about handling each enemy differently, and to see that this doesn’t reflect on the weaponry is disheartening. There really aren’t *any* enemies you can’t rid yourself of with the first weapon given?

    What about replayability? Do either of you see yourself playing through this again? If there are no online modes or co-op or anything, it’s sounding like a rental.

  3. October 20th, 2008 | 9:18 am | #3

    John, unfortunately, no, not really. There are a few enemies in which another weapon can have a slight advantage. For example there is a fat blob thing that, if not killed properly will fall to the ground and a dozen plus annoyingly tiny creatures will burst from him. In that scenario, the flamethrower is best for taking out the little guys, but even still, you can avoid the scenario altogether by just dispatching the fat blob properly in the first place.

    There are some weapons that are quite cool and can clear a room in glorious ways, sure, but there is nothing I’ve encountered in the game that couldn’t be handled by the Plasma Cutter.

    Sadly I’d lean more towards the rental side because of the lack of replayability. If you’re anal and want to get all the achievements or explore all of the locked rooms in the ship or scour around for every audio and text log, sure the game has tons of replay, but I personally don’t care about that stuff.

    DEAD SPACE is certainly an A-list, blockbuster title befitting of the $60 premium we’re all used to by now, but considering the economy is in such dire straits, I can’t bend to the Must Own side.

  4. Matt J.
    October 20th, 2008 | 3:13 pm | #4

    John,I agree with Peter. A definite must play…but one time through is enough. I personally keep every game I buy and revist after a few months (I still have the Wolfestien remake for XBOX). But as much as I love the game…not sure if it would be anything new a 2nd time around(unlike Mass Effect).

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