*WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*
Dead Space was one of very few “horror” games to be released in 2008 and the horror genre has been distinctly lacking in recent years with Amnesia: The Dark Descent being the only real exception. Developed and published by Electronic Arts, Dead Space was released on all platforms except the Wii (Dead Space: Extraction released shortly afterwards, initially exclusively for the Wii) and is a survival horror third-person shooter.
The story of Dead Space falls into the same (not uniquely) generic conspiracy theory storyline that seems to be dominating gaming nowadays (I’ll stop trying to be funny now) but the universe created for the game is fascinating. A religion has been formed based on the visions of one Michael Altman. Called Unitology, (any resemblance to Scientology has been categorically denied by the developers) it claims that an artefact known as “the Marker” will bring about the unification of the human race to one mind, soul and purpose. A mining ship known as the USG Ishimura finds what the crew believe to be the Marker and begin extracting it from the planet Aegis VII. Upon unearthing the Marker, the colonists on the planet become violent and mentally unstable, committing suicide and killing their fellow man en mass. The “infection”, if you like, spreads to the Ishimura almost as soon as the Marker is brought aboard and eventually a distress signal is sent out asking for help. This signal is picked up by Isaac Clarke, Kendra Williams and Zach Hammond on board the USG Kellion and thus begins your saga as Isaac Clarke.
Throughout the game, Isaac never talks at all, even at his most emotional state. The closest he does come to speaking are the thunderous roars he emits as he breaks supply crates with his iron boot. Isaac’s mute character trait was a deliberate one and according to developer interviews, Isaac was made to be an empty shell for the player to completely take the role of, a la Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman. The problem here is the fact that Isaac’s motivation for going to the Ishimura is very personal to his character, not the player’s. Whereas Gordon Freeman’s motivation was the same as the player’s in Half-Life (ie get the hell out of Black Mesa!), in Dead Space, Isaac is looking for his girlfriend, Nicole, who works on board the Ishimura, who the player has absolutely no experience with. Half-Life 2 showed the world how to properly care about a character. The player, as Gordon, teams up with Alyx Vance: a cool, beautiful, intelligent woman who is characterised amazingly well and who the player genuinely feels sorry for whenever tragedy falls upon her, aided in no small part to the massive amount of interaction (not that kind) the player has with her. Isaac’s girlfriend, and I find it strange that she is actually just his girlfriend since it would possibly be more motivational or relevant if she was his wife, has almost no interaction with the player other than a short video message in the game’s introduction or in Isaac’s own hallucinations. In short, Nicole is completely unnecessary as a character and it should have just been Isaac’s job to fix the Ishimura, no romance needed to be crammed into the story. I realise of course that, towards the end of the game, Nicole helps the player realise Isaac’s ever-decreasing grasp on reality and his descent into madness but to be honest it isn’t implemented well enough for me to care about her character or even about the impact she has on Isaac, especially since Isaac can’t actually express emotions through voice or through a steel helmet which he only removes at the end of the game.
The Ishimura itself is a horrible place and not just because of the blood and body parts everywhere. Grey, grey and more grey seemed to be the motto for the design of the ship’s interior which makes navigation a bit tricky. Though the navigation issue is negated by Isaac’s “pimp stance” (as described by Helloween4545 on youtube.com), which generates a line on the floor for Isaac to follow to his next objective, it also negates the need for the player to think in any way about their objective. The “pimp stance” has the unfortunate quality of always being available to the player, and not just pointing them to the vague area of an objective but pointing at the exact point you need to do something at. As before, it negates any need for thinking and lulls the player into an almost brain-dead state. To quote The Dark Knight’s Joker, “I just do, things”. Throughout most of the game you’ll be given objectives by Kendra while she sits on her throne eating grapes. It wouldn’t be so annoying if her character wasn’t so dislikeable but it does make her death the most satisfying moment in the game.
Having “survival horror” in the genre description of the game, one would expect to be scared, and to struggle to survive. Pretty obvious right? Apparently not. The game gives you massively overpowered guns and health packs around every other corner. Talk about missing the point. With a currency system for buying items one would also expect to have to use this on health packs like there’s no tomorrow. However, the final boss in Dead Space is the single easiest boss in existence! I got hit once by an absolutely massive tentacle which only took roughly 10% health from me and I managed to kill it without using a single health kit in complete contrast to the rest of the game. It’s a disappointing finale for a mediocre game. As for the rest of the game, health can be found very easily, power nodes (used to upgrade your weapons) are a little trickier but mostly just need the tiniest bit of extra exploration, and ammo is dropped by pretty much every enemy in the game and in almost every crate. Admittedly I did have to use quite a number of medium health packs along the way but by the time I had reached the final boss I had found, not even bought, ten large health packs which replenish all of your health no matter how near to death you are. In fact, I distinctly remember selling a few over the course of the game! Surviving in Dead Space, as it turns out, is actually pretty easy (on normal difficulty anyway).
Enemies throughout the game are called “Necromorphs” which are horrifically modified humans with one purpose, to kill. These creatures have no recollection of their previous lives and, united through their single role in existence, are a deadly and, should be, downright terrifying force to reckon with. As an interactive medium, video games should be the home of horror, allowing the player to experience every sense of the protagonist since, in a unique to video games way, the protagonist is the player. Unfortunately, Dead Space is yet another example of a horror game that just isn’t scary. The animated film, Dead Space: Downfall, which was released before the game came out (excellent advertising now that I think about it), was actually far more terrifying than the game! Gore in ‘Downfall seemed to be a fairly realistic representation of how the human body reacts to forces, whereas in the game, limbs fall off if so much as a light breeze touches them. Come to think of it, the dead bodies of the crew of the Ishimura left so little impact on me that I stomped on all of them until their head, arms and legs were all detached from their torso. This is absolutely not how a player should be reacting to something which is supposed to inspire fear. Necromorphs themselves are well modelled for the most part and there is enough variety in the types of enemies for the player not to feel bored with them but some of the necromorph models look too alien for the player to feel a human connection with. Quake 4, a first-person shooter about an alien race made from part organic material and part machine (possibly inspired by Star Trek’s Borg), was actually a more traumatic experience to play through because the player actually feels a human connection to some of the monstrosities the player encounters. Dead Space: Downfall also did this well, with some characters distinctly recognisable after being transformed, making the viewer both feel sorry for, and hate, the newly transformed character. Dead Space has, if memory serves, two instances of a character you have actually interacted with turning into a necromorph, and neither time does the transformed version actually resemble the character in any way. Necromorphs are something that should be the scariest thing you have ever encountered, the walking dead, without any concept of emotions or empathy and far more powerful in every way to humans or the classic zombies/infected, but all too quickly the player doesn’t see “transformed human”, they only see targets which need to be mindlessly killed.
A Necromorph “Leaper”
EA’s Dead Space could have been the horror game that the games industry had been hoping for: terrifying enemies, a fascinating setting and a well thought-out story. Unfortunately, the numerous mistakes made at every turn from the repetition of the combat to losing sight of the target genre, EA failed to make a masterpiece and instead gave us a generic, repetitive, grey shooter with no lasting impact on the player and no replay value whatsoever. Is it a bad game? No. Is it a good game? No. Dead Space is a ten-hour time-killer, and, unfortunately, nothing more.