15th Oct 2008 | 13:57
Resident Evil 4 has long been hailed the jewel in survival horror's thorny crown. No one has really come close to jostling Capcom's T-Virus infected romp through Eastern Europe from its top spot since it arrived back in 2005. That is until now, of course.
Dead Space sees EA taking small steps forward into grown-up, adult, original IPs that don't involve sequels or titles based on existing mega-properties. It's a good move. This is bold, bleak gaming from the haunting opening credits to the pulse pounding finish that takes you to the outer reaches of space and into the mouth of madness.
Stunningly detailed, expertly paced and lavishly slaved over by Glen Schofield and his crew at EA Redwood, Dead Space should be classed as one of the finest looking and intelligently crafted games in many a moon; a true testament to EA's plan to shed industry-old preconceptions and start building new bridges with original and deeply innovative material.
The story so far
In case you've been hunkered under a rock for the past year let me recap. You are Isaac Clarke (named after sci-fi legends Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke), a mining engineer sent in to repair a city-sized spaceship called the Ishimura, a planet-cracker stranded out in the far reaches of the starry black abyss - its entire crew vanished without trace.
Until now. Once you arrive on deck you soon find out that you're not alone. The Ishimura's crew have not disappeared; they've been transformed into twisted, monstrous versions of their former selves called Necromorphs. It seems that a strange artefact or Marker dug up on the mysterious planet below and brought onboard the ship has unleashed an evil force which has visited an unholy vengeance upon them.
The only way to cleanse the Ishimura of these skin-sucking shadow lurkers is through dismemberment - Dead Space's core shooting mechanic. EA Redwood haven't held back on one single sliver of crimson slime, this is a guts 'n' gore-filled rollercoaster ride in a spacesuit (Why hasn't anyone thought of this up until now?) that will have you ducking for cover and scrambling for the light switch.
Don't! Stomping through the Ishimura's dank, gore- stained corridors with the lights out is a superbly choreographed nerve-shredding gaming experience and a real testament to Redwood's understanding of how horror functions within the sphere of videogames while at the same time blending classic elements borrowed from film and literature. Dead Space dazzlingly hits all the right notes at all the right moments, jolting you from your seat even though you knew it was coming.
Unmistakably filmic in its approach to atmosphere with a huge debt owed to Ridley Scott's Alien (look out for Redwood's nod to the face hugger nestled in there) and Paul Anderson's Event Horizon, there's a tightly woven story at work here that extends far beyond the reaches of the videogame realm into both comics - with Anthony Johnson and Ben Templesmith at the helm - and an animated movie just released, penned by comic veterans Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray.
It's an epic story steeped in a religious subtext built around a belief known as Unitology (referenced heavily in the game, but explored deeper in the comic and animated flick).
In fact, it's the lengths to which people will go to in order to enforce those beliefs in Unitology that eventually triggers the ungodly catastrophe Isaac faces on the Ishimura. There are no cutscenes, so in order to completely grasp what has happened, you have to fully pay attention to the text and audio logs you collect - as both are essential to understand the bigger picture if you don't plan on reading the comic.
This is a horror game first and foremost, so naturally you expect gallons of gore, but to keep things from feeling like a tireless trudge through bloodbath after bloodbath, Redwood has thrown in a few puzzles along the way that require a little brainpower and some help from Isaac's abilities, all of which are tapered to his suit.
As you progress early in the game, Isaac collects and attaches two pivotal bits of gear to his rig that allow him to slow down objects through stasis or manipulate them with the power of kinesis. Said abilities best come into play during the physics-led puzzles or if you find yourself staring down at a wave of enemies that need to be slowed down before being dispatched swiftly through a quick succession of perfectly aimed plasma cutter blasts.
Stasis, unlike telekinesis, will drain so you'll need to keep an open eye for refilling stations and packs dotted around the ship. They can also be purchases in the multitude of Stores (see the Shop Smart boxout above) found in every area of the Ishimura. Like ammo packs and weapons, these are stored in your inventory, which is accessible in real-time thereby cutting out menus that yank you out of the flow of the game.
You'll also get to take hulking laser cannons for a thundering spin a little later in the game on two occasions. Firstly when you're tasked with repelling meteorites from the hull while your partner, Lt Zach Hammond tries to get the ships defences back up and running, and secondly when you come face to face with one of the game's monstrously sized bosses, a pulsing, tentacled mass of flesh latched on to the Ishimura.
Each weapon in Isaac's arsenal - plasma cutter, flamethrower, Ripper, pulse rifle - can be upgraded by collecting nodes dotted throughout locations and used at work benches. It comes equipped with a secondary fire button. Unlike some games, where secondary fire serves as nothing more than a flashier way to paint a wall with an enemy's innards, Redwood has injected a little more thought into alternative fire here.
For instance, the secondary fire option on the plasma cutter flips the beam horizontally, making it a lot easier to take down enemies hurtling towards you by swiftly slicing off their legs with a precise shot. Of course, that won't stop them entirely. In most cases, you'll have to go for the deathblow by separating a horror's head from its shoulders. With a camera mounted tight to Isaac's shoulder in the same perspective as Resi 4, Redwood keeps your peripheral vision limited for maximum effect, opting only to pull out every now and then to showcase a new environment.
It's by no means new, or original, but in sticking to typical survival horror camera mechanics, it keeps the tension riding high especially during those moments where you enter a wide open space like the Ishimura's bridge or the hydroponics plant. Here, you're unable to see what lurks above, below or behind you - but you are still able to hear the little bastards scuttle in the shadows.
In dispensing with cutscenes altogether, Dead Space allows you to become much more a part of the scares as you play through it. Rather than watch something roll out in a cinematic, you'll walk straight into the scene (sometimes wishing you didn't!).
Then there are more disturbing moments like rounding a corner to the noise of a slow thudding only to come face to face with a bloodied, mangled Ishimura crew member beating his brains out against the steel wall.
Entering the much talked about zero-gravity moments is yet another reason to believe the hype Dead Space has been gathering as objects and body parts drift aimlessly in the open space, floating off as you bump past them on your way to planting a beacon on a meteorite or disposing of radioactive material via an airlock. But when zero-gravity is combined with oxygen starved environments Dead Space truly shines, specifically in its sound design.
Everything around you is completely muffled, bar Isaac's strained breathing as his oxygen meter slowly counts down to zero. I found myself walking across the ship's hull in the middle of a meteorite storm, volume at full tilt with only Isaac's breathing and the dulled BOOM! BOOM! of car-sized meteorites crashing against the steel barricades that I needed to hug for cover just seconds apart.
Nobody has been able to topple Resident Evil 4 from the survival horror top spot - until now, of course. As Dead Space is an entirely single-player game, Redwood has been able to focus all its energy on perfecting that experience. We're already deep into a new generation of consoles and it was time for someone to step up to the plate and deliver the goods. Dead Space does it in spades. Meet the new master of survival horror.