Are you one of those types who looks at survival horror games and scoffs “Survival horror? Haven’t met a horror I can’t survive yet.” If so, well, bravo to you, and here, have a nice lotion for those mighty balls of yours – they must chafe. We can be a tad on the delicate side here at Atomic, some more so than others, so we’re not quite so blasé about EA’s latest...
Let’s just say that after the first chapter of Dead Space – at night and alone of course – we had to go through the office, turn on every light, and then put on some loud happy music to chill out.
And then change our pants.
Dead Space takes survival horror into space, aboard the lost – and now unfortunately found – USG Ishimura, a ‘planet cracker’ out in the far reaches of space mining vital minerals. Your job is to find out why it went off the grid, and fix the probl; except, the problem turns out to be much more complex than a faulty transmitter.
Without giving too much away, something has gone horribly wrong on the Ishimura, and it’s crew has either mutated, gone insane, or been torn limb from bloody limb by the time you get there. You take on the role of engineer Isaac Clarke (special prize to whomever picks the references), and it’s up to you to rescue the crew of your rescue ship and get off the stricken Ishimura.
The gameplay is tense and fraught with moments of sheer bloody terror. We’re saying ‘bloody’ a lot because the game is just that, quite literally. Torn flesh sprays out blood in copious amounts; it smears the walls, and you may well end up pissing it in some of the nastier set piece fights. To say this is a game of visceral shocks is akin to saying World War 2 merely had something to do with Germans. The game’s GUI-less design – all relevant info is actually displayed literally on your armoured engineering suit – helps keep you even further immersed in the unfolding horror.
Every aspect of the gameplay and graphic design is engineered to evoke dread – the fitful rumble of the engines, far off howls and screams, the creak of suspended gantries and the strobing of emergency lights. And that’s without even mentioning what you’re fighting.
Dead Space’s monsters look as though they could give John Carpenter’s Thing a run for its tentacle horrible money. Their flesh is slimy and putrescent, dripping blood and maggots. Limbs contort in the wrong directions, or have atrophied entirely in favour of other, more haphazard arrangements of stabby appendages. And it’s these limbs that form the core of the action in the game.
Being an engineer, you’re far more comfortable with working tools than guns, and being a mining ship, there are many such tools at your disposal. You learn early on from reports – and hastily scrawled graffiti – that the gibbering hordes are too tough to take down with body shots. You have to shoot limbs off, usually two or three, to kill these things. Some are slow and easy to take, other are fast and take a little more care in how you target them. But it’s when you get a three or more coming at you that you really need to think strategically.
Thankfully, cutting and slicing weapons aren’t the only tool in your box. You’ve also got the ability to freeze nasties in place using stasis equipment. This slows them down, though you only ever have very limited reserves of energy. In a big fight, the choice of what targets to slow down, and when, and then what order to shoot, disable and destroy, can make the difference between life and a very messy death.
Dead Space is a great combination of a slow burn story, moody atmospherics, clever hard SF touches, and brutal gameplay. It’s a near flawless example of great - yet simple - game design.