Dead Space

As with most psychological horror-survival games, _Dead Space_ puts our hero, Isaac Clarke (named after sci-fi writers Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke) isolated with a small team in a hostile environment filled with grotesque aliens. However, unlike many titles in this already overflowing genre, _Dead Space_ is different. 2002’s _The Thing_ attempted to create an environment where no-one could be trusted and where every new room held a terrifying surprise, but it failed dismally in that its atmosphere was repetitive and its storyline completely uncompelling. _Dead Space_ starts with a fairly inauspicious and clichéd Event Horizon-esque cut –scene: a team of specialists are called out to repair a damaged communication relay on the enormous ‘planet cracker’ ship, the USG Ishimura. Fortunately, this is the only conventional part of this terrifyingly original survival game.

Possibly _Dead Space’s_ greatest asset is its graphics and creative scenery. It boasts some of the most exceptionally twisted visuals, combined with a superb physics engine that makes you feel every hit, every stamp and every creak of the ship’s twisted hull. Corpses litter hallways, papers lie in scattered heaps and vents scrape and squeal, constantly keeping you on the edge. No part of the ship is entirely quiet or without danger. The enemies, grotesque monsters called Necromorphs – human corpses mutated by an unknown alien organism – move through vents and attack with blistering speed, unhindered by doors, meaning there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ area. Even accessing stores, the inventory or the map is done in real time, leaving Isaac completely at the mercy of the Necromorphs, making changing weapons or buying upgrades a distinctly nerve-wracking experience.

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As this is a survival game, weapons are clearly a primary feature. Don’t expect _Doom_ style mega-blasters. Isaac has to make do with what he has and, as an engineer, this means tools. This does not, however, mean that you can’t expect excitement – plasma-cutters, hull-saws or the more extreme rock cracking shock-cannons all provide plenty of firepower and imaginatively gory effects. However, to make combat a bit less conventional, _Dead Space_ introduces the problem that the Necromorphs are already dead. Such is their determination to kill you that the only way to stop them is by removing their limbs, or by ‘strategic dismemberment’ as the game prefers to term it. Even colossal damage to the torso or head of a Necromorph won’t kill it – it has to be completely unable to move before it finally gives up. This represents a huge break from the traditional ‘blast it in the face’ method, used by most survival games, and means that the player has to be much more careful. Necromorphs, sadly, do not give us the luxury of standing still and their flailing limbs are extremely difficult to target, adding a new dimension to combat.

As regards gameplay _Dead Space_ is, once again, miles ahead of its peers in terms of atmosphere. The lack of a traditional HUD, replaced instead by a health/air bar on the back of Isaac’s suit and an ammo display that only comes up when aiming, makes the game that little bit more immersive. As Isaac stumbles into a room, desperately scanning for Necromorphs, you are instantly struck by the immersive, almost cinematic aspect of the game. Grisly scenes are placed to allow for maximum effect, with the camera placing the player just behind Isaac, looking onto a dismembered corpse, or a desperate message scrawled in blood. Instead of a map, _Dead Space_ has the absolutely ingenious ‘objective finder’ – a trace of blue light that emerges from Isaac’s suit and directs the player to his next objective (although not how to complete it!). This device, at the touch of a button, removes the need to check the map, a usually risky course of action. This remarkably simple mechanism saves the player digging through menus to find the right map and, at the same time ensure that the player remains firmly inside Isaac’s suit, maintaining the horror immersion experience.

Isaac’s main objective is to escape the USG Ishimura, preferably with his love interest, Nicole, who is somewhere on the ship, whether dead or alive. This is achieved by clearing a series of self-contained areas, where the main objectives tend to be based largely on restoring power, putting out a fire or repairing the defunct transport system. Although somewhat repetitive, these missions do progress logically, starting with the simple ‘repair the tram so we can get to the bridge’, which then lets Isaac progress to the more pressing issue of repairing the engines. During these travels Isaac comes across areas of the ship so damaged that the gravity generators aren’t working or, in more extreme circumstances, vacuums which mean Isaac must use one of his precious air canisters. However, Isaac does have some serious perks to help him along. First and foremost, his suit, or RIG, gives him increased health and massively increased strength, it can also be upgraded throughout the game, which effectively works like an RPG’s skill tree, giving Isaac all sorts of helpful new abilities.

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On the physical side of things, along with an almighty ‘punch’, which seems to me an inappropriate name for something that can chop a Necromorph in two, he also has a ‘stamp’ and there is little more satisfying that crushing a stricken Necromorphs beneath Isaac’s massive boot, a thump which reverberates round the hull and is accompanied with an equally rewarding squelch. Along with the merely physical, Isaac also enjoys ‘stasis’ and ‘kinesis’, finite resources that can be recharged that allow Isaac to move heavy objects (yes, you can squash Necros with them but it’s hellishly difficult!) and slow things down, which can be entertaining if you want the time to remove every single limb from a Necromorph before it hits the deck.

_Dead Space_ has mastered the idea of immersing a player into a game. I daren’t play it at night and occasionally feel unable to play without company! The sounds of the ship are terrifying and, combined with music which crashes into random crescendos of cymbals, and the distant screams of the ship’s few surviving crew, create a truly terrifying atmosphere that will keep you at the edge of your seat long after turning off the Playstation. The engrossing story keeps you coming back for more and the outstanding visuals, gratifying combat and terrifying gameplay will keep you hooked.

However, there are certain annoyances. If you, like me, enjoy the occasional bit of company in your games, prepare to be disappointed. You are separated from your team after a mere 2 minutes and you have little opportunity to make use of them again, except through radio contact and through the occasional (and obviously impenetrable) screen. The camera view, while adding to the immersion, can seriously detract from combat and becomes incredibly difficult in combined spaces, especially against numerous enemies as the camera desperately swings round attempting to accommodate your aiming.

Equally annoyingly, the missions do become extremely repetitive. The general formula tends to be ‘go here, kill something on the way, fix a remote/tram/door/fire/console, wait for an enemy to appear as a result then walk back the way you came’, although the path will, inevitably, be strewn with new enemies. Despite these setbacks, _Dead Space_ is one of the only games where the player truly feels as though he is in a decripit spaceship; nothing can detract from its exceptional atmosphere and the sheer terror of clunking through the darkened halls whilst hearing the scuttling of Necros, or opening a door just to leap back as a dismembered corpse falls out. Definitely not one for the faint hearted!


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