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Game: Dead Space
Developer: Visceral Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Year: 2008
Reviewed: 2009/2010
Platform: PC
Genre: Third Person Shooter
Game Version: Unpatched
Reviewer: ValkyrDeath

Dead Space is EA’s first ever survival horror game! At least, it is if you believe what they said when the game was first announced. Then again, you may recognise it as the blatant lie that it is, given that EA released System Shock 2 back in 1999. It’s debatable whether those games actually are survival horror games, but there’s no way that one could be given that label without it applying to the other. Maybe that’s why EA didn’t want to bring up any comparisons between the games though. While Dead Space certainly isn’t a bad game, it’s certainly not the classic SS2 was.

Dead Space Outside
I’ve changed my mind, I didn’t want to go that way anyway.

The plot of Event Horizon Dead Space is that a distress call has been received from the USG Ishimura and a crew has been sent to investigate. You play Isaac Clarke, engineer and clumsy sci-fi author reference, who soon discovers that the crew were driven mad from hallucinations after bringing on board an artefact called The Marker. And because one plot isn’t enough, an alien parasite then began infecting the dead bodies and turning them into XenoNecromorphs. The story is told through text and audio logs, a la System Shock and Bioshock, with the occasional video communications link and cutscene. Unfortunately, the storytelling is never very compelling, thanks mostly to the rather baffling decision to make the hero mute and hiding him under a full body armour suit and helmet. Because of this, the game often tells us things, but they don’t give us much reason to care. The game implies that Isaac is here looking for his girlfriend who was amongst the crew, but there’s never any indication that he’s all that bothered about her given his voiceless and faceless nature.

My first hour in the game was unfortunately plagued by some irritating problems that really should have been sorted before the game was released. The first problems, other than the strange camera angle the game is played at which takes a few minutes of adjustment, is the broken mouse controls. Moving the mouse turns the main character extremely slowly, even on maximum sensitivity, and when switching into aiming mode it’s even worse. I’d have to drag the mouse all the way across the desk to make the protagonist rotate about 2 degrees. It basically made the game unplayable. Turning off Vsync helped slightly, but not much. Eventually, I found that turning off Vsync in the settings and then forcing it back on through graphics card drivers fixed the issue. That’s a lot of messing about that shouldn’t be necessary just to play a game. There are two possible reasons for this issue. Either it’s a bug, or as I’ve seen some people saying on the internet, it’s a feature designed to make the mouse behave like a gamepad. I find it hard to believe it’s a feature, because gamepads don’t move the character quite that slowly, and if I’m using a mouse it pretty much means I don’t want it to behave like a gamepad anyway. Plus, “features” can’t be fixed by fiddling with graphics settings. Either way, it’s either a dreadful bug, or the world’s most idiotic feature, and it’s hard to decide which is worse.

Dead Space Asteroids
Asteroids: The 2008 remake.

The next issue encountered was the first time I resumed the game after quitting. It turns out that no matter what difficulty setting you select, if you continue a save game by choosing the “Resume” option in the menu, it switches the game over to normal difficulty. Fortunately, if you were hoping to play on easy and accidentally do this, the normal setting isn’t too hard, but if you were hoping for more of a challenge then you’re out of luck. If you load your previous save game from the load menu instead of clicking resume, then you’ll be fine. Things like this wouldn’t bother me too much if they were fixed. Games are very complicated and issues are bound to sneak in. However, the game has been out for over a year and not a single patch has been released, which shows that they just don’t care. The game has sold and they have their money already, so what would it matter to EA whether people have issues with it? Gits.

Combat in the game uses a “strategic dismemberment” system. That’s what the developer’s call it anyway. Exactly what is supposed to be strategic about it is a mystery, since it basically just means you have to aim at the arms, legs and/or tentacles of the necromorphs to cut them off and kill them instead of aiming for the head as you normally would. Shots to the body do virtually nothing. Once they’re down on the ground you can stomp on them repeatedly with Isaac’s stompy boots of death, on loan from Duke Nukem. It’s a fairly effective combat system, but by the end of the game it’s become a bit too repetitive, with not enough variety in enemies to keep it exciting.

The weapons you use in Dead Space aren’t guns but rather mining equipment. Of course, it seems mining equipment in the future is gun shaped and fires ammunition. You’ll start by getting a plasma cutter (a wide beam laser gun) but as you proceed through the game you pick up various others, such as the line gun (an even wider beamed laser gun), and of course that piece of equipment well known for its uses in mining, the flamethrower. Best out of the weapons is the Ripper. The primary fire sends out a spinning blade, which hovers a few feet in front of you for a few seconds, allowing you to swing it around and slice everything to pieces. Secondary fire shoots the blade out at high speed. I’m sure firing high velocity projectiles around the place was very useful to the workmen. It’s like the designer has looked at a chainsaw and though “How can we make this even more dangerous?” They clearly have no health and safety laws in the future. Apparently the miners are made to buy their own equipment for the privilege of working too, since weapons are acquired through vending machines.

Dead Space Chair
Isaac tries desperately to get into the game of musical chairs.

In addition to the weapons, you also get some handy powers in your suit. The first and most useful of these is stasis, which allows you to slow down enemies. So just a slight variation on bullet time in other words. Later you also get the kinesis ability, allowing you to move objects from a distance. This makes sense for moving large items as you occasionally need to do, but it makes no sense at all that you have to use it to pull switches. Apparently Isaac’s hands are completely useless for anything other than firing guns. Sorry, I mean operating mining equipment. He’s not even capable of opening containers, and has to smash them by shooting them or stomping on them. Subtle.

As you explore the Von Braun Ishimura in System Shock 2 Dead Space, the weaponry mining equipment used to kill the mutants necromorphs can be upgraded by collecting power nodes. These are quite rare and can either be found occasionally around levels or purchased from the vending machines. The problem is that you need a lot of them to make any real difference. The upgrades are made by putting the nodes on a grid and they have to be placed in order. Only certain points on the grid actually do anything, so you could have to use three nodes to get one upgrade. Each individual upgrade has very little effect, so the only way they’re going to make much difference is to put every upgrade into one weapon. This basically means the most effective strategy would be the most boring. Pump every upgrade into the starting weapon, meaning you can fill the inventory with ammo without having to worry about ammo for other weapons taking up space, and storm through the game. The random ammo scattered around the levels restricts itself to the type that fits the guns you use, so you’d never run out. If you like, the nodes can also be spent upgrading your other equipment. You can upgrade your armour to give yourself more health (very useful), upgrade the stasis ability so you can use it more times before needing to recharge it, or to make it last longer (quite useful) and you can upgrade your Kinesis module to let you use your telekinesis power from a greater distance (completely useless).

Dead Space Sun
Sunsets are always so beautiful…

One thing the game does do well, possibly better than any other game I’ve played, is the interface. There’s no artificial HUD system as with most action games. Instead, all relevant information is given within the game world. Arthur C Asimov’s suit has metres on the back showing how much health, oxygen and stasis power he has left. The weapons themselves have a small display showing the ammo left in the round. Everything else is displayed via holograms, including objectives, logs, maps and inventory screens. Opening these brings up a display that hovers in front of Isaac, and moving the mouse actually rotates the camera as normal, even moving around the display. This does mean that you can’t open your inventory screen mid-battle and expect the game to pause while you hunt around for the items you want. On the other hand, if you’re in a quiet area you’re generally safe to read things at your leisure, since all the battles occur at scripted points. While the interface itself is very good, the actual contents of it aren’t always perfect. For example, the map is often useless because it always seems to start in the centre of the map for the current level. This is fine for some areas, but not for all. For example, one level has a huge long lift shaft leading up to a small room, with all the bulk of the level down below, but the map starts centred on the middle of the lift shaft, meaning to get any information from the map means spending ages spinning and zooming out every time you open it. Fortunately, there’s also a button named “breadcrumbs” in the settings, and holding that down shows your route to the next objective plotted out on the floor of the ship, which is more convenient than the map anyway. There are also problems with the health metre often not being visible when you’re in a tight space due to the weird camera angle. These problems are minor though, and the interface is generally successful.

Dead Space Necromorph
Panto season starts here: IT's BEHIND YOU!

Despite its flaws, Dead Space still had potential to be a great game if it had got one thing right: the atmosphere. The plot of the game might be a mishmash of sci-fi horror clichés but it still had the opportunity to provide plenty of scares. The game unfortunately ruins any suspense the game might have had by throwing everything they have at you in the first few minutes. The first time a dead body suddenly stands up and attacks you, it’s shocking. Five minutes later, when every one of the twenty bodies you’ve seen has done exactly the same thing, it’s not even remotely surprising. Likewise, something bursting out of a ventilation fan as you walk past might be scary, but when it happens at every single one, you’re already aiming at the necromorphs before they’ve even appeared. Every one of Dead Space’s tricks is overdone to the extent that you become desensitised to it all within the first half hour of the game. Thankfully, the game cuts down on all this later on, but by that time the damage has been done. Any atmosphere that the game might have had has been ruined by the constant attempts at Doom 3 level startle tactics.

Of more interest are the occasional sections of the game which take place in zero gravity. For these sections, you have magnetic boots that will hold you to a surface, and to get around in three dimensions you have to launch yourself towards your destination. Once you’re in motion, you can’t adjust your course until you hit the wall, ceiling or whatever other surface you’re aiming at. These segments make for some unusual and quite disorientating battles. The only thing I can think of that plays out similarly is some of the wall walking sections in Prey.

So Dead Space has pretty good combat, some interesting zero gravity levels and an absolutely sensational interface, but it lacks atmosphere and any reason to care about the plot, and just contains a few too many flaws to raise it beyond the level of merely decent. It’s certainly not a game to be avoided, and it’s worth a play if you like the concept, but at a time when there are some truly amazing games coming out, there are better ways to spend your money.

Now come on EA, re-release System Shock 2, damn you!

Save System Review: You can only save at save terminals scattered around the levels. Thankfully these are very common and usually only a couple of minutes apart, and you can usually backtrack to the last save point, but there are still occasional moments when these become annoying.
Graphics: The graphics are generally accomplished, about the expected level for a modern game, but it really excels at lighting. It genuinely features some of the best lighting effects I’ve seen in any game. (They’d have really enhanced the atmosphere, if there’d been any.)
Sound: Sound design is very well done throughout the game. The discordant music and the sound effects all work well and the voice acting is of a good standard.
Bugs: There were a couple of major bugs caused by poor console porting, as mentioned in the main body of the review, but once they were sorted the game ran smoothly. I fell through a lift once somehow, but that’s the only other problem I had.
Gameplay: The combat is quite effective but it wears out its welcome long before the end of the game with a lack of variety.
Storyline: A bunch of sci-fi plots jumbled together. Not bad, but a bit lightweight. Just enough to keep the game moving.

Arbitrary Final Score: 3 stars

If you like this, you might also like: The System Shock games, Bioshock, Event Horizon, Alien.

Are the controls too alien? Is the game just taking up space? Comment in the forums!