Sunday, November 02, 2008

Dead Space (Xbox 360) Review

Why wasn't I paying attention to this game during development? I took notice because a co-worker was psyched for it, and then based on that interest, I watched the first IGN Strategize video on Xbox LIVE and it screamed System Shock 2 style.

Without question, Dead Space is the sleeper hit of the year! It is an exceptional experience all around, that rare gem of a game that comes out of no where and presents such an immersive, complete experience that you can't help but be awed and immersed while playing it.

Dead Space is a survival horror shooter with role playing elements, a complete collection of genres that marries the different components beautifully. Many have compared it to BioShock, but I'm going to dispute this right here and now. While there certainly are similarities, Dead Space is better thought of as a mixture between System Shock 2, BioShock's own spiritual predecessor of which EA was the publisher, and a little Doom 3.

The RPG influenced gameplay, the setting, and the visual style of Dead Space are much more akin to System Shock 2 than of BioShock, and the story has aspects more akin to Doom 3. You have a real inventory and can only carry so many weapons, weapons that can be upgraded in different ways based on your own choices, and it's a sci-fi setting that takes place onboard an infested spaceship, etc. Much more like System Shock 2, and that has me jizing my pants. Yeah, that's right, I went there. Why? Because System Shock 2 is one of the greatest and most underrated games ever made. Ridiculously immersive and terrifying for its day, Doom 3, and then BioShock, were the closest things to System Shock 2 until Dead Space, and Dead Space trumps them both, at least in terms of homage. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Dead Space is set in the distant future where humanity has milked Earth's resources dry, so we have vessels called "planet crackers" that harvest the resources of other worlds. The USG Ishimura is one such vessel, and you take on the role of Isaac Clarke, an engineer that's part of the emergency maintenance team sent to repair the Ishimura after a distress call was sent and received. Upon arrival at Aegis 7, the world the Ishimura was mining, it becomes very clear that something is not right at all as the ship is found in orbit, appearing derelict. When Isaac and crew dock with the Ishimura, it's a ghost town, but the scares quickly pick up with attacks from Necromorphs, essentially mutant space zombies. I know it sounds cheesy, but trust me, it isn't, and it works very, very well.

Make no mistake, Dead Space is scary. In fact, it is to-date the scariest game I've played on the Xbox 360, and the scariest game released since Doom 3. While Doom 3 got predicatable with its "monster closets," Dead Space does not make the same mistake and keeps things fresh. Sure, they recycle scare tactics, but instead of using them to death, these moments are spread out and paced just right to create a beautiful amount of tension that will leave the player guessing.

Like most good horror games, you spend Dead Space mainly alone in a dark (but not ridiculously dark), confined world listening to every single bump and clank, trying to figure out just what it was that made that noise. Dead Space is a game that looks beauitful with exceptional use of lighting and attention to environmental detail. Corpses are rotted, blood splatters and floats, and there's writting, either intentional or "graffiti," everywhere, and it can be read, including on holographic monitors. As mentioned, the game is dark, but not so horribly dark that you can't find your way, and whenever you aim, all your weapons immediatly shine a light in that direction, no duct tape required.

Which brings us to the games mechanics and controls. The controls are unique and take a little getting used to, but once you do, you'll find they're cleverly thought out:

Left Stick: Move
Right Stick: Look/Click and Hold to View a Navigation Line
D-Pad: Weapon Selection
Left Trigger: Aim (also brings up Flashlight)
Left Bumper: Run/Cycle Menus in Inventory
Right Trigger: Melee/Fire Weapon while Aiming
Right Bumper: Stomp (yes, with your foot. Usefull for breaking items or crushing a crippled monster at your feet)/Fire Secondary while Aiming/Cycle Menus in Inventory
X = Use Medkit/Use Stasis while Aiming
Y = Inventory/Jump while Aiming and in Zero G
A = Interact and Pick Up/Reload while Aiming
B = Use Kinesis while Aiming
Back = Map
Start = Menu

I think that covers it. As you can see, very unorthodox, but they work really, really well in practice. In fact, the only control issue I found is I'd often use Stasis when I wanted to use a Medkit, but that was a minor nit-pick as Stasis would often buy me enough time to still use that Medkit.

And make no mistake, you'll need the fluid controls, as enemies will startle you, and you'll need to quickly take them appart. Dead Space is not like other shooters where you simply pump someone full of lead or pull off a headshot to drop them, the Necromorphs are far tougher than that. Instead, the game preaches what's called strategic dismemberment. All but one of your weapons are tools, you're an engineer, not a soldier, so use that Plasma Cutter or Ripper (a mining saw) to cut off an enemy's legs. They're still alive, they'll still come at you, but now they're crippled and have to pull themselves along with their arms, making them a less immediate threat. You can actually pick enemies apart by blasting off their limbs, and this is far more effective than throwing everything you have at their centre of mass. As mentioned, you also have two other abilities: Stasis, which will slow down objects or enemies, and Kinesis (think Gravity Gun).

Not only are their a variety of enemies to face, but EA throws some great Zero G environments at the player as well. In these environments, you can literally jump all around the different surfaces, you'll need to to navigate them, and you'll need to fight enemies at the same time. All items behave with excellent physics in Zero G environments. If there are crates in the room, they'll be floating around, toss them off a wall and watch them bounce. Kill an enemy, and watch it's corpse float away. Wound an enemy, and watch its blood bubble and float out. The Zero G sections of the game are wonderfully impressive, and some of the most enjoyble environments I've played in in a long time.

Certain areas in the game, whether Zero G or not, also have no air, and you must rely on your limited supply of oxygen in your RIG (armour), managing your reserves, to make it out alright. These sequences can become intense as you combat Necromorphs, restock your air, and perhaps jump around different surfaces, all with a limited amount of time. Like the rest of the game though, EA did a fantastic job of balancing the experience, so while you may become tense, you'll never be screaming in rage at "poor design."

Dead Space is also the first console game I can think of where you have a real-time inventory to manage; the game does not pause. Is an enemy attacking you and you want to jump to your Inventory to use Medkits or some other item? Sorry, but it's real time, so if you stop to use it, you can still get hurt. The only time the game actually pauses is when saving, which you can do at specific Save Points (the game uses a checkpoint system to suppliment this), or in the Main Menu, that's it. In your Inventory, you can manage your weapons and items, and switch to the game's map, objectives, and a record of all the video, audio, and text logs you've found (and the game plays them as a holographic pop-up from your rig when you watch them. It's quite the cool little visual touch). You pick up items around the world, find them in unlocked storage lockers (hacking is one of the few classic touches to the genre that's absent from Dead Space), off of enemy corpses, or in storage containers (which look suspicously like green versions of the original Xbox) that you break or Stomp open.

The game's main resources, aside from ammo of course, is Credits (which everyone has pretty much left scattered around), and Power Nodes. Power Nodes allow you to enhance your weapons, abilities, and RIG at Upgrade Benches, be it increasing damage, clip size, reload rate, hit points, etc. Credits allow you to buy items at the automated Stores located all around the ship. At stores, you can buy and sell items, upload Schematics you've found to unlock new items, Rigs, and weapons, and even store items in a "safe" to clear up your inventory. All very intuitive and really allowing for player management and customization.

Last, and certainly not least is the game's sound mix, which is truly masterful. Every noise, every echo that you hear has a purpose, be it a real-time audio warning to the player of an approaching event or monster, or simple ambient noise to freak you out and establish atmosphere. EA has really taken the nod from previous titles and applied the importance of audio, because they know that while what you can see may be scary, what you can only hear is much worse and builds tension. The voice acting, be it from "live" characters or via Video or Audio logs, is top-notch, and Dead Space makes appropriate use of audio "stingers" to really make you jump, just like in horror flicks, and jump you shall.

And scream. And swear. All in surprise at the masterful world that EA has crafted. I'll be perfectly honest with you here, Dead Space is one of the single best games I've had the pleasure to play on the Xbox 360, and I'd recommend it on any platform. My only gripe, my only real complaint with the game is the "Tentacle" mini-game. At several points, you'll be surprised and grabbed by a Tentacle, and it'll slowly pull you to your doom. Every few seconds, you can try and shoot it's weak spot, however for whatever reason, the developers decided to make aiming here frustratingly hard. I don't know why, and it really mars an otherwise perfect experience.

Total play time, just under 20 hours, and that was only my first playthrough. The more I played it, the more immersed I became in the ill-fated corridors of the Ishimura, the more impressed with Dead Space I became. I got so into it, I actually had to limit myself to 20 minute play sessions during a specific Chapter, it was that intense, that frightening, and that engaging. Few games have ever done this to me, and I won't hold my breath for the next one. Dead Space has taken the best elements of several great games that have come before, and really fused them to become an exceptional experience. From story, to setting, to gameplay, Dead Space is that unique game that comes along once every several years and shows us a title done to near perfection, a title that redefines a genre.

Unless you have an aversion to single player only games, buy Dead Space. It is simply a masterpiece of the art form, and a new standard from which I'll judge many future titles. I can think of no greater compliment to close this review with than this statement.

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