February 3, 2009

Amid game glut, E.A. blasts off with overlooked Bioshock redux—in space!

2008 was a great year for games, but with the back-to-back releases of GTA IV, Fable 2, Prince of Persia, Gears of War 2, and Fallout 3, it was an overwhelming year for gamers. Some titles, less hotly anticipated but equally worthy of attention, may have fallen off the radar sooner than they deserved. Dead Space, EA’s survival horror action-adventure game, is one of these.

Players take the role of Isaac Clark, an engineer aboard the repair ship USG Kellion sent to fix a planet-cracking mining ship, the USG Ishimura. As usual, things go horribly awry—most of the repair team is killed, isolating Clark from the rest of the survivors. It’s up to you to arm yourself with a plasma cutter and dismember your way through the hellish nightmare of aliens, called Necromorphs, to repair the ship and save your friends.

The game is best described as Bioshock meets Halo meets Resident Evil 4. The over-the-shoulder third-person action, now seen more and more in action games, is truly immersive, as there is no pause menu that deals with maps or items. Instead, communications, items, maps, and directives all pop up on a holographic display next to your helmet. The real-time menu ratchets up the tension, as you can never completely remove yourself from the nightmarish ambience of the embattled ship to pick a stronger weapon. For the most part, this is a definite plus, but it makes it difficult to read the 3-D holographic map and next to impossible to read any of the text logs found throughout the game.

Like Halo’s Flood, Dead Space’s Necromorphs can really be a force to reckon with, depending on the difficulty level. Early in the game, you find a blood-smeared message that reads, “CUT OFF THEIR LIMBS”—advice you should take to heart. The Necromorphs will not stop unless dismembered. Your weapons, which can be found or purchased at stores throughout the ship, are industrial grade tools meant for cutting steel; this is an extremely violent game. On consoles, weapons are equipped via the direction pad, while the shoulder buttons allow you to access and use them in combat. The PC version, however, is plagued with control issues.

The Necromorphs appear in different forms and situations—bursting through the floorboards, attacking in zero gravity, or using their giant tentacles to suck you through a wall after opening a door. As in Bioshock, Isaac can find various audio logs chronicling the ship’s downfall. You’ll also occasionally run into the ship’s crew. After finding an audio log about a nurse locking herself in a medical bay with a criminal, I opened a door to find the woman, naked, removing the organs of a screaming man. She turned, laughed at me, and then slit her own throat.

Dead Space also borrows from Bioshock the use of two powers: stasis and kinesis. Stasis slows down machinery or enemies in time, while kinesis allows you to pick up explosives or dead bodies and hurl them at your foes. Ammo, health, and the stasis bar are all seen over-the-shoulder on Isaac’s rig suit. Weapons, stasis, and the rig suit are upgradable at workbenches with the use of power nodes. These can be purchased at the store or found throughout the game. There is a limited supply, so you have to choose what to upgrade. But once you beat the game and start a new one—something I intend to do soon—you inherit all your weapons and supplies from the previous play-through.

Great horror movies have great sound, and Dead Space goes above and beyond in this department. The music is eerie, the machinery is haunting, and the atmosphere is hair-raising. You never feel alone with the sounds of muffled whispers, distant screams, and things crawling through the walls. The graphics are beautiful, even on the Xbox 360. The game is dark, though you have the option to control the brightness before you begin. Dead Space uses sound and light to create a shape-shifting environment, so even when the game requires you to backtrack, areas seem new and constantly changing.

EA Redwood Shores is pushing its new franchise hard, creating a Dead Space comic as a prequel to the movie, Dead Space: Downfall, itself a prequel to the game. These extras, plus the exclusively single-player game itself, might be difficult to play in the dorms unless you don’t mind being anti-social for the 12 hours it takes to beat. But if you have time, pop in the game and crank up the sound, because Dead Space is one hell of a ride.