I have a soft spot for horror. Horror movies, horror stories and yes - horror games. Horror obviously comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes, whether it's a 'killer car' in a Stephen King novel, or a chainsaw wielding movie maniac or battling the zombie hordes in a video game. Probably my favorite horror series from the video game world was Tecmo's amazingly atmospheric Fatal Frame series. I have played plenty of other games that find ways to build tension as well - Eternal Darkness, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Clocktower - and my recently purchased Amnesia for the computer. One that I bought some time ago and only recently played through was Dead Space. It got uniformly excellent reviews from both critics and gamers.
This is certainly more 'Aliens' horror than 'Texas Chainsaw' - you wind up as part of a spaceship crew that lands on a space station. What starts as a fairly routine maintenance run turns into a quest for survival against an unknown horror. In some ways, the backdrop sort of reminded me of Doom - the science fiction setting and sense of isolation oozes throughout the game, though instead of a hardened marine with automatic weapons, you're a repairman with a suit that helps keep you alive, and a plasma cutter that's going to do more than slice pipes.
You get separated from your crew early on, and find yourself surviving different horrors throughout this ransacked space station. There are bits of audio and video evidence everywhere, helping you to piece together what happened during the station's final hours. In some places the electrical is fine, in others you wind up moving through dark passages with just your suit's flashlight to guide the way. With part 2 coming out soon, it was past time I gave the original a play-through, and here's what I found:
Graphics - 9:
Almost a 10. I'm just stingy on 10's, and there were some moments of slowdown/stutter during a few of the more frantic moments. But so close to a 10. Where to begin - for starters, I loved the hud and overall layout. Seeing your health represented by bars on the back of your suit's spine, and your ammo on your weapon were slick design choices that kept me immersed in the game instead of looking off to the corners of my screen for other data. The lighting is fantastic throughout. In some places you're bathed in light, giving the scenery an appropriately science fiction feel, but most of the time lighting works against you, hiding enemies and making you wonder (sometimes aloud): was there something moving over there?
The antagonistic necromorphs look cool - and often gruesome. They move toward you in varied fashion, using unique attacks that are well represented (and often grotesquely so) onscreen. If you blow one's leg off (more on that in a bit), it crawls toward you along the floor. There are also some really cool scenes where you are outside of the space station that I want to take a moment to give special mention to. Several of them were strikingly beautiful, and I found myself pausing (which is something of a mistake because you're on a timer) and really appreciating the view that looked like it was pulled from a great movie.
Sound and Music - 10:
Going with a 10 here. Bits of music compliment the scenes beautifully. There is also a lot of voice acting that's very well done and helps to advance the story, both through audio files or interactions with other characters. The story is good, but this really goes the extra mile in helping to sell it. The sound effects however, are the best part of the overall presentation. This game delivered a lot of genuine scares, and while the lighting and the unique monsters certainly did their part, it was the sound effects that had me nearly jumping off of the couch (who am I kidding? There were times I did startle quite a bit physically). Whether it's electric buzzing, monsters scraping along nearby, conversations cut short by an attack - the atmosphere was incredible and the sound track was one of the primary reasons for this.
Gameplay - 8:
Aiming works well, the puzzles in the game work well within the context of the story and environment. Combat feels a bit unique because in most games - you're looking for the headshot. Here? Sure, that's going to work on some creatures - but the fact that you can blow off limbs to alter their movement and attacks as well as maybe finding other more vulnerable spots on them than the head, really adds a nice layer of depth to the combat mechanics. There were some mini games that added variety to the gameplay, but they never felt quite as polished as the primary game. Puzzles work well within the context of the game. There's also a currency system, which is cool for purchasing ammo, weapons and suit upgrades. Beyond that, you can modify equipment and armor at work benches, using nodes to customize it a bit - do you want more power, higher ammo capacity, better rate of fire? Up to you. There is a lot of fetch quests and backtracking, which works within the storyline but does sometimes feel a bit repetitive. There are a couple of neat environmental situations built into the primary objects as well as you find yourself walking outside of the airlocks to reach sections of the station maybe not otherwise accessible. You have limited oxygen and there's a neat sort of vacuum of sound while you do so. It also exposes you to some beautiful space backdrops in the game Anti-gravity sections provided some nice change of pace, but felt a bit clumsy at times and the objectives were not always obvious to me in there as my perspective would prone to change based on which surface I was walking on. I was not a big fan of those sections, and felt like they could have been more fun.
Intangibles - 8:
Great game. Very spooky. It was really well-made. I've heard a lot of mixed opinions about multiplayer, and I'm on the fence there. I think it's great when a game offers online multiplayer, because once you have done everything you can with a solo campaign, there's not much more reason to hold onto the game if you can't go online and play it with friends in some way. I've heard that's a big part of what EA is doing with part 2. Then again, a bit part of what makes Dead Space so effective is that sense of isolation. I get the feeling that multiplayer may be fun, it just won't feel like 'Dead Space'. Either way, this game doesn't have it, and while you can play through a few times, and look for things you may have missed initially, the game does not change a great deal on subsequent playthroughs. You get carry over of currency and enhancements, and this access to new gear is cool, though I didn't find the next playthrough nearly as intense. Maybe because I was overpowered from the new game plus, or just because I knew my way through the levels, but I blew through my second round pretty fast compared to the first.
Overall - 8.75:
Simply put - this game was amazing. I remember reading about it in Game Informer well before it was released, and there were things that caught my eye, but I was far from sold. If you enjoy third person action games, science fiction storylines or strong horror elements, this game is definitely worth a look. Especially since it can be found fairly cheaply now. I'm glad I tried it out, and am now very anxiously awaiting the release of Dead Space 2.