Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bloody good: Dead Space review

Wanting to get in some survival horror gaming during the Halloween season, it came down to a toss-up between Silent Hill: Homecoming and Dead Space. I ultimately ended up going with EA’s new IP, and I’m very, very glad I did. Silent Hill may turn out to be a great game, but boy-howdy did I have a great time with Dead Space. Apologies in advance for the wall of text, but it takes a special game to draw this much out of me. And Dead Space is exactly that.

Opting to rent (a sad sacrifice thanks to too many good games coming out all at once), I spent five days and nights plowing through the USG Ishimura, a doomed deep-space mining ship infested with horribly mutated dead former crew members.

The controls of Dead Space are tight and the presentation is slick and sexy. Menus are displayed on a badass hologram projected from a contraption on your wrist, meaning you never actually leave the environment. Also, with information like life, stasis power (the ability to slow down fast moving enemies) and ammo displayed right on your suit and weapons, there is absolutely no HUD to take away from the scenery.

Speaking of the scenery, this is an absolutely beautiful game. I found myself often rotating the camera and standing still just to admire some of the gorgeous (or grotesque) goings-on.

Load times are surprisingly minimal. There’s a minute pause between each chapter, but otherwise the breaks are miniscule. Opening a door takes a moment (a hologram pops up telling you the door is opening and then it slides up), creatively disguising loads as two-second workings of the ship itself. When you’re in a chapter, you’re never taken out of the action.

Along with looking great, Dead Space also sounds amazing. The developers did an ace job of mixing all the right noises to make the dark, hollow vessel scare the crap out of you without even throwing a monster your way. Coupled with dynamic lighting and plenty of dark corners, the Ishimura becomes as much a character as it is a world to explore.

As for the baddies, Dead Space has a terrific cast. While there aren’t too many types (maybe 10 altogether), what’s there is varied enough to work just fine. All have their own behavior, attack patterns and weak points, so you have to think while you fight. Blasting round after round into the masses wastes ammo, which is a bad idea with so little on hand to begin with. These truly grotesque creations have to be tactically dismembered and certain weapons work best on certain creatures. And yes, the dismemberment is frantic, fun and unsettlingly satisfying.

Speaking of weapons, a few were a real delight to wield. The line shooter and plasma cutter are great; shooting lines of energy perfect for clipping off just the right limb. The flamethrower has the best fire effects I’ve ever seen and the Ripper, which throws a spinning saw blade about four feet in front of you, is absolutely diabolical. You have to get close to use it well, but it’s easily one of my favorite in-game weapons of all time. All weapons have an alt-fire, which makes for a decently varied arsenal.

With a couple mini-games, zero gravity sections and puzzles thrown in to change up the pace, as well as a deep suit/weapon upgrade system to work on, Dead Space offers plenty more than just running around and killing monsters.

The creators clearly know and love their genre and do a marvelous job of keeping the player on the edge of their seat. Audio cues, misdirection, pop-out-and-scream moments and even a few psychological jabs makes Dead Space on of the scariest games to date.

There are a few problems, of course. The story is cliché and the characters are mostly cardboard. Also, there were a couple instances where the balance between survival and “is this even possible” tilts a bit too far in favor of frustration. Then there’s the fact almost every mission is a glorified fetch quest. Thankfully, everything else about Dead space is so good, these flaws are easily overlooked.

The amount of love and polish pumped into Dead Space is refreshing and, quite simply, it’s some of the most fun a third-person shooter fan can have. While the story lasts between 12 and 15 hours, four difficulty settings, trophies/achievements that may require more than one play-through and upgrades that can’t be done in a single go make for plenty of replay value.

I returned Dead Space after my five-day rental and felt like a kid giving away one of his favorite new toys. Once this holiday rush is over and I have the chance (and extra money) to fill a few more hours with time aboard the Ishimura, I totally plan to pay the full price for a second voyage. It’s worth every penny.

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