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Game Review: Dead Space (XBox 360 / PS3)

Well, I just finished my first run through Dead Space today.  Oh man, how long has it been since I played a good, new survival horror game?  I mean, if you count Dead Rising, then that’s been two years.  If you don’t, well, it’s been a hell of a lot longer.  Of course, what qualifies as “Survival Horror” depends on who you ask.  After all, some purists rule out any game where the character defends himself with anything stronger than tears and soiled britches.

Dead Space certainly fits my definition, which is basically “any horror game in which the object is no loftier than plain survival”.  Sure, the Silent Hill series are Survival Horror games but then again so were System Shock 2 and Bioshock.  By that definition, Dead Space certainly fits the bill.  The game tells the story of a small group sent to determine the fate of the giant mining vessel Ishimura.  Of course by the time they arrive most of the crew have died and comeback as hideous, flesh-eating ghouls.  The ship you arrived on explodes while you’re trying to fix it to get off the Ishimura and it’s game on.

The story that unfolds isn’t really anything new (honestly, the major plot points follow those in System Shock 2 so closely that it raises eyebrows at some points), but it is compelling and well told.  It’s of the classic “oh shit, this be broke go fix it!” plot.  You spend the majority of the game fixing one thing after another.  That being said, all of the “hey fix this” quests make complete sense.  They aren’t forced or random.  Rather they are exactly the kinds of tasks one would be concerned with when trying to survive on a disabled mining ship: getting the engines back online to prevent the ship’s orbit from decaying and smashing into the planet below, getting the anti-asteroid defense systems back online, etc.  You know, important, survival kinds of things.

The gameplay and the story intertwine very well in this respect.  There are a number of zero-gravity and zero-atmosphere scenes.  Sometimes both.  Your character, being an engineer, uses mostly coopted tools to defend himself against monsters.  Even the flamethrower is, according to the game, a modified torch.  This dynamic works very well with one of the rather grizzly motifs of the game: dismemberment.  The whole game is about chopping off limbs.  Now, if it were just a “ooh look what we can do”, body-physics show off thing, it’d probably be kind of annoying.  As it is, though, the dismemberment theme pulls triple duty and a game mechanic (hack an enemy’s limbs off does more damage and forces it to adjust its fighting style accordingly), a mood-setting device (nothing like a room completely strewn with arms and legs to get one in the Horror mindset), and even as a literary device.  Many of the characters, driven crazy by the force that’s infected the ship, ask to be “made whole again” in an entirely metaphorical sense.

But of course no survival horror game would be complete without atmosphere.  After all, as Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw rightly points out:

“Horror as a genre of art exists for the same reason as roller coasters and the terrorist watch list – because for the most part modern society is so stable and orderly and boring that the occasional artificial scare is what we need to make us feel alive.

Evoking fear is, in itself, an art form – and nothing in the entire history of storytelling has explored it better than video games.”

If a horror game doesn’t scare the player, it has failed.  Dead Space does an amazing job of bringing the player so close to the edge of their seat that they’re only a knocking air vent away from startling themselves out of it.  And while it never gave me nightmares (unlike Silent Hill 2), it did scare the holy hell out of me on several occasions.  More than just sudden startles, however, the whole game is just downright eerie.  You’re one a dead ship, where everything is falling apart, plus you’re alone save for a bunch of aliens who just want to eat your face.  The few people you see in person after the intro are either insane, in the process of perishing (sometimes even by their own hand), or both.

One final note on the game: I was gratified that there was no cliffhanger.  When it was over, it ended (and in classic horror style, too) and it felt like the designers were saying “thanks for playing, here’s your ending!”  Not, “okay, well done, now get to wait for the privelege of buying the sequel!”

All in all, brilliant game.  If horror’s your thing, you need this game.  It’s available on XBox 360 and PS3 and it’s WELL worth the $60.

Posted in Cool Stuff, Geekery.