Game Review: Dead Space

The last month I was filling up some of the gaps in my collection of Playstation games. Among them being Dead Space, which I actually played once before five or six years ago but gave away or traded it for something else after I was done with it. Now I played the whole thing again and there’s really quite a lot to talk about in it. I usually don’t play Horror games because they are – yes, you’re right – too scary for me. Dead Space is one of the exceptions. Compared to oldschool Survivial Horror games it is relatively tame as the scariness goes and it’s set in a setting that I generally don’t consider particularly scary to begin with. I grew up with spooky Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes and it was only many years after having seen Alien that I learned that most people consider it a horror movie. Alien lifeform infiltrating a ship and altering the people on board is an old hat for me. If you’re not immunized to stories of this type, it might be much more scarier, though.

Dead Space was released in 2008, like a whole bunch of other great PS3 games, and while not one of those games that achieved immortal fame, it was still very well recieved and has a lot of great fans. The kind of success game developers can reasonably hope to achieve with a new series. The setup is very simple. The deep space mining ship Ishimura has send a distress call from a remote planet and the company sends a small repair team consisting of a computer technician, an engine technician, and three guards. You play the mechanic Isaac Clarke (little joke here that sci-fi fans should easily spot), whose girlfriend Nicole is also one of the medics on the Ishimura, who had send him a strange message before contact with the ship was lost. When their shuttle arrives at the Ishimura, the whole power is out and the automatic landing system malfunctions, causing them to crash into the hangar bay. Inside the Ishimura everything is in chaos and the whole crew gone. But no three minutes later a swarm of berserking space zombies tears two of the guards to pieces and answers the question where everyone has gone. With the Ishimura being out of working order and the shuttle wrecked, Isaac has to crawl through the giant mining ship, trying to find a way to escape while keeping the ship from crashing down into the planet. And of course try to find out what happend to Nicole and saving her if possible. Good thing he’s an engineer and not some kind of useless space marine or theoretical physicist. Overall, the game feels a lot like a blend of Aliens, Event Horizon, and The Thing. You could also call it Die Hard on a Spaceship. With zombies! Or, as I believe the correct technical term goes, serious fucked up shit.

This is an excelent trailer, by the way. It gives a good impression of what you’re going to get and, more importantly, doesn’t give away any details of the story. I watched this one years ago and quite liked it. And I think it was the only one I watched, which allowed me to go into the game completely blind. Which I think really was very much worth it. Many of the other trailer I’ve seen now give away way too many unexpected revelations in my opinion.

How it plays

Dead Space is described my many people as a Survival Horror game, but I think it’s a very different thing from the old Resident Evils and Silent Hills. While there is a superficial similarity in the environment designs, the gameplay is very different. The first time I played the game I had not really played any action games on console before, so I played it on Normal difficulty. Which I think was really much too easy. But even having played it on Hard now, there is just so much ammo and money around and regular easy access to stores that you never have to conserve your resources. You can kill absolutely everything hostile in the game without any trouble. Also, you’re actually perfectly equiped for the situation with an armored space suit that allows you to survive in vacuum for a while and walk on the walls in Zero-G areas, and you also have exactly the right kind of weapons that make very short work of all the monsters. You’re not really some poor chap who somehow ended up in a situation that is way over his head. You’re a total badass who absolutely owns the whole ship and wipes the decks with any space zombie he comes across. What is nice when you play, but taking away a lot of tension, is that the game is one of the most generous with autosave checkpoints I’ve ever seen. When you get killed by the monsters you usually start right at the door you just opened. That’s really not at all Survival Horror. Sadly, the Resident Evil series seems to have largely abandoned their original gameplay and went the same direction as Dead Space, becoming action shoters with zombies many years ago. The more recent Silent Hill games also appear to have turned in that direction, which really is a shame. Both series are lying in shambles now, with Konami even pulling out of the videogame business entirely. Even after the great praise of the first Dead Space and the still positive reception of Dead Space 2, this series also appears to have been completely wrecked now, as it has increasingly abandoned the faint survival elements from the first game and focused entirely on nonstop zombie shoting. I’ve heard a fourth game was planned but abandoned, which of course is entirely their own fault. Taking an established formula with a dedicated fan base and then removing all the unique elements and making it more generic does not get you more customers. You only lose the ones you had and not offering something new that that hasn’t already been done a dozen times. But back to Dead Space, which I think when looked at by itself, is a really quite good game.

One of the great things of the game is the interface. In a sense, the game does not have any kind of HUD at all. Instead your suit has a holographic display that will project an inventory screen, map, or questlog in the air in front of you. Your ammo counter is also always on the gun you’re holding in your hand. When you go close to a door or a switch, a hologram will appear which serves as the button. One of the real Survival Horror elements of the game is that it never pauses for anything (except when you pause it, during which you can’t do anything else). Going into your inventory or looking at the map does not stop any nearby enemies from attacking or sneaking up on you. Reloading a gun or using a health kit can be done with a quick press of a button, but if you need to switch an air canister or recharge the stasis module, you have to go into the inventory and do it manually. Inventory space is limited but increases as you upgrade your suit, but that rarely became an issue for me. However, it’s still a good idea to regularly check your inventory because that’s the only way to see how much ammo and health kits you still have. If you don’t pay attention you can find yourself unable to reload your gun in the middle of a fight, which can be a bit of a problem. Where the game is very forgiving is that not only do enemies drop plenty of ammo, they also only drop ammo for weapons that you currently have.

Since the first gun you get is actually clearly the best one in the game, it’s really very easy to never use anything else. That way you never have to worry what kind of ammunition to carry or having to switch weapons in a fight. The plasma cutter is a mining tool that shots a wide beam of plasma that can be fired either vertically or horizontally. Which makes it extremely well suited to cutting off arms, legs, or tentacles from the monsters, which does a huge amount of damage. You can kill them by shoting them in the chest, but instead of going for the head, the most damage you can deal is by shoting off the limbs. Shoting off just one limb is not going to kill anything and they will just keep crawling towards you and hacking and gnawing at your legs if you shot off one of their feet. Something really great about the game, which I would love to see in really every shoting game, is that it seems to have quite variable damage. Most of the time it takes cutting of two limbs from the standard enemy to kill it. But sometimes it will keep coming after that, and in some rare cases they will be dead after losing just one. It could have something to do with weapons dealing different damage depending on how they are upgraded, or that sometimes you hit multiple hit areas on the enemy with a single shot, which leads to the damage being added up. But either way, I was very often surprised to see an enemy dropping dead sooner than I expected or keep fighting after I thought I had killed it. In most games that don’t use automatic guns at long distances, you very quickly figure out the rythm of fighting. “One, two, three, dead.” “One, two, three, dead.” And so on, and on, and on. Dead Space doesn’t, which I think is really great. And to make things more interesting, sometimes enemies will just stop moving after they fell over because they got a leg shot off. But then start clawing at you once you step too close to them. There’s also lots of moments where you come upon a corpse and think “Wait, there was no corpse here when I last came this way”, and of course they jump up and attack you. But not always. Sometimes the dead monsters you find are actually dead. There’s always tense anticipation. There is a total of seven weapons in the game. And while the plasma cutter is great and the line gun a more powerful and wider version that can only shot horizontally (to cut of a dozen legs in a single shot), most of the other weapons are really quite bad. First time you see it in the store, you probably think “Oh sweet! A flamethrower!” But it sucks. It’s completely terrible and pretty much useless. Instead of having a zombie that claws at your face, you now have a zombie that claws at your face while being on fire. Even fully upgraded the damage is tiny and you actually have to reignite an enemy several times because it keeps going out much faster than it kills. Or you keep a constant stream of fire on them, in which case you run out of fuel within seconds. There’s also a kind of long range chainsaw called the Ripper. Which also does way too little damage and requires you to keep the spinning blade touching an enemy for way too long. Both weapons really only work when you have a single enemy who has no legs left, in which case you could just shot it with any other gun. The force gun is also quite fun, battering any enemy in its way with a massive impact blast when upgraded. But it’s really the best idea to only use the plasma cutter and line gun and upgrade them for maximum damage. Buying the other weapons and spending the rare upgrade points of them is a complete waste of resources.

As mentioned, Isaac is wearing a space suit that is made for repairing damaged space ships and allows you to work and fight in both vacuum and no gravity. Which is great, because the Ishimura is a total wreck. Breaking up asteroids leaves a lot of big stones flying around and without working defenses the ship quickly got punched full of giant holes. The air supply of the suit lasts for only a minute, which can be upgraded to two minutes, but that’s generally more than enough. In sections where you’re without air for a longer time, there are generally Oxygen refuling stations that you just have to click on to get the timer instantly reset to full. There are also air canister which you can find lying around or buy from the store. Much more fun than the lack of air to breath is the lack of air to hear. Being space zombies, all the enemies are not troubled by vacuum at all. But unless they are stepping on the same deck plate you’re standing on right next to you and you hear the slight shockwaves that travel through your suit, everything is completely silent. And of course, most areas that have no air are either completely wrecked or on the outside of the ship, so you never really have a good view of your environment. Good times. But moving and fighting in weightlessness is even much more fun. Some parts of the ship have no gravity and there’s also none when you’re running around on the outside. Instead you stick to the floor with magnetic boot. Or to any wall or ceiling, really. When you aim at something on which you can stand, Isaac can disable the magnets and make a jump straight in that direction, no matter the distance. Once you reach the surface, your feet will stick to it and it becomes the new floor. Which really works amazingly and surprisingly well. Most games have clear up and down, even Portal immediately switches you around to the correct orientation when you jump into a portal in the floor and come out of a portal on a wall. In Dead Space, up and down is entirely defined by the surface you currently stand on. Sometimes these surfaces are even curved, allowing you to simply walk from a wall to the ceiling without any transition. One great fight even takes place in a room shaped like a giant drum. The only possible downside: I can imagine this getting super confusing for people with a less than excelent sense of orientation. I’ve been playing starfighter simulations for many years in my teens which makes it all very easy, but there are probably many people who would have real trouble with switching a whole three dimensional room by 30 degrees on the z-axis and 70 degrees on the y-axis and still remembering the position of enemies and exploding canisters nearby. That you have to aim your gun to indicate the direction of your jump is a bit clunky, but otherwise it really works incredibly smooth.

The Sights

One element in which Dead Space really is nothing short of astonishing is the architecture and interior design of the levels. The Ishimura really is a metal hell. It’s an old industrial ship that has been severely battered by asteroid strikes and all kinds of fighting going on inside, with survivors of the first days having created various barricades and written messages on the walls. I particularly like the first and third levels, which take place in the train maintanance section and the engine section, which together with the mining section later in the game are the most industrial environments. Much of these levels consist not of thick solid walls, but of flimsy walkways, metal grates, and steel sheets that let you look through the many gaps. Of couse, the lighting is bad and there’s also lots of steam, pipes, and dangling cables everywhere. It’s very similar to both Alien and Aliens and really a wonderful environment for fighting space zombies. The medical section and crew quarters are very different in style, but it’s never a pleasant place. I say the art design of Dead Space is really by far one of the best I’ve ever seen in any game. It’s relatively simple most of the time, but it’s just perfect for the location in which it is set and the atmosphere of the story.

Also, the Ishimura is huge. Though when you played it a two or three times and then look at the maps, the levels are actually all much smaller than they seem. You start and finish almost every level at one of the many train stations that connect the different sections of the ship. Most of the time you leave at the same station at which you’ve arrived, which means that you either make one big circle through the level or, more commonly, have to make your way back to the train once you accomplished your current task. Bam, instant doubling of the level size! Six of the twelve levels actually take part in the same three areas of the ship. But it’s far from boring. Since the ship is full of monsters crawling around everywhere, you can never be fully certain that there isn’t going to be something jumping out from a vent or coming around a corner. While it’s all scripted with no really random enemy movement, sometimes the enemies show up only the third or fourth time you’re passing through a central area. It’s always staying tense.

The Sounds

I have the sound from my PS3 running over a six speaker surround system, but in most games you really don’t notice it much. In Dead Space, it’s very noticable. Because, holy shit, this ship is noisy! The industrial sections in particularly are extremely loud, which huge machines making an incredible amount of noise that is just overwhelming. And of course makes it impossible to hear all but the nearest enemies. I think it’s even more tense than fighting in vacuum with almost no sound at all. When an engine is restarted or a big machine powered up, it really makes a lot of noise. But even in the other sections of the ship, there’s almost always a lot of minor noises going on. Some metal thing hitting the ground in the distance, muffled screams, hissing, dripping, the whole shebang. And it sounds really good. The only shortcoming that I’ve noticed is that you quickly learn that none of those sounds are made by monsters moving around nearby, they are all just background noise. Which is a shame. It would be so much more fun if you had reason to stop and listen if there are any other sounds and from where it might be coming. But it still sounds really great.

Sometimes there are automated messages broadcasted by the ship’s computer, but they are always so faint that I can never make out what they actually say. Which I think is actually an advantage. It makes the whole place seem much more otherworldly. There’s also often sounds that clearly can not be be actually there. There’s a greenhouse section where fresh food is produced and air recycled and it’s full of jungle noise. Then you get to the other greenhouse section which is both completely stripped by any vegetation, covered by fleshy growths, and almost entirely silent. The contrast is both quite amazing and spooky. There is also a lab where something seems to play a tune for sleeping babies. Which given the context of the place certainly can’t be the case. Since there’s not just space zombies but also lots of space madness among those who are not completely dead yet, there’s always some ambiguity on whether some things might be hallucinations. And in that context, the incomprehensible broadcasts also start to feel somewhat spooky.

The voice acting in the game is also really quite good. It’s nothing noticably special, but I think that’s great. It mostly feels very natural and genuine. The emotions are mostly not overblown, but they are still very much present. When you notice great voice acting, it’s because it’s unusual and draws attention to itself. In Dead Space it’s not the case, but it’s also not flat. It’s not a huge deal and there are no amazing performances, but I think whoever was in charge of the recording and selecting the takes that were used for the game really had a quite good ear for dialogue that flows smoothly.

The Horror, the Horror

What I really have not talked about at all yet is the story. Which really is a complicated topic. I had the fortunate situation of being able to go into this game completely blind, knowing nothing except that there’s a big ship in space that has been overwhelmed by space zombies. And to anyone who has the chance, I very much recommend to do the same. If you’re really curious about it but feel certain that you don’t want to play a game like this yourself (I would never play Silent Hill or Penumbra by myself, way too fucking scary), I would still recommend watching a Let’s Play. (I’d personally go with Helloween, he’s one of the most hilarious guys on the internet.) But I’ll be talking a bit more about some general things before going into specific spoilers later. At its core, the story of Dead Space is really quite simple and basic and there isn’t really much to it. However, many of the fragments of information that you get throughout the game hint at something really interesting going on and since the release there have been a lot of speculations by fans how everything fits together and what certain elements really mean within the larger context. However, the sad truth behind it is that even the writers of the story himself admited in an interview that I’ve seen that they really didn’t pay much attention to many of the details and just threw in a bunch of things they thought were cool. Many of the biggest questions, like how the monsters are actually multiplying and what purpose the Marker has, are really just the result of shoddy and inconsistent writing. There is an infector form of the monster that infects human corpses to make more monsters. But there is one very clear case in which a large group of people were all killed and transformed by a single monster, which clearly was not an infector but a standard warrior. There isn’t really anything given away by telling that the final boss monster is called the Hive Mind, which would have pretty important implications. But actually, no. That boss fight was added to the game without even consulting the writer of the story which resulted in multiple forces being both behind the monster horde but also opposing each other. Following games tried to make some sense of it, but to my knowledge they never succeded. There are also some moments that just sound completely silly, like when the repair team tries to find the captain and they find out that he’s dead. And one of them actually says “What?! How?!” I don’t know? Maybe it has something to do with all the space zombies who killed the other 1000 people on the ship? (It wasn’t, but it was still a stupid question.) And halfway through the game someone mentions that they should find Isaacs girlfriend and get off the ship as soon as possible. How at that point anyone could assume that Nicole somehow is still alive and well while practically everyone else is dead seems completely nonsencical. Again, the truth is actually a bit more complicated, but in that situation it really didn’t make any sense at all.

But I am actually someone who really plays games primarily for the story and I still don’t hate this one with a passion. I actually really quite like it. Why? One of the quirky things about Dead Space is that while it’s story is more holes than plot and makes not very much sense when you look at things logically, the way that it is presented works very well on an emotional level. It’s a poor story that is very well told. The emotions of the characters and their interaction, as limited as they may be, really work. Yes, it’s a bit cliched and stereotypical, but it’s well executed. The distress, treachery, and hybris feels real. Trying to understand the chronological steps of events and the mechanisms by which the monsters are created and multiplying won’t get you anywhere. That part of the story is just a complete mess. But you can understand what each character is feeling and why, and how that makes them behave. And in that regard it’s a good story.

There is one minor twist to the story of Dead Space that comes pretty early in the game, but going completely blind into this game, I really did not expect. And it’s also what really makes Dead Space stand out from other zombie games and movies and makes it its own unique thing. Obviously, spoilers in the rest of this paragraph. As it turns out, I think already in the second level, much of the crew of the Ishimura consisted of members of the Church of Unitology, the largest remaining religion on Earth. And the zombie outbreak on the ship was not an unfortunate accident caused by bad luck. On the planet the Ishimura is orbiting, miners found a strange burried artifact called the Marker. And to the Unitologists, the Marker is a devine relic connected to their version of the afterlife and their belief in a transformation of all humanity. But when they went to dig it out and fiddle around with it, people started getting crazy and turning into monsters. And with many different people having very different ideas what to do about the situation, everything devolved into chaos and the monsters killing almost everyone. At its core, this is the stuff of a good story. People encounter something strange to which there is much more than it seems at first, and conflict breaks out about how to deal with it. The main problem seems to be that the makers of the game went a bit overboard with trying to add lots of additional layers, twists, and complications to that without really having a clear idea of what is actually going on with the Marker and the monsters. Turns out there’s also a government coverup and secret experiments, and multiple conspiracies. Less really would have been much more here. But as I’ve mentioned before, when you look at the story of Dead Space as people responding to a crisis, I think it’s pretty good. It’s mostly the exact nature of the crisis where things get really messed up and confused. The search for Nicole is a good example of that. If you try to piece together what’s really going actually on, it doesn’t make much sense. But you can still easily get the idea what the creators of the game were trying to do with her, and I think it’s a pretty good idea. I also very much love a moment in the later parts of the game where you are trying to board a shuttle where one of your current allies is waiting for you, and suddenly there’s just a bang and blood on his uniform and he falls over while behind him the doors close, the engines start, and the shuttle takes off without you. At that moment, it really took me several seconds to realize “Someone is stealing our escape ship! Why?! Who?!” It just takes off and leaves. You then get a radio call 10 seconds or so later where everything is explained, but when I first played that level years back, it was one of those moments that really made me fall in love with the idea of having major things happen in a story without immediately given any clue what just happened. In almost all fiction, any time there’s a twist someone immediately shows up to explain everything to the audience. It was only 15 or 20 seconds, but I really loved that unexplained confusion. When I work on ideas for stories, I always plan them out in a way that the reader doesn’t get anything told until the protagonist learns it.

So, to my final verdict on the game. Yay or Nay? Clear yay from me. I really like Dead Space. It’s not amazing game, but in many respects it’s a really good game. And yes, in some others it’s a very mediocre game. But it gets some very important things right, which are atmosphere and emotional depth, fow which I really care so much more than logically consistent plots. The sad thing is that I think Dead Space really could have been so much more. I think the potential was there for something like a Silent Hill 2, but they went with the action shoter approach instead of the horror mystery. While looking for the E3 trailer, I also found this launch trailer for the game. Which really looks and feels quite amazing. Unfortunately, it also is really not representative of the game at all. It makes it all look so much deeper and complex than it really is. (It also spoils the thing I was talking about in the previous paragraph.) It’s still a space zombie shoter with with a nice coating of simple story that adds a few interesting but underexplored ideas. But maybe I should try to write a story like that?