[i]Twinkle Twinkle Little Star / How I Wonder What You Are
– Popular Rhyme
Rickenbacker. Von Braun. Nostromo. Icarus II. Event Horizon. No matter how much technological progress humanity might one day make, sending lone ships into the unmonitored wilds of space usually ends in a rather disastrous mess. With the release of Dead Space, we can add another name to ye grande list of doomed vessels: The USG Ishimura.
It's long been a rule in cinema that horror flicks go to space to die. Friday the 13th, Hellraiser, Leprechaun, all were once-respectable franchises that sputtered as they turned to the stars. But for the home console screen, the vastness of space teems with yet-untapped horrors that are all-too-eager to stalk across our darkened living rooms. In the best of these stories, jaunts into space demonstrate man's own inhumanity. We, who have conquered the stars and have mastered freeze-dried turkey dinners, are yet unable to overcome our base nature. There exists, in reality, a galaxy of horrors within each of us.
Dead Space isn't quite as introspective as my faux film critic diatribe. In fact, most of the elements of the game seem eerily similar to other titles you may have played. But if Dead Space isn't turning the space-based horror genre on its head, at least it's genuinely terrifying, right? Right?
Stop Me if you've Heard this one Before
It begins with the standard search and rescue schlock. The Ishimura, a “planet cracker” designate, has been silent for way too long. You, and a team of racially diverse math-science types, are sent to knock on the vessel's door. In the process you hope to run across your girlfriend, who is conveniently stationed on the...station. Immediately, your shuttle falls into problems – problems of the “losing your starboard engine” magnitude. You're soonafter attacked by some thing, at which point you realize that the Ishimura's crew probably didn't have a raging space-kegger, and is instead embroiled in some deeply weird business.
In a change of a well-worn cliche, the protagonist of Dead Space is not a Space Marine. He's more a Space Army Corps. Of Engineers type. While the difference may appear to be only a superficial one (he, for instance, has a nice head of hair), it's accurately reflected in the type of weaponry you carry. Your tools of carnage are aesthetically suited to cut pipes or carve wood, for the most part. It's not a huge change, but I welcome any deviation from the standard.
If you experience a bit of deja vu while trekking through the vacant halls of the Ishimura, it's because you've seen the concepts behind Dead Space at play before. The monstrous Necromorphs and their creeping biological habitat recall The Many. I realize that counts as blasphemy in some circles, but the “lumbering, fleshy, hive-minded ghouls” thing was done so well in System Shock 2 that it's hard to avoid the comparison. The core story (involving exploratory mining, an archaeological artifact and a smattering of religious zealotry) is strikingly similar to that of Doom 3. The handy routefinder is a less-intrusive version of the GPS system seen in Army of Two and the holographic map projection wouldn't exactly be out of place in the Metroid Prime series. I'm not saying it's derivative or uninspired, but the game does recognize its predecessors and reflects those roots accordingly. One could say that its built on the successes of prior titles. I just wish it didn't seem so reminiscent of said games.
But while the overall feeling of playing Dead Space makes me think I'm revisiting some choice entries in the horror or action genre, the game earns a lot of points from me for its novel approach to the inventory and heads up display systems. Instead of pausing the action and taking you on a temporary status screen vacation, the game's map, item, mission objectives and log database are displayed in game-space as a holographic projection that your character looks towards. Moving the camera while the screen is up (or while a video log is playing) can actually shift the focus off the display entirely, or move behind it. You are at all times tied to your character. Your experiences are one and the same. Likewise, your health is communicated through a blue tube mounted on your spine. In-game, this is a kind of communications harness that you use to sync up with your other crew mates. As you're injured, the column of light goes from a full blue to a warm-beer yellow, and finally to the familiar you're-going-to-die red. Since you're able to get all your information just by looking at your character, you're never really taken out of the situation at hand. It's remarkably minimalistic, but doesn't skimp on necessary information. A small touch, to be sure, but it really feels like this is the game's big innovation. One that marries gameplay and setting in an interesting way. I hope developers take notice and swipe the idea for future games.
Yes, but is it scary?
In a word, no. So far, this game is no Resident Evil Remake. That's a game that could make me whimper in the middle of a bright summer day. Certainly there are moments when I was surprised at a turn of events, but I have yet to feel the kind of terror that would have me cower in a corner, desperately hoping that the enemy I had just run into didn't follow me.
I blame my cynicism.
In the 25 years I've been alive, I've digested a lot of horror, be it from games, movies or Stephen King. I know that if the strings section launches into shrill staccato, I'm in for something jump-worthy. I know the innocent-looking enemy on the floor is probably waiting for me to walk up to it so that it can spring to life and eviscerate me. I know that if I come across an especially useful ability, quest item, or weapon, an army of nasty things will be rushing toward me the moment I turn around. I know that the huge, bloody hole in the wall means I'll come across what caused the hole somewhere down the line.
By and large, Dead Space follows the tired conventions listed above. Ugly as the Necromorphs are, I have a hard time feeling afraid of them when they almost universally drop extra ammunition for my base weapon – a weapon that is perhaps too effective at taking these enemies out. The game really captivates when you're confronted with a multitude of foes. As you choose which to slow down, which to dismember and switch betwixt your weapons of mass amputation, a visceral thrill comes bubbling up. You may not be scared of the situation, but at least you're having fun dissecting the situation.
Admittedly, you may lack my steely resolve. If the concept of walking down a darkened hall makes your skin crawl, then your experience may differ a bit from mine. It seems that in the frenzy of showcasing the limb dismemberment mechanics, the game expects you to kill every single thing you come across. This is unfortunate, because the true horror in a game like this comes when you've got enemies to kill and just your fists with which to do it.
Scary? Not so much. But atmospheric? Overwhelmingly, yes. Dead Space is one of the few space games where I truly felt I was on a derelict ship teetering on the edge of ruin. The environment creaks and groans as steel presses on steel and buckles, somewhere. There's an area by the engine room that really showcases the immense scale of the ship: you look over a broken, bent railing and all you can see is a single bright spotlight, its distance incalculable thanks to the haze between you and it, the outline of a Brobdingnagian piece of the ship looming silently before you.
You are alone, and oh, so very small.
Granted, you'll be playing through cramped corridors and medium-sized rooms through most of the experience, so scale won't be your primary concern. But running across a treat like that does wonders for establishing mood.
And really, it's the unconventional that sets the tone so well. In one case I had walked to a T-shaped corridor, a save marker ahead of me as I made my way into the bowels of the ship. I felt safe, secure, as I passed up the opportunity to preserve my progress. Not more than six steps later, the lights failed in the passageway. Immediately I readied my weapon, bringing up a small diameter of light with which I scanned the darkness ahead of me. As I inched my way forwards, that save point was suddenly looking very alluring. Moments like that tend to be remembered for a long time.
It's worth noting that, while I was unphased by the terror held within, my Xbox 360 was apparently scared sh*tless. It Red Ringed on me while I was progressing through game's half-way point.
Dead Space: A game so scary it'll cause your 360 to die.