This is dead space! It is deceased! It is an ex-space!
In 1997, Paramount Pictures decided to traumatize an entire generation of filmgoers by releasing Event Horizon; a sci-fi horror flick about a mysteriously vanished space-faring vessel suddenly returning and filled to the brim with untold horror after passing through what can only be described as hell. It set a bar, a fairly high one, for gore, terror, and existential dread. Eleven years later in 2008, Electronic Arts decided that Event Horizon should be a video game.
So I bought it in 2009 used, and I played it until I became wholly frustrated and found something else. However, I decided to revisit it after realizing my girlfriend still had her copy. All things being equal, I’m glad I did.
The space mining frigate, a planet-cracker called the USS Ishimura has gone dark. No communications have been heard from it for some time, and your team has been sent to look into the matter. Mining vessels have difficulties all the time, particularly planet crackers which toss up a lot of debris. However, it soon becomes apparent that there has been no mundane accident. Something terrifying and alien has compromised the ship, and as Issac, the chief engineer on the repair mission, you delve into the dark and twisted bowels of the ship to root out the true evil that awaits within not just the ship, but also it’s radically changed (and almost 100% dead) crew.
Dead Space itself is survival horror themed. You’re thrown into a nightmare scenario of revived corpses, twisted into inhuman mockeries. There’s not enough light, not enough ammo, not enough space to carry what you do have available, and there are waaaaay too many Necromorphs waiting to behead, disembowel, dismember, choke, skin, or straight up eat you. If that wasn’t enough, Necromorphs aren’t easily dispatched either. You can remove the head, but that really only pisses them off. Severing their limbs is the surest way to stop them, and it makes not only for truly gruesome animations but also for precision shooting being a key element.
If hordes of necrotic aliens from hell weren’t bad enough, the ship is disabled in several crucial – and lethal – ways. There are pockets of anti-gravity zones, decompressed portions of the ship, faulty door mechanisms, gravity gone bad, and even freaking asteroids looking to obliterate you. You eventually find that you have a few universal tools such as the Stasis Rig (which inexplicably is able to defeat physics as we know it), and the Kinesis Rig (which will pull non-organic matter to you or to repel them) to manage the ship’s more mundane perils and to get items far from reach closer. All of those things will be crucial in making decisions, and, more importantly, making your ammo count (hitting Necromorphs with flammable canisters using Kinesis is the best).
Of course, you can improve all of that gear and even buy new gear. Various points in the Ishimura are still online, including workbenches and company stores. Fortunately, there are resources on board to upgrade items with (or for sale in the store), and lord knows all these dead miners don’t need the money they left behind before becoming abominations. The store system can dole out anything from ammo to new weapons, to upgrade equipment, so managing money is still important – even on an abandoned spaceship.
Dead Space has an early Resident Evil feel, with over the shoulder, third-person perspective, though you’ve much more control of the camera. The tone for horror is dead on, and playing it in the dark with surround sound may cause you to change your pants a couple times. These guys really did good atmospheric work that will immerse you in the world.
Additionally, Dead Space is a welcome departure from the ‘shoot-for-the-head genre of horror. As noted above, you’d better damn well go for the limbs on the majority of the monsters. Learning to shoot for the limbs is crucial. You learn quickly to go specifically for the joints for maximum effect. Not only is it a different strategy, but it makes for some truly wicked cinematic effects. Even the nastiest of regenerative monsters find themselves in a bind with no legs or arms.
Additionally, the range of the Necromorphs is as startling as their grisly visages. You quickly come to learn that Necromorphs diversify. There are your stock ones with scythe arms and fanged maws, but then you find the ones that have gotten into the nascent, fetal clones in medbay that turn into Medusa head horrors on tiny infant limbs. Then there are the part manta ray ones that flay and convert corpses into new Necromorphs, Pregnant ones full of little starfish bastards that are nothing more than (deadly) tentacles emerging from severed human heads. Then you get serpentine ones that can bash you to death or pull you into air vents where you can be devoured off camera.
Lastly, there’s an interesting, and I imagine unintended consequence to completing the game. When it’s all said and done, it gives you schematics for the last of the suit upgrades, 50,000 credits, ten upgrade nodes, and a second playthrough. Given all of that, playing it the second time through turns it into an action-adventure title. You now have a buttload of money, upgraded gear and all the ammo you could ask for. What took four days prior was gone through in about one evening on the second playthrough. This adds a kind of charm, though everyone may not warm to it.
In what I hope was meant to be a well-meaning tool, the objective tracker is flawed. Yes, if you depress the right analog stick you will get a futuristic beeping noise and a blue line will shoot out to direct you to the next objective. Maybe. If you’re standing in exactly the right place. Using this feature frequently causes the camera angle to shift – and not always in a direction conducive to finding the goal as the feature intended. In the time you take trying to track to the goal, the line also fades. This can be maddening, particularly in the zero-g zones.
Also, there’s a feature which again works in part that may be intentional (and if it is intentional it’s annoying). Pretty much every kind of Necromorph on the ship has a way to latch onto you and hate fuck you to death, and you fight them off by button mashing until you free yourself from the monster. However, when this happens, it will sometimes turn you completely around from your opponents, which, you know, is the last goddamned thing you want to do in the middle of a Necromorph gangbang. It can lead to entire chains of assault that even Law and Order SVU wouldn’t show or even imply.
The last thing to note is that while I visually love what the Rig does for communication and how it does it, it can make for issues with ease of use. By this, I don’t mean it’s bad the action doesn’t stop just because you open it – in fact, that’s an enhancer. When some alien beastie is trying to kill you for your meat parts, ain’t nobody got time for an inventory breather. What I mean is when you’re in that quiet space for two seconds and have time to use it, you end up having to move around until you can get an angle on it. Likewise, the store, while fixed in position is also hella twitchy. More than once, I found myself thinking I was buying something, only to find out I had actually just sold all my ammunition back. There’s a confirmation screen for it, sure, but I have worked in tech support enough to have the just-click-thru response, and suddenly, I’m out of plasma. And just like any economist will tell you, you’ll never get full value for something you sell used, so you can only buy back some of it.
The Sum Up
For a game from 2008, Dead Space still has its chops. The visuals aren’t all that dated, the gameplay is still solid, and it still will make you want to sleep with the lights on. For those who want their fun with a side of gore and pants-wetting anxiety, you can do far worse. I’d recommend this title whole-heartedly – because there’s nothing Necromorphs love more than a good, beating heart.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PlayStation 3 (reviewed), PC ; Publisher: Electronic Arts ; Developer: EA Redwood Shores ; Release Date: October 13, 2008 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Dead Space purchased by Hey Poor Player.