After my Mass Effect review I turned to twitter to ask you which game I should review next:
— Robby Bisschop (@Bloodyspasm) 1 mei 2017
As you can see, Dead Space won with a relatively big margin. I’m happy I get to revisit this gem again as it’s quite possibly the best horror game of the last generation. To me it’s the Xbox 360/PS3 generation’s Resident Evil 4. It just did so many things right and even started a few new trends of its own.
Dead Space takes place in a future where mankind is exploring space for resources. To achieve this they use enormous spaceships called planet-crackers to mine for raw materials. The very first ship that was designed for this purpose, the USG Ishimura, has sent out a distress call and went radio silent shortly after. You play as Isaac Clarke, an engineer who is part of a small team sent to investigate what could have gone wrong. Isaac even has a personal interest to get to the bottom of it as his girlfriend Nicole is a medical officer on board the Ishimura.
When docking, your ship gets hit by an asteroid and you crash into the Ishimura. Luckily (or is it?) everyone survives the impact and your team sets out to explore. On first sight it appears to be abandoned, but it doesn’t take long before you discover what has taken place. Your team gets attacked by gruesome monstrosities and you get separated from the survivors. You soon learn that these things are reanimated and deformed corpses of the Ishimura crew. Apparently something called a “marker” was discovered during the mining process. When this giant artefact was brought on board, people started going crazy and the dead came back to life attacking the others.
I really appreciated how the story is told to the player: while the core of it is done through cutscenes, the more interesting titbits are learned by finding text, audio or video logs. And what you can’t get from those you can literally find scribbled on the walls. It really encourages exploration and gets you invested in what happened before you arrived.
Graphically the game looks outstanding. When I first played it, it was on my HD tv screen but this time, thanks to the Xbox One’s Streaming capabilities I was able to play it on my smaller (but high quality) laptop screen and I got to appreciate the details even more. It also helped that the proximity of the screen made me more able to read the smaller texts on the walls as seen above. The textures are crisp and detailed, everything just oozes atmosphere.
I found it hard to believe this game was released in 2008 as it’s still very easy on the eyes in 2017. Besides the graphical polish, there is just so much thought that has gone into every little aspect of the design. The User Interface in particular requires mentioning: gone are the cluttered numbers or lifebars commonly seen cluttering the corners in other videogames. The development team has found a brilliant way to integrate every piece of vital information. Your remaining health is shown as sectioned lights on the spine of your armor, the ammo you have left is indicated on the gun’s display. Even your inventory, map and objectives are shown as a hologram that moves with you as you walk. This brings with it an incredible sense of immersion.
Another interesting choice was the option to show the path where to go to next. You can press the Left Analog Stick to show a hologram line on the floor so you know where to go next. Or, if you have completionist tendencies like me, they help to avoid the main story triggers so you can dart off in the opposite direction, looking for collectibles and lore. This brings me to the length of the game though. While I spent about 15 hours on my first trip on the Ishimura, it’s by no means a long game. I had already found all there is to find in that first run. I still had some cash to gather and nodes to collect to max out all of my gear (more on that later) but once that was done I found myself dashing to the next bit and I ended up completing it in 8 hours.
But don’t hold this against the game. The level design is perfect with almost no padding. When you have to backtrack through an area, it’s with a purpose and there are usually new events or enemies to keep it interesting. They’re all scripted though, so a 2nd run will not succeed as well in the jumpscare department.
Another thing I did differently in my gaming set-up was playing it with headphones on. And let me tell you: I did the game a disservice by previously having my TV make feeble attempts at giving me the full experience. There were so many audio cues I didn’t even notice were there at first; people yelling in the distance, whispers of voices in Isaac’s head, the sound of an enemy scuttling behind you. In fact I often found hearing an enemy and then not finding it to be scarier then any of the actual combat scenarios. I also liked how the nursery song “Twinkle twinkle little star” was used in a particular part of the game, it’s just as effective in the game as it was in the trailer. In fact the only sound I found missing was Isaac’s voice. We don’t often see a Silent Protagonist these days and I didn’t really see the need for it here… (shame, for all we know Isaac has an amazing singing voice)
If there’s another thing that keeps the game interesting, the keyword would be variety. There are many different types of enemies you’ll face: from the regular Necromorphs and their faster or bigger upgrades, to the ceiling-crawling babies. And there are just as many, if not more, ways to die. Luckily you’re given quite an interesting arsenal of weapons to combat them with, most of which are tools normally used by an engineer, and they all have a secondary fire mode. My personal favorites were the Ripper (a chainsaw with a disc that rotates at some distance from you) and the starting Plasma Gun which can be set to shoot vertically or horizontally. You can also use stasis to slow enemies down or use telekinesis to launch projectiles at them. In fact, it’ll be a regular occurrence that you’ll launch one of their own limbs back at them. Early on you’ll be instructed that this is the most effective method of dealing with the Necromorphs: you shoot off their limbs. And each enemy will have a different weak spot.
All of your gear is upgradeable too. You can buy new armor for Isaac so you can take more hits and carry more items. When you find a Bench, you can also use Nodes to increase the effectiveness of your powers and weapons. It should be relatively easy to 100% your gear over the course of two playthroughs. I do wish the Backwards Compatible games used the gamehubs and achievement progression the Xbox One can provide however. As there are some many “do <thing> an X amount of time” type achievements and there’s no way to tell how far you’ve gotten.
Just when things threaten to get stale, Dead Space throws you a little gameplay variety as well. You’ll have some parts where you are in the cold vacuum of space, so you have to keep your eyes on the oxygen level, added to the fact that there is no sound in space so you can’t hear enemies approaching. There are parts in Zero-G environments where you can jump to walls or ceilings (there’s even a Zero-G basketball minigame) and there’s a fun Asteroid shooting minigame. Oh wait, did I say fun? I meant an early game progression stopping gimmick that would have been better left out. No seriously, this part had me quit the game in my first playthrough. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of players never got past this point. The Random Number Generator type of challenge this offered was just too much for me. In fact dreading this part was the main reason I had put off a second playthrough for so long. I seemed to have gotten lucky this time as I managed in my 3rd attempt. But that 50% Hull Integrity achievement will forever stay out of reach.
Other than this, I can’t say the game is really that difficult though. In fact there may just be too many savepoints and generous autosaves to actually fear losing any progress. Having less of them could have increased the overall scare factor of the game. Though I guess it’s a welcome element when going through the harder difficulties.
In fact, I’m going to start a 3rd run right away, on the highest difficulty + I’ll attempt to combine it with a Plasma Gun only run to finish the last of the achievements. And what better compliment could there be for a game than wanting to play it again and again? I’m a fan and I heartily recommend everyone to play this game!
Did you play Dead Space and did you enjoy it as much as I did? And what about the 2nd or 3rd instalments? Sound off in the comments!