Friday, February 5, 2016

Dead Space review

    One of the most influential games of all time is System Shock. It is the father of survival horror and gave birth to many other science fiction and horror games. One of the most famous of these is the Bioshock series, which is effectively System Shock set underwater and in the past than in a cyberpunk future. Another series which is the spiritual successor of the series is Dead Space, which takes all of the horror and future atmosphere then adjusts the gameplay to be more of a third-person shooter.

    The premise of Dead Space is a Lovecraftian plot adapted to science fiction. The crew of the USG Ishimura have encountered something...alien... in space and it's turned out to be bad. You, Isaac Clarke, are just some poor repairman who gets summoned to investigate it. Your girlfriend is on board too, as if there's not enough going on. There's ancient space civilizations, cults, and admirable world-building. What's really good about the game, however, is the setting.

Zombies IN SPACE!
    The backstory is pretty good too with a vision of the future dominated by religious fundamentalism as well as economic depression. In the future, humanity has squandered so much of its resources that they're reduced to destroying planet after planet in order to keep barely ahead of its planetary growth. The poverty and depression in the world means more and more people turn to religion with Unitology being the most prolific religion remaining.

    The fact it has taken to using stories of alien markers and tech to make it "true" also means that people misunderstood their true sinister purpose. While some people may think the Scientology-riff is too obvious, I appreciate it because they are the original UFO religion and the connotations of it in the public mindset added to the sense the people are desperate for answers. This is a cosmic horror story, at heart, with the action of a Warhammer 40K game. Religion and moral certainty mean nothing in the face of life or death struggles with monsters.

    And I'm all about the grimdark.

To be pedantic, the scaling of this is off. The Ishimura should be seven times bigger.
    The USG Ishimura is a triumph of world-building in that it truly feels like a town-sized spaceship from the far-flung future. I've seen some well-designed settings for video games over the years but the Ishimura may be the best. It not only has some truly spectacular visuals of both space and its interior but all of this feels plausible within the universe. This feels like it could be a spaceship in the far future.

    The majority of the game takes place in tight narrow corridors with excellent use of lightning, grates, and various places where monsters can pop out. However, there are also massive chambers which include amazing visuals that hold up as well today as they did when the game was first released in 2008. An amazing amount of detail was put into everything from the restroom designs to the graffiti on the wall. This could easily be ported to current generation technology and be considered up-to-date.

Really, this game has some breathtaking visuals.
    It's interesting that the USG Ishimura is so well-designed since the monsters are kind of meh. There's a few which aren't bad but most of them are sort of generic and kind of riff off Silent Hill, IMHO. Part of the problem may be presentation. It's hard to create a horror game when most of the time the monsters just run at you directly, giving you plenty of opportunity to blast them to pieces.

    Yes, they can be really scary with their horrible tentacles and monstrous spider-like movements but I think they get overused so that by the time I was halfway through the game, I was desensitized their revolting appearances. They're terrifying in the first level but once you get a rhythm of "shoot limbs, stomp, repeat" then they lose their sense of danger. It's part of the nature of a shooter that, eventually, your enemies are going to be something you're okay with blowing away.

     This is where I will immediately backtrack as I say while the monsters don't look scary, I think they sound scary. The sound-design is a triumph and if you allow yourself to become immersed in what you hear rather than just what you see then you're likely to be left on the edge of your seat. The place manages to nicely bring up all the creaky old house noises translated to a starship as well as vaguely monstrous noises which had me terrified at times.

The Space Zombie may be overused but it's still effective.
    The use of the monsters in the game is awesome too. The Necromorphs come up from behind, drop down from above, play dead, and often do incredibly surprising things. The fact I often played the game by adjusting the camera angle so I could look behind me during cut-scenes told me how wary I'd become during the game. I also love the fact head shots won't kill the monsters but you have to dismember them and routinely stomp on them to make sure they stay down.

    Ironically, the best monsters in the game are the mooks rather than the bosses. The bosses, while visually impressive, are fairly easy to defeat once you figure out their attack patterns. Whereas the mooks can and often do react in surprising ways. You can easily find yourself dog-piled by them and they often have extremely divergent behaviors. There's no one strategy for all of them, though stomping on everything until it's bloody gibbets is a fairly good one.

    The interaction between the monsters and the environment is also awesome, especially when they're provided context. For example, you often see horrible growths along the wall and wonder what that's from. Then you remember the majority of dust in the world is skin cells. Another mission has you find out they kept frozen embryos for the growth of clones in one of the medical bays, only to find yourself soon surrounded by hideous yet ratings-appropriate monster babies.

These babies are all clones. Honest. Despite references to others being born naturally.
    The characters in the game aren't the most developed ones, at least the living ones. Still, I enjoyed getting to know Isaac's crew and regret we didn't get to know them better. They're a bunch of people who have crash-landed on a ship full of Necromorphs and justifiably panicking. I also like some of them have a hidden agenda. They're less developed than the crew of the Ishimura, though, and their posthumous logs are really entertaining. I find the Church of Unitology a bit underdeveloped but the larger mythology of Markers, Necromorphs, and the dying civilization of Earth quite entertaining.

     My favorite character is Isaac Clarke, himself. He's a triumph of visual design and while he's somewhat like a Space Marine in that he's fighting off hordes of monsters, both the game-play and the storyline constantly reinforce Isaac is just a repairman. Whole sections of the game are about Isaac trying to figure out how to get the ship running again. I could have used more cut-scenes with him but I understand this is rectified in the sequel. I really like the character.

     Unfortunately, Isaac is a silent protagonist and this hurts our ability to immerse himself in his story. While I often enjoy silent protagonists, here, I would have really enjoyed his reaction to all of the situations going on. Admittedly, I'm not sure the story would realistically be anything but him screaming every other minute but it would have gone a long way to making us sympathize with Isaac's plight. If Isaac talked about his relationship with Nicole or anything other than plot objectives, I think the horror and fear would have been even stronger. Even so, I do like that Isaac doesn't behave like a hero--he's here for Nicole and to survive, nothing more.

There are a couple of characters who come with you but they're sort of one-note (at first).

      Despite this, the game manages to win serious points with me in its setting that is, as I've stated 90% of the game's appeal. The claustrophobic feeling of the starship, occasionally broken up by massive chambers which make you feel microscopic is wonderful. I also like how the storyline really brings home these are people with their lives horribly disrupted by a unimaginable horror they can barely understand. I really developed a feeling for their lives pre-infestation.

    I will say I had a pretty bad case of deja vu at times because the whole business of markers, ancient alien gods, space zombies, and rapid mutation of the living reminded me a great deal of Mass Effect. This is unfair since there's only a year difference between the two games coming out but fans of both series will note a great number of similarities. The main difference is that things like Reaper indoctrination, Husks, and their manipulation of society are played for horror rather than as a basis for science-fiction adventure.

    I also think the game could have taken more time to interact with the survivors. All of the survivors you encounter on the ship save one (and there's a twist there I found to be quite clever) are completely insane. Oftentimes, you'll encounter them only long enough for them to commit suicide. I found this to be a bit annoying and would have liked to have found a group of survivors only for them to be horribly mutilated then killed later. It may have made keeping the mystery more difficult but you could explain that by saying they'd locked themselves up the entire time they were there.

The relationship between Nicole and Isaac could have been developed better.
    Gameplay-wise, Dead Space is somewhat schizophrenic. On the easier difficulties, ammunition is plentiful and it's just a somewhat tense murder-fest. On the higher difficulties, it becomes a true survival horror experience but only if you complete the game first on lower difficulties. Also, the game seems built like it should be an exploration game but works, instead, like a linear corridor shooter. I can't help but think there's a compromise going on between developers who wanted to make the next System Shock and their bosses who wanted them to make the next Resident Evil 4.

    There's a limited number of weapons for Isaac to use but, honestly, there's really no point to switching from your plasma cutter in most respects. The game's upgrade system means you're better off upgrading one weapon exclusively and using it to destroy all your enemies. Other tools like slowing time and telekinesis have their uses but the former is much more so than the latter. Indeed, the telekinesis function could be removed with almost no change to the game whatsoever.

    In conclusion, Dead Space is a great survival horror game but not a perfect one. I think the game would have been improved by a commitment to either shooter, survival horror, or dual-modes with options for both like in Mass Effect. Still, I'm looking forward to playing the sequels.


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