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Dead Space

31 Oct 2008  by   Paul Younger
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Scary games are a rare breed these days.  Sure we get a few cheap shocks here and there (*cough* Doom 3) and the odd unsettling moment but they can’t quite live up to the atmospheric horror of games like System Shock 2 or the original Silent Hill. Well, things may just be changing because this is the first survival horror title in a long time that has genuinely terrified and sickened me to the core, drawing me into the experience from the very beginning.Dead Space is set in the distant future aboard a “Planet Cracker” class mining spaceship known as the USG Ishimura. Earth has long since used up its natural resources and the Concordance Extraction Corporation (C.E.C.) was formed to explore space and discover new minerals and materials. You are Isaac Clarke, an engineer sent in with a small crew to investigate a distress call from the stranded mining flagship. You’ll see straight away that this game has a lot of space horror influences. First one that pops to mind is Event Horizon as the story of Dead Space revolves around a ship that loses contact and soon becomes infested with an alien entity. Keen sci-fi fans will also spot elements of the Alien Quadrilogy and John Carpenter’s The Thing in Dead Space.  The game begins with Isaac watching a recorded video message from his ex-girlfriend  Nicole Brennan, a crew member on the Ishimura. Your colleagues, security officer Zach Hammond and technologist Kendra Daniels are discussing the missing ship itself as it slides into view in a stunning introduction to the game’s main environment. The view from the ship window is truly breathtaking and demonstrates just how polished and beautiful the game looks. Even when you’re knee deep in blood, guts and mutated, rotting flesh you’ll admire the developer’s visual flair. After watching the intro sequence a little further, your ship takes a hit from some flying debris and you are forced to make an emergency landing in to the dock of the Ishimura.Once you take control of the game, you are introduced to the innovative HUD design. I say “HUD” but there is no HUD as such throughout the game. Any menus that appear are projected from the front of your suit. If you pan the camera round you can quickly tell that the menus and inventory become un-viewable from certain angles. You’ll also learn that viewing your menus will occur in real time, meaning you are highly vulnerable to attacks whilst you sift through your items, or check your map. Your health is shown as a set of blue/turquoise bars running up your spine. As you take hits the bar drops, turning yellow indicating a low level of health, and flashes red when you’re at death’s door. The game handles in a similar fashion to Resident Evil 4 – when you aim down your weapon, the camera zooms over your shoulder and allows you to blast away with good accuracy. Although in this case, there are no quick turn buttons, so if something is quickly catching up with you ready to strike, you have to manually turn around which can be a little cumbersome. There is also a button to stomp the ground hard which can be used to break open supply crates or stamp the life out of a crawling enemy.Now on to our first encounter with the enemy, the Necromorphs. After watching one of the first nameless security guards (Dead Space’s equivalent of the red shirt guys) being butchered by an invading Necromoprh, you leg it to the nearest door, with the monster in hot pursuit  You encounter more again soon after, but not before you’ve picked up your first weapon, the Plasma Cutter. Sounds good doesn’t it? Well, it is. Dismemberment is definitely a word to remember as the only real way to take down the enemy is by relieving them of their limbs. Aim for the head and you’ll take it off, but this will just annoy the Necros and before you know it you’ll be minus a face. Take its legs out and it will just crawl towards you still screaming for your blood. Aim for its chest, and it will take one hell of a beating before it finally falls over dead. Take its arms off – its primary weapons –  and you have a sure fire way of taking it down. The idea of shooting limbs off is a fantastic point for any gamer, but it soon becomes slightly repetitive as the game progresses.{PAGE TITLE=Page 2}The weapons in Dead Space are mostly mining equipment, modified by Isaac for use against the enemy. The Plasma Cutter for example is a small mining tool used for breaking up small rocks or metals, but in this case we can use it for ripping arms from shoulder sockets. There are plenty more weapons to discover later on in the game, including an assault rifle and a flamethrower (toasty). You first discover the schematics for the weapons which can then be uploaded to the store for purchase. The store itself doubles up as a storage facility allowing you to deposit surplus items and come back to them later. You can also purchase armour upgrades, giving you more protection against enemy attacks and also granting you larger inventory space.Something you’ll eventually see further in to the game is the Zero-Gravity environments. When you reach these parts of the ship you will be able to launch yourself from one platform to an adjacent wall or platform nearby. Once doing this your view of the world will change as up becomes left and down becomes right. Necromorphs soon follow you into these areas and use them to their advantage, although there is nothing better than blasting one and watching it float away effortlessly from its perched position, blood bubbling from its open wounds.Isaac soon learns new skills such as Telekinesis and Stasis, which will soon become your greatest assets. When encountering a large amount of enemies swarming towards you, fire off your stasis ability and anything in front of you slows almost to a halt, allowing you to aim carefully and take down enemies with ease. This ability can also be used to solve basic puzzles such as malfunctioning doors that open and slam shut far too fast for you to move through. Be warned though, the stasis ability costs stasis power (shown by a small coloured dial on your back next to your health bar) and should you run out at a crucial moment, you’ll find yourself turned to mincemeat. The second of these abilities is Telekinesis, granting you the power to pick up large obstacles blocking your path, severing explosive parts of enemies only to send them flying back at them, or even something as simple as opening door locks.The sound and ambience of the game is outstanding, and it really does multiply the horror effect of the game tenfold. Be it the screeching of violins (anyone remember Aliens vs Predator the game?) as the impending danger approaches, or the tap of fleshy feet overhead as you hear something crawling through vents or openings. When you eventually exit the ship to wander the exterior of the hull, or enter a room that’s been blown off the ship, sounds are almost completely cut out as they would be in a vacuum. The only things you’ll hear are your own faint breathing and footsteps, and the silenced report of your gun as a stealthy Necromorph pops out at you. Although you never hear Isaac talk, the voice acting of the other characters is near perfect. You can sense the fear in some voices, and the madness in others as the game progresses, not to mention the stomach-turning shrieks from the Necros themselves.There are a few minor flaws with Dead Space, however. The gameplay becomes a little repetitive at times and you feel that a little more variety in level design would not go amiss. There are also some technical issues which threaten the level of immersion, such as the collision detection when you use the ground stomp move. Also, once you complete the game you can restart it in a new game mode with all your current equipment, but the game will not allow you to change difficulty, meaning that you cannot try the unlocked insane mode with all your current gear.EA Redwood Shores has created a compelling survival horror game in Dead Space. The game can be genuinely terrifying in some places, and unsettling in others and anyone with a sensitive disposition may have some trouble with the level of gore. Dead Space is a great addition to the survival horror genre, and offers up some of the most scary, atmospheric gameplay I’ve encountered in a while.Now you’ll have to excuse me whilst I fetch myself some clean underwear…

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