Review by Xtal
Developer: EA Redwood Shores
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: 14 October 2008
Available for: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed] Time Played: Completed twice (approximately 25 hours)
“Dead Space had no need to cater to an expected “mainstream shooter” audience. It had enough unique tricks that could have made it a wholly altered experience. Unfortunately it comes out bland and carbon-copied”
The Final Frontier
Your eyes are not deceiving you, this is not a hyper-advanced review of Dead Space 2. I’ve taken my time with Dead Space, and perhaps that is an understatement. Sometimes you sit down to engage in a particular experience, and whether you’re minutes or hours into it you realize this isn’t the right time. The initial release period of the aforementioned simply was not compatible with my life at the time. I knew I would get to it eventually, of course, though nearly two years is borderline hysterical, no? Suffice it to say, we’ll call this one a “Revisit” then, eh?
Given my timing I don’t expect to receive any threatening telephone calls from EA regarding the forthcoming chastising. I hear they sold a few copies and even green-lit a sequel, so I’m not out to change minds here. No, my reasons follow thusly. First, I’d just really like to talk about the game that was Dead Space. Second, it has been dissected thoroughly here at Tap-Repeatedly and I think there are many good reasons for that, several of which I intend to delve into.
To briefly recap what most readers will already know: Dead Space begins with the now-standard Half-Life “train ride” introduction; the cutely named Isaac Clarke— our player character– gazes out the giant hull-compromising-but-pretty glass window of the USG Kellion. Your starship is en route to investigate a distress signal received from USG Ishimura, a state-of-the-art “planet cracker,” you’re told. Kellion docks aboard the massive Ishimura and from the get go several things are clear: Isaac isn’t leaving the way he came in, some serious violence has already occurred, and to top it off your two non-redshirt companions, Kendra and Hammond, dislike and distrust one another.
If that doesn’t sound like the generic setup of every shooter/faux-horror game you’ve ever played then just call me an electric monk and paint my horse pink.
The Way Out Is Through
My first encounter with a “necromorph,” as they apparently prefer to be called, frightened the living shit out of me: despite my obvious expectation for all the fun I was having to go awry I was overcome with a surge of adrenaline and just ran. In a most classic horror convention the developers here forced me to hurdle forward with nary an opportunity to look over my shoulder. And here we come again, to that funny little thing we humans possess: imagination. I had only a shadowy glimpse of my predator before frantic descent into the belly of Ishimura. For that short moment, fully immersed, I felt fear. On the power of imagination, a quote from an article Scout wrote last year:
“No, it was the allure of that dark underground world unfolding before me, a world that captured my imagination despite a total lack of graphics. Simply put, Zork engaged me. I was able to use my imagination in an entirely new way.”
This could have been one of many avenues Dead Space chose to travel: the horror and magic of imagination.
Instead, I found a gun. A plasma cutter, actually. Whatever its intent it was a convenient and oftentimes comical tool of dismemberment. This plasma cutter replaced my fear with swift discrimination: “cut off their limbs,” explicitly writes an evidently deceased crew member, in his or her own blood. “Thank you for your departed wisdom,” I say to myself as I saunter off with newfound blood-lust. Each monstrosity from that point onward met its agonizing demise at the three laser points of my appendage-disintegrating tool. Fear was their only weapon, and in the end (or rather from the beginning?) it was bested by mine: total annihilation.
If their only weapon was rendered inert by my own, why, then, did they exist at all? They were hardly an obstacle. Nor a device of any sort. What purpose did they serve? I may as well have wandered through a derelict ghost ship. Dead Space, then, is an aptly titled game: if this space wasn’t already lifeless surely it will be after our protagonist takes residence.
Once Is Enough
That brings me to my central question: what is the point? Yes, what is the point of all this, of Dead Space, a “survival horror” game, if not to elicit fear, horror and the struggle for survival? We know it can be done, just ask the B brothers. It becomes apparent quickly, however, that this is not known to EA Redwood, who instead specialize in gore mechanics and foot-stomping decibels that would put Spinal Tap’s amplifiers to shame.
They also lack subtlety. In almost every chapter Dead Space is comparable to Doom 3, not in a good way. No, rather in the monster closet way. Each corner turned, each door opened, each vent passed, Isaac is likely to encounter a “surprise!” jumping moment when some creature shrieks and lunges out from behind something. It’s disheartening how often this happens. So many times you might think you are truly alone, allowing the creepy atmosphere to set in on you, only to have that shattered by droves of attacking necromorphs. I understand that “AAA” titles rely on a conflict-resolution model to progress, nay, carry their game-play, but this is where my major disappointment with Dead Space lies. It had no need to cater to an expected “mainstream shooter” audience. It had enough unique tricks that could have made it a wholly altered experience. Unfortunately it comes out bland and carbon-copied; Doom 3.5.
For each moment of true awe and enjoyment in Dead Space there were several more to water it down: a gripping spacewalk followed by an idiotic asteroid-shooting mini-game; a moment of poignancy in a zero-gravity battle in a vacuum followed by half a dozen mundane fetching tasks. By the latter stages of the game things have quite literally devolved into repetition, as sections of the ship are revisited over and over until you finally leave it for the final chapter, which by the time it comes is almost a welcome reprieve, except that about 90% of it still takes place in corridors. This brings up another question for developers: if you run out of ideas what does the player gain from recycling them to artificially extend the experience? Dead Space is yet another added to my list of games that are too long.
I try to picture a different game released, barely recognizable to what we actually have in Dead Space, and I see a game maybe half the size, loaded with every good thing we have. I wonder if it could have received near-unanimous critical praise had it dared to be an entirely different game: instead of being almost completely about shooting the arms and legs off of creatures, what if it were a mostly barren ship; maybe still littered with some journals and audio logs, but for the most part a truly silent ship. What if the bulk of the experience was made up of the brilliant vacuum/spacewalk and zero-gravity sequences? What would be left, I’m willing to bet, is a tight and memorable experience, no filler, and something to be talked about for ages, going down in the annals of gaming history as a bold and daring showcase. Instead: EA Redwood filled the in-between with more of the game’s namesake: dead space.
It Is What It Is
As it happens, Dead Space is sadly just another shooting game, so it must hold up against similar experiences, and it doesn’t. The experience is so poorly paced that I never found myself able to become truly involved and wrapped up in Isaac’s journey. I found truckloads of ammunition for all kinds of weapons, despite needing to use only the first one I found, and I found enough for that one that I was never even close to being in danger of running out. That’s a huge deal breaker in a game that’s supposed to have you on your toes at all times.
It also doesn’t help when you have non-cohesive major plot lines, such as Isaac’s girlfriend, Nicole, and the possible revelation (I say possible because it’s not even made clear, to be sure) of her non-existence. There are many conspiracies and cover-ups so things become convoluted in the end. The only story aspect I found fascinating, and can only hope is expanded upon in Dead Space 2, is that of the religious cult of Unitology. There is indeed potential there to parallel some real world religious cultism and the like; that is a deep well always ready to be examined.
The final problem I have with Dead Space is the protagonist himself: Mr. Clarke. I find it absolutely ridiculous that he doesn’t speak. He is spoken at so many times that it just begs for him to have his own voice. Especially the sequences with Nicole. This guy writes in his journal how desperately he must find this woman, yet when he does he just stares at her as she talks at him. Okay, I realize maybe there is a whole Fight Club thing going on here between the two of them, but shit, can’t he talk to somebody?! Certain folk can get away with this; folk like Gordon Freeman. He doesn’t need to say anything: he knows his mission, he knows he’s a wickedly talented science-type-guy, and he has a crowbar. The Free Man oozes personality simply through those around him. Go ahead and disagree with me, you’re wrong. Isaac Clarke, however, desperately needs a fucking personality. He doesn’t have a mission: he just has orders barked at him, and I don’t understand why he doesn’t feel the need to make a few quips like “what are you guys doing?” or “what’s the plan?” or “fuck this shit, folks, I’m going to find an escape pod and jettison my ass into a nearby star.”
If I take one thing away from my experience in Dead Space, it is that therein lies flashes of brilliance, but we must properly criticize developers to help them understand what can make the difference between a merely good game and an unforgettable one. To my eye there is an endless list of improvements this game (now franchise, I suppose) could receive; elsewhere, I look around and see sycophantic levels of praise with little thought given to perfect scores thrown at an honestly mediocre game. I look forward to how future installments are received since sequels tend to be judged more harshly, as a rule.
To end on a friendlier note, it’s a positive sign that development of the sequel was tasked to Visceral Games, the creators of Dead Space: Extraction, which from my understanding appears to be a much more coherent venture. Dead Space 2 is set to release in the winter of 2011, so expect my review in the summer of 2013!
Email the author of this review at firstname.lastname@example.org
Brilliant xtal, thanks. My sentiments exactly; it felt too long and too repetitive. I don’t think the story could carry it nearly far enough either.
The thing is, I was pretty cool with a Doom 3/ System Shock 2/ Resident Evil 4 type hybrid until it became apparent that by about chapter 5 or 6 EA Redwood had ran out of ideas. There was an entire section that was lifted straight from System Shock 2 as well (Hydroponics) almost detail by detail, which really pissed me off.
I will say this though: I played Dead Space through on the hardest difficulty and the necromorphs were terrifying for much longer while ammo remained scarce. Eventually I did amass enough ammo and the game slipped into the gutter from there.
I do remember occasions where I’d stand just listening to the hum of the Ishimura though, much as I did with the Von Braun in System Shock 2. The atmosphere when it was quiet was tangible thanks to the attention lavished upon the sound and visual design. It really does look and sound remarkable. On one occasion I was stood at a tram station and I heard a noise creeping from my rear right speaker to my front right speaker. Startled, I spun Isaac around and saw that it was a paper cup rolling across the platform – probably rolling from me knocking it over. It looked so insubstantial to warrant such a clear sound effect but it added so much to that moment. It felt like a deserted tram station, a dead space as it were.
Thanks again, great stuff.
That was awesome, xtal, and matched my own feelings about the game very closely. Particularly the idiotic asteroid shooting section.
It’s clear Redwood had good ideas, but like so many developers, it failed to capitalize on them. The whole concept of a “Planet Cracker,” of a species so dependent on massive resources that it has ships that break down ENTIRE WORLDS for their minerals, is something with a lot of thematic potential. But they just used the word. Meanwhile the characters, all of whom could have been interesting, are pointless caricatures or silent, flavorless gelatin.
Space is scary. Space is inherently scary. It’s big, and empty, and dark in most places. There were moments in Dead Space when I felt pangs of fear, but never the crushing terror of System Shock 2, or even the eerie loneliness of Homeworld.
Man, I remember that feeling in Homeworld. Spinning the camera around those little crafts hung in the endless expanse of space. Incredible. Even my immune-to-cosmic-spectacle girlfriend was impressed.
I’ve still got the big box version of Homeworld and tried to start it again last year having not finished it the first time round, but I couldn’t handle the fiddly-ness of the controls and – a pet hate of mine – healing/repair units that don’t heal/repair automatically.
When I crow bar the Wii out of my brother’s talons I’ll have to take a crack at Dead Space: Extraction. I enjoyed what I played of it, in fact it was quite nice revisiting some of the areas I recognised from Dead Space.
Nice review, Xtal, and I agree with you on every account. My opinion regarding this game are already well-documented, but all in all, I think what kept this game from ascending from mediocrity was the laughable character development. I had no reason to care about Isaac’s wife (girlfriend? I don’t remember…like I said, I didn’t care) or any of his associates.
If we don’t care about the characters in mortal peril, then Dead Space will never be anything more than the equivalent of a gory slasher flick.
That said, some of the atmospheric effects were jarring–small things, such as when I unknowingly kicked a tin can, sending in scattering across the deck.
Homeworld….ah…so glorious…just give me a moment. I bought my 1998 machine to play the game, and it remains on my Top 5 Most Favorite Games List. The story, the atmosphere, the vastness of space, the mechanics…they all made for a near-perfect game, save for the lack of time compression (which they put in for the sequel).
I was so filled with rage when I discovered Hiigara obliterated, my anger only matched by the melancholy in the sentient ship’s computer’s voice as she witnessed the devastation.
Dead Space failed to give me even one empathic moment like this one; something that all memorable horror experiences need.
And another thing: amazing weapons have a tendency to belittle the beasts, especially when I have enough ammunition to blast away on full auto for hours on end. Sigh. I wanted to like that damn game. I really did.
“…such as Isaac’s girlfriend, Nicole, and the possible revelation (I say possible because it’s not even made clear, to be sure) of her non-existence.”
I really don’t know why this keeps coming up. It’s made perfectly clear during the game that she is indeed dead, that what he’s seeing is implanted in his mind by the artifact and that at the end of the game he starts to completely lose it.
I for one actually liked the game (even while seeing the faults mentioned in the article). But then I’m easy to scare, and played the PC version (if you couldn’t figure out how to fix the wonky controls, it actually made it a lot scarier by virtue of the limitations imposed upon you).
Well we can’t have everyone lining up to agree. At least someone has to offer a counterpoint. It might as well be me. Hello, me.
Everything written in this here article is true.
The plot is derivative and the background story is, in particular, incomprehensible and convoluted (going through the comic/animated film accompaniment doesn’t help). The scenarios have been seen before. The characters are generally uninteresting, including the mute protagonist. The scare factor is down there with Doom 3 – the same kind of closet monster mistakes again and again. And it was wearily long.
BUT: While it was absolute shite as an artistic experience, it was pretty good at being a game. Strip away all that narrative guff and it was actually fun to play.
Not only was it peppered with zero-g and tense airless sections, but you had to forgo headshots – dropping your FPS muscle memory of ten years and being forced to aim at different locations. Whenever I saw a room full of corpses I got nervous and started cutting them up out of anticipation that I was being set up (I am aware how crazy that sounds). Isaac felt solid and frighteningly slow at times; the effect of weapons satisfying. In terms of a shooter, the execution was superb. I even forgave it being a TPS rather than a FPS, like The Suffering some years earlier (which really did have some bona fide imagination).
But there you go. Dead Space is an easy target for being dull on the writing and spooky ghost story front, but its execution makes up for that. Yes it could have been more, and we might have called it the second coming of System Shock 2 (Bioshock barely scared me) had it managed to do wonders with the rest. But it didn’t and it is what it is.
At least it did something for me, and some other people I know. We could even start a gang together.
Thanks for your counter-arguments, folks.
ix, I state that Nicole’s existence was questionable to me because while Isaac’s notes and Kendra’s comments re-enforce the notion I still grappled with the fact that she helped Isaac escape Ishimura on the shuttle. Someone (or something) physically assisted him, so perhaps she was there in some capacity? She also unlocks a door for him earlier on. That is no hallucination, but I understand how you take issue with my statements.
Harbour Master, I do agree with you about the aspects of the game that did work, and while I didn’t spend time on many positives that is why I attributed a middle ground score: I did enjoy Dead Space for what it was worth. Control of Isaac felt tight and the shooting in particular was excellently controlled, perhaps so much so to the detriment of the game (System Shock 2’s breakable weapons, anyone?).
Again, thank you both– and everyone else, for that matter– for your comments.
First, excellent write-up man! I agree with most of your points. Maybe even all. Yet Dead Space was my GotY and it remains one of my favorite experiences of this generation. And I think it is because of how I played the game.
First, once I became interested in the game just prior to its release, I watched all those Webcomics that were released back-to-back. They did a decent job of giving me some kind of backstory and establish this gaming “universe”.
Second, I played the entire game using a pair of really good headphones, hooked up to a dedicated headphone amp & DAC. The atmosphere this created was breathtaking and it added greatly to a feeling of isolation while playing the game.
Third, I only played the game at night, with the lights off, and since I live alone, it again set the mood perfectly.
And lastly, I decided to play the game on Hard from the get-go (like someone else mentioned) and this upped the fear factor quite a bit, since ammo is far more valuable and you can die pretty easily if you are not careful.
With all those factors working together, I was totally blown away by my experience with Dead Space, flaws and all. It also helped that I felt like the game was a technical marvel, with some of the best visuals I’ve seen yet on my 360 and amazing attention to detail.
Who knows, if I wouldn’t have done all of the above, I may have felt Dead Space was just another shooter. But I’m glad I got the enjoyment and experience that I did out of it.
er i disagree 5000% i brought this game 1 month ago for 1st time played it 3 times its amazing horror game especially as it was released in 2008 its a real gem 5/5
Playing Dead Space with a good pair of cans is a great idea, and I can see how it upped your experience. Regarding the Hard difficulty and the reduction of ammo drops: I played the game on the default setting, twice (completing it unlocked “Insane” or whatever the hardest one is called- I will try to give that a go if I can bear another play-through) and you obviously know how I felt about the plentiful ammunition situation. I have a problem with the excuse of turning up the difficulty for a better experience. I think the “Normal” default difficulty for any game should suffice; since I don’t know what to expect from every game I play I don’t think I should have to guess that Hard will actually be the best experience. For all I know the game is already crazy on the default level, and putting it to Hard is just asking for punishment.
With that said, you’re probably right that Dead Space becomes better for the challenge you’re given on Hard. My question then becomes, why is there a difficulty option at all? Why not have a locked setting for an initial play-through that provides the best game experience, as tested by the creators, and afterwards maybe include one extra difficulty level, or a sort of challenge mode. Restrict the number of weapon or suit upgrades, something like that, you know?
I just don’t think you should include options in your game that will water down the experience, and I wouldn’t sacrifice integrity just so the game is “winnable” for some supposed weaker audience. What do we gain when there is little challenge involved?
Well, I think you have to have a difficulty option in games. Gamer skill varies greatly, and what could be a perfect challenge for one gamer is a frustratingly brutal challenge for another. Dead Space was a ton of fun on Hard for me, but I have another friend who doesn’t play games with as much frequency that I do and I know the game would have been way too difficult for him on Hard and he would have hated it.
And given that game companies are trying to appeal to as mass a market as possible to maximize on their return, nowadays the “normal” or “default” difficulty tends to be slightly easier than it was a few years back. I’ve found myself playing many games one difficulty up from default on my first playthrough lately and actually enjoying the experience. It has made me a better gamer, since on some of these the challenge was a little harder than even I expected and I had to actually learn and become better at the game, instead of just getting by.
Anyway, I think I am getting off topic. I consider myself a hardcore gamer and we’re becoming the minority with games breaking more and more into the mainstream. I’ve already accepted that fact and with it comes the need to sometimes take these extra steps to maintain the type of challenge and experience that I’m used to.
And I definitely do hope that Dead Space 2 has far fewer “boo” scares and monster closets and relies a lot more on psychological horror and making the player feel dread just because of the environments and situation at hand.
The speaking part seems to have been rectified in DS2 and (from the reviews) people seem to empathize more with Issac and his situation.
Your points w.r.t why Gordon can get away WITHOUT saying ANYTHING throughout the world changing event just didn’t make sense.
Unless Valve can explain who Gordon actually is in a future installment…..it will be just as jarring.
But by now a halo has been created around the ‘speechless’ Gordon …. for Valve to try out something ‘new’ in that department.
‘he knows he’s a wickedly talented science-type-guy, and he has a crowbar’
…SO?? that allows his character to get away WITHOUT uttering a single word?
Alyx try’s to have conversations with him and the guy does not know what to say.
Numerous people that he meets throughout the journey talk to him and the guy just looks on with nothing to say.
Most of the other FPS’s don’t even try to get past the macho kick ass marine caricature….so ANY cigar chewing dialog would do just fine….but with HL2, Valve was trying to give a sense to the overall context of the City 17 ghetto…with lot’s of propaganda speeches and subtle visuals.
The citizens are downcast and are looking for some savior.
They get one in the form of Gordon who does not speak ‘with’/’to’ them.
Even a few “well placed” conversations would have really given Gordon some depth/personality…rather than the ‘Crowbar carrying 27 year old PhD killing machine’.
HL universe is no doubt on a different level than all the other FPS crowd…but this, somehow, i feel was misstep.