REVIEWS -- Dead Space -- Xbox360
A polished, if derivative, take on the sci-fi horror genre
by Marcus Alcock
Fun factor: Fun
Worth to: Buy
Not quite the promised holy grail of Resident Evil 4 meets Alien, Dead Space is still a thoroughly absorbing experience
If the track record of creators EA Redwood is anything to go by Dead Space should be nothing less than an abomination. After all, this is a development studio responsible for takes on the cherished Simpsons, Godfather and James Bond licenses that have varied between the utterly uninspired to the downright dreadful. Thankfully, the opportunity to forge a franchise of their own seems to have given EA Redwood fresh impetus, with Dead Space a noticeable highlight of the usual Christmas avalanche of new titles.
Of course, it is still immediately apparent that this effort is utterly shameless in its scarcity of original ideas, with Dead Space instead taking “inspiration” from various classics of both game and film origin. Hence, apparent is Resident Evil 4 in everything from the weapon upgrade system to the perfunctory puzzles, Alien in the routine expedition gone horribly wrong storyline, Half Life in the permanently mute lead, 2001: A Space Odyssey in the mysterious “Marker”, Bioshock in the blood drenched motivational posters of inanely grinning models, and so on. And on... In fact, for anyone even remotely familiar with horror or sci-fi Dead Space resembles an interactive greatest hits compilation.
A congested formula with a few novelties
Purely taken in gameplay terms though, it is Resident Evil 4 that provides the clearest inspiration, right down to Dead Space’s rather familiar over-the-shoulder third-person viewpoint. Just as in Capcom’s modern classic, it is efficient inventory management that is the key to the successful dispatch of your numerous assailants. However, whereas the slightly archaic controls of Resident Evil 4 divided opinion, Dead Space is far more nimble on its toes, with hero Isaac Clarke able to maneuver while shooting and also switch weapons in real time. This may appear to grant the player a key advantage in combat, but the cramped, claustrophobic interiors of the space station soon put an end to any such complacency.
It proves disappointing then that the backdrop to all this delicately pitched gunplay is a rather well-trodden storyline. The opening video depicts the player and a few colleagues making an unconventional arrival upon a deep-space mining ship, where it quickly transpires that the entire crew has been decimated by an outbreak of bloodthirsty monsters. Ho-hum. By the time it is revealed that the hero’s love interest has conveniently managed to get herself embroiled in the chaos, the player could be forgiven a rolling of the eyes. Yet, to the game’s credit, matters soon take a rather more psychological and subtle turn, with Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” liberally pilfered from. Nevertheless, each “shocking” betrayal and death is generally visible from light years away.
Still, for a game based around the age-old formula of shooting bad things in the face, Dead Space proves adept at wringing enjoyment out of this increasingly tired formula. The game is split into twelve chapters, each about an hour long, and, despite often simply boiling down to errand missions, succeed in feeling sufficiently varied. Each chapter, at its most basic, essentially consists of moving through a series of rooms, while fending off the hordes of monsters that attack.
However, a number of novel ideas prevent Dead Space feeling entirely mindless. Zero-G sections are a noticeable highlight, often involving the solving of a large-scale puzzle in a weightless environment. Just as memorable are the areas in which Isaac exits the ships atmosphere and must survive without oxygen. Furthermore, such puzzling often revolves around either Isaac’s ability to slow the motion of objects, or his “stasis” module (essentially HL2’s gravity gun). That said, wondering where the next onslaught of enemies is going to come from, and then successfully dealing with them, forms the bulk of the game’s running time.
Strangely, it’s the gore that seems out of place
Even though violence is commonplace, gore is generally utilized to restrained effect, although the occasional prolonged sequence of Issac being, quite literally, ripped apart at the hands of some alien beastie does raise an eyebrow. Aside from being rather tedious, such a lackluster impersonation of RE4’s frankly hilarious chainsaw decapitations completely misses the point. Whereas Capcom’s homage to the B-movie had its tongue firmly welded to its cheek, the violence depicted in the angst-ridden Dead Space simply comes across as immature, and frequently serves to undermine the tense atmosphere it is so meticulous in building. Ominous moans from the vent above the players head, a door elsewhere in the ship slamming, strange shadows flickering on the ceiling, all these serve to create a sense of dread, not a badly rendered alien slug spraying ketchup up the walls.
Thankfully, there is a general reluctance to indulge in such cartoon violence, meaning that the tense atmosphere is only heightened by the rare outbursts of frenzied ferocity. Although no doubt those won over by the promise of “ripping aliens apart limb by limb” would disagree.
Ultimately Dead Space is a rather entertaining, if painfully derivative, induction of what will no doubt prove to be a new franchise. Although the strong, polished visuals partially mask limited gameplay ambitions, it is the perfectly timed length of the main storyline that mostly manages to ensure matters avoid repetition. This is not to downplay the role played by a series of memorable set pieces, nor indeed the pervasive sense of dread, either. Essentially, Dead Space is more than the sum of its parts, and is one of the most notable releases of the year. With a sequel now surely inevitable, this Christmas represents as good a time as any to enter its dark world.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Redwood Shores
Release Date: October 14, 2008
Review Date: 14-12-2008
Numbers of Players: 1
Players Online: No
Notes: Hard Drive Required, Xbox Live, 480p, 720p, 1080i and 1080p Support, Widescreen, Dolby 5.1 Surround, Downloadable Content
Moody lighting and polished environments fail to dispel the disappointment engendered by some lazy creature design.
Shuffling down corridors endlessly shooting the same enemy models over and over again really shouldn’t be this much fun.
The trademark EA sheen can be seen in everything from the shiny HUD’s to the Metroid-inspired interface.
A particularly impressive aspect of Dead Space, with unnerving sound effects and a subtle score ratcheting up the tension.
Can be clocked in about ten hours, although bonus weapons, new items and tougher difficulty levels encourage repeat plays.