The Long of It
Isaac Clarke is having a bad day. Sent to investigate the USS Ishimura, a planet mining ship that his bubbly girlfriend Nicole seems to be working on, things go from “bad” to “oh goddamnit” when their ship makes a headfirst landing and basically breaks itself. Isaac’s just an engineer, but at least he’s got a full crew to back him up and investigate what looks to be a rather deserted and distraught ship. Well, things go from “oh goddamnit” to “mother fucker!!!” when a bunch of nasties called “Necromorphs” (re-animated dead stuff) kills just about everyone except the black guy (the first twist! the brother survives!), the tough chick, and Isaac. Finding mining equipment Isaac uses to tear the baddies limb from limb, he’s got to find the girl, find out what the fuck happened, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
The plot takes a whole lot of influence from previous science fiction entries in both film and video games. The two most obvious inspirations are the movie Event Horizon and the System Shock series of games, specifically number 2 (one of my favorite games of all time). Since the sequel is coming out this month, I have no qualms with spoiling the story. The USS Ishimura wasn’t there to mine planets. No, it was actually to find “the marker”, an ancient relic of an alien race that Unitologists, a cult-turned-religion, seem to think holds the key to eternal life. Well, if you consider turning into a Necromorph eternal life, than yeah I guess it beats eating bread wafers and boxed wine. The whole time you’re exploring the ship, you’re being guided by your lady Nicole, who pops up in various video messages saying “Make us whole again” and other ominious shit. Meanwhile, the black guy and the tough chick are trying to do stuff and basically pushing you around in the process while you’re fighting for your life. Tough chick doesn’t trust black guy, black guy won’t confess what he knows. If by now you’re thinking “hmm, I bet someone’s going to turn out to be evil”, then you’ve clearly seen this game’s influences before.
It turns out that “the marker” they found was made by the government or something, to test its effects (or something). Sort of ambiguous there, but this is all explained by tough chick, after she kills a doctor that is trying to help you get off the goddamn ship and fix everything. Guess she was a covert spy or something. Oh, and black dude dies. Yeah, just couldn’t get through the game with the black guy surviving. Not this time. Well, if that wasn’t enough for a shocker, Nicole (who you come into contact with a few times in the game and who helps you out of certain areas by activating electronics and other controls) has been dead this whole time. “Whaaaat?” you may ask. Indeed, she killed herself before this ever happened. “So how did she activate those controls?” the smarter crowd may ask. Apparently it was “the marker” doing something or other to work, the…ok, listen. This part makes no sense. The twist is hackneyed and dumb, and has no emotional impact. She’s been dead this whole time? Then who activated the shuttle controls? Who opened that door for you? Was it just an apparition? Can ghosts work machinery now?
The story is very well done otherwise, but it was well done before in System Shock 2. In that game, your character goes to investigate a ship that brought some alien shit onboard, that shit infected everyone and made everyone else either kill themselves or go crazy. Oh, and you’re being guided by a chick the whole time who winds up being dead. It was the ship’s computer all along. Sound familiar? That game came out 11 years ago, too. Original, Dead Space is not. But what does the game do so well that keeps affording it so much praise?
The graphics. This game is beautiful. From the lighting, textures, blood effects, the large open rooms, the detail in Isaac’s suit and the character animations – it’s just goddamn gorgeous. Think Doom 3 levels of pretty (at the time of its release). It’s phenomenal. Adding to the effect is the lack of an onscreen HUD (heads up display). Your life meter is measured on your back. All incoming video and audio transmissions are projected in front of your character and move as he moves. There’s no stall in the action – your inventory opens up in front of you, your guide marker appears as a line on the ground, and your ammo readout appears on the weapons themselves. It makes everything clean and part of the world, and makes you feel more in the game.
The sound is also fantastic. I wish I had played it with surround sound, but it might have been hard to sleep at night. The weapons all make nice sounds, and the voice acting is decent and all, but what really shines is the ambient noise from the ship. Metal creaking and bending, creatures scurrying through the vents, and the dulled sound of zero-gravity making it nearly silent, so an enemy can sneak up on you without you knowing, all do wonders to enhance the experience.
The gunplay is handled really well. You have to shoot off the limbs of Necromorphs for some reason (it’s not entirely explained) but it adds a level of tension. You have these gangly looking mother fuckers sauntering towards you, and instead of aiming for the head or body (head body, head body, head body) you have to shoot off their legs or arms or tentacles. Can make for some pretty intense firefights, especially when they move fast. Then there’s scenes where a giant tentacle can grab you and disorient you. From here you have to aim your weapon at a glowing sack on the tentacle to free you, only you’re being dragged down a corridor and your aim is incredibly skewed. The first time this happened, I was absolutely thrilled. It was tense and nerve-wracking. There are other scenes too that are handled well, like getting behind a large gun to destroy incoming asteroids, lots of physics puzzles handled by “kinesis” (i.e. being able to move it with your mind) and some disorienting zero-g puzzles as well.
Plus, the gore. The game is extremely bloody and violent. You have people that shoot their own heads off, enemies that get split limb from limb, and if you ever get unlucky enough to die at the hands of Necromorphs, Isaac is destroyed in beautifully violent fashion. The gore is really intense and bloody, and adds to the violent nature of the game.
So what exactly is bad about the game?
With any game, you have to worry about repetitiveness, and that can especially hold true with survival horror games. The game is centered around horror, and “boo” scares and ugly beasties can only go so far. So where you have the tentacle that grabs you and drags you down the corridor, the first time that happened it was incredible and actually pretty damn scary. The second time, not so much. The third time, it was just annoying. Then you have shooting the asteroids – an awesome break. The second time you have to use the guns? Not so novel. Plus, after awhile of killing the enemies, you develop patterns. Shoot off a leg, shoot off an arm, move on. Shoot a tentacle, shoot another, move on. There became a sort of ebb and flow, and even though new enemies were added later on, they too became slightly predictable and only really threatening when a large number came at you at once.
The levels are varied and interesting, but there is a lot of backtracking. It wasn’t too bad because it made sense in the story, but most of the activities involved someone saying “Hey Isaac, I need you to flip this switch. Then go here and open this door. Then meet me here.” Again, in context of the story, fine. But you know when you’re going to run into bad guys. You get locked in a room with a “quarantine” and you know you have to clear the room and then move on. Some puzzles were interesting (like the aforementioned zero-g puzzles that switched things up a bit) but after awhile it all started to blend together.
And I think that’s the most important thing that nags at me: I never really felt in peril. I kept playing to find out the twists, and learn more about the ship. I wasn’t really playing to survive, but more to progress. I’d flip a switch and enter a room and a video of Nicole would come on and she’d say “Make us whole, Isaac” and I’d wonder what it meant. In the meantime, I’d been attacked by six Necromorphs. But I didn’t really get a feeling of “oh shit, Necromorphs” but more of a “Goddamn Necromorphs, is Nicole a ghost or what?” It was a testament to the suspense of the story, but for me, aside from one or two semi-scary incidents of things popping out of vents or something dead coming alive, I wasn’t all that scared and slept soundly. And I think I know why that is.
Playing as Isaac takes you out of the experience. Now, I know I’m being unfair by comparing this game to System Shock 2, one of the greatest games of all time, but when they have so many similarities it’s hard. See, the best thing about SS2 is that it’s in first-person perspective. Everything that happens, YOU experience it. You see the ghost moving through the door, you fight off the dead, you listen to the audio recording of a man who’s blown his head off with a shotgun. Your character says nothing, and you don’t see their reaction, because it’s YOU reacting.
But in Dead Space, you’re Isaac. You can see Isaac, right there in front of you. His head moves when he’s reading a text log. People talk directly to him. They never look at YOU, they’re looking at him. So Isaac better be an interesting guy. But he’s not. He doesn’t say a word outside of grunts, you only see his face at the beginning and end of the game, and he doesn’t react to anything on screen. In one sequence, he enters a room to find a woman behind a pane of glass who jabs a needle in her eye and dies. He just stands there and watches. In another, his best friend, the black guy, gets torn apart behind a pane of glass as he’s powerless to help him. He just stands there and watches. You meet up with your goddamn dead girlfriend for Pete’s sake, and he just FUCKING STANDS THERE.
I know he’s a silent hero like some of the best (Gordon Freeman comes to mind), but in Half-Life, YOU ARE GORDON GODDAMN FREEMAN. When people address you, they look right at you. You can’t see your own reactions, but you have them as you’re playing. When you put it in 3rd-person, you are essentially watching a character, even if you are controlling him. To have your character not react to anything that happens on screen takes away any believability or empathy you have for him. Isaac is an engineer, who has severe mental issues, but that doesn’t mean when he sees someone blow their head off with a pistol that he shouldn’t a) try to stop them or b) react to it in some way.
The thing that works so well about scary movies is not what jumps out to scare you, it’s how people react. When a ghost scares a movie character, they have to really sell that they’re scared by screaming, running away, etc. and it is that connection of “I’m scared, and the character is scared too, which makes me more scared” that is effective. If a movie actor just stood there while he watched someone be dragged off by a monster, you’d think “This movie sucks!” because you don’t believe their performance. Well for me, that is what Dead Space is: a beautiful looking horror movie with a wooden lead. They could have cast Keanu Reeves in the movie version of Isaac Clarke and I would’ve been more impressed with Reeves’ emoting than Clarke’s.
The Short of It
All of that aside, Dead Space is an incredibly polished, well-made game. Its sequel will improve on a lot of what was flawed in the original, especially by making Isaac more of a character than just a piece of Necromorph-killin’ wood. The sound and visuals are worth the price of admission, and it has a few really interesting ideas thrown into the mix. Still, it can’t help but make me miss System Shock 2 when it comes to the “infested spaceship” subgenre of games. We’ll see how the sequel does.
Recommended playing: System Shock 2, Bioshock, Resident Evil 2 & 4, Soldier of Fortune (the inventor of shooting off limbs)