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‘Dead Space’ borrows heavily but remains frightfully effective

‘Dead Space’ borrows heavily but remains frightfully effective

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Dead Space
Visceral Games
EA
Xbox 360, PS3, PC

EA’s sci-fi horror doesn’t so much wear its influences on its sleeve, but rather takes them to a tailor and makes them into a three-piece suit. Its protagonist, for instance, is named Isaac Clarke – an eye-rolling, brow-beating reference to two of science fiction’s heavyweight authors, and its premise is, essentially, Event Horizon.

But despite all this, it all works rather well.

Players control the aforementioned Mr Clarke, an engineer on board the starship Kellion, which has been dispatched to investigate a distress call sent out from the mining vessel Ishimura. When they get there, they find it overrun with horrifying creatures, and most of the crew dead.

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Despite the rather pedestrian start, however, the story does provide some interesting twists and turns. An ancient artifact buried deep in an alien planet, a starship staffed with dangerous members of a religious cult, power struggles between crew members and the rapidly spreading ‘necromorphs’ – it all adds up to a fairly decent storyline. Oh, and Clarke’s girlfriend was onboard the Ishimura and is now missing. Damsel in distress? Tick – although once again, Dead Space thankfully manages to make the familiar into something a little different by the end.

Most of the scares are what players have come to expect by now, although the interior of an aging spaceship certainly makes for a nice change of scenery in a horror game. Dark, clanging corridors, hissing airlocks, creaking hull plates – it’s effective stuff, especially with the usual clattering footsteps and monstrous-arms-bursting-from-vents thrown in.

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One of Dead Space’s best mechanics comes in the form of what the developers call ‘strategic dismemberment’. What this essentially boils down to is the ability to target the limbs of attacking creatures as they amble towards you. Blasting an upright necromorph in the chest might not do much damage, but take out each of its legs and it’ll be forced to drag itself along the ground with its arms, drastically slowing it down. Players can take out most of the creatures in this fashion, chopping them up into bite-size chunks and then stomping them out with a steel boot to finish the job.

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The weapons are pleasingly well-suited to their environment, too. Clarke is an engineer onboard a mining vessel, which means a lack of machine guns or laser rifles. Instead, players wield plasma cutters, rotary saws and blow torches. Ammunition is scarce (as it should be), forcing players to make every shot count – and further pushing them down the dismemberment pathway.

It’s all very cinematic, as well. There’s no heads-up display; Clarke has all the info the player needs on his person, from the holographic ammo count above each weapon, to the health meter running down the spine of his suit. When characters talk to you, they do so in small projections in front of his helmet in real-time, with players retaining full control. In fact, many of the scares happen during such conversations; usually an indication of a safe zone, Dead Space loves catching players with their guard down.

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Spawning two sequels, each one-upping the previous in the action stakes (as pretty much all horror games do, bizarrely), they pushed further and further away from what made the original so good. It’s a shame, because whilst Dead Space seems rather ordinary on the surface, it’s far more than the sum of its (dismembered) parts, and well worth checking out.