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Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Developer: EA Redwood
Publisher: Electronic Arts
What makes a game "survival horror"? Many would suggest that the genre depends on certain nut-twisting features like limited saves, a lack of ammunition, or a protagonist with the combat prowess of Rick Moranis. Well, Dead Space is proof that survival horror doesn't require you to brutalize your player with unforgiving gameplay mechanics - all it requires is that the game be scary.
Players control Isaac Clarke, an engineer investigating a giant, seemingly abandoned spaceship. Naturally, Isaac and his team aren't alone on the ship - the crew has been turned into
Isaac is an engineer but apparently he attended the Gordon Freeman University of Unlikely Ass-Whippers. Not only is he mute, but he can handle a variety of military weaponry pretty well, too. Which is good because the Necromorphs are some pretty fierce opponents. To keep them from pounding you into ass dust, you can just pump round after round into them but you're better off practicing what the game box calls "strategic dismemberment." Essentially, shoot off their more vulnerable limbs. If you shoot off their legs, they'll still crawl after you but you'll get to stomp them to death with your big space-boot. I really wish there was an Achievement for stomping, say, a thousand times because I would've gotten it in the first chapter. The resilience of the Necromorphs will make you paranoid as hell especially when you're in combat with several of them and you can't tell, amidst all the bodies and severed limbs scattered over the floor, whether you finished off that one foe whose leg you blasted.
Combat is frantic but a lot of fun. It doesn't change much over the course of the game - you'll get all of the game's six weapons only a few chapters into the game - but all of these weapons remain powerful enough to use throughout the game and they're a lot of fun. To mix things up, you'll also get kinesis and stasis modules. The kinesis module lets you pick up objects and fling them (not unlike the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2) while the stasis module allows you to slow down enemies to a crawl. Stasis feels a bit overpowered but using the Ripper - a ranged chainsaw - to carefully dissect an enemy in stasis is a lot of fun and allows you to inflict your own brand of sadism on the creatures terrorizing you at every turn.
The game does a good job of messing with your head, in and out of combat. After you encounter one type of Necromorph that actually plays dead, you'll start stomping every dead Necromorph repeatedly just to be sure. It's established early on that the Necromorphs can travel through vents (and will do so in the middle of combat to flank you) and you'll end up pointing your gun at nearly every vent you walk past (and there are a lot). To keep messing with you, a vent will fly open but no Necromorph will come out. Like Mass Effect, the game uses extended elevator rides to load new segments of levels but you can still walk around on the elevator so you'll constantly be wondering whether you're about to be ambushed.
Though Dead Space delights in scaring you, it's a pretty user-friendly game. For one thing, you'll never completely run out of ammunition. When killed, Necromorphs drop ammunition and other supplies - again, they're mostly mutated humans so this isn't some "you slay the green goo and it drops ten gold coins" nonsequitir. The ship also has automated stores which allow you to purchase equipment and store/sell excess items. You save your game at designated save stations, but these are in abundant supply and you can save at them as many times as you want. The game also uses checkpoints of sorts when you complete big fights or objectives as well so dying really won't result in much lost time.
"Smooth" is a word that really summarizes the game experience. Unlike the Necromorphs, Dead Space doesn't have any misshappen limbs hanging off it. The streamlined nature of the game can be sort of a flaw, though. Your two teammates will tell you "Quick, fix the engine or the ship's going to blow up!" and as soon as you do that, they'll go "Great, now we can just - oh man, the chimichanga dispenser's overheating, you better get down there or the ship's going to blow up!" I wished Isaac would break his vow of silence and tell his teammates to get off their ass and fix all this crap themselves. Though it's clear through the amount of audio and text logs seeded throughout the game that a lot of effort was spent on the game's story but it doesn't stray very far from what you'd expect from the genre - creatures take over ship, you kill creatures while fixing ship and take down a few bosses in the process.
Dead Space hits familiar notes in survival horror and action but frankly, it hits these notes really well. You can question whether it's true "survival horror" and turn your nose at the fact that it borrows innovations from so many other games but it's undeniable that this is an extremely well-executed game that mixes and matches familiar-but-excellent gameplay mechanics to create a fun, scary experience.
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