It turns out that in the future, mankind has to travel to distant planets to sustain our insatiable desire for more stuff--no shocker there. Aboard giant star ships called "planet crackers," humans literally crack open planets for their valuable ore. But when the largest of these ships, the USG Ishimura, pulls apart a forbidden planet after finding a mysterious artifact, all hell breaks loose both on the planet's surface and aboard the Ishimura. Okay, okay, so you've heard it before. But these aren't just regular aliens, these are zombie aliens! That's right, these aliens kill the crew of the Ishimura to turn them into other crazed killers! With four arms!
It still took me a few months to get around to playing the game that started it all, but I beat it this past week, and it was almost everything I expected. The original story puts you in the space shoes of engineer Isaac Clarke, sent to investigate the distress calls from the Ishimura and to find his girlfriend also stationed aboard. And wouldn't you know it, his ship crashes in landing, leaving him stranded aboard the ship with every problem conceivable besides the alien zombies trying to cut him in half: transportation aboard the city-sized ship is down, communications are down, the engines are down, the ship is falling back towards the planet (while passing through an asteroid field, of course), and a religious fanatic (who believes he's doing god's work by helping the zombies finish off the remaining survivors) keeps getting in your way. If I sound jaded, it's because I am a little. This is yet another in a long line of games that seems to enjoy making the player feel like a "gopher."
"Hey Isaac, go for the controls in the engine room!"
"Hey Jack, would you kindly save my wife and kid?"
"Gordan, sneak through enemy lines by yourself and take out that garrison so that our troops can get by?"
Granted, Dead Space (like my Bioshock example) creates a reason for this within the narrative (except that despite that the Ishimura requires a crew of thousands, an engineer can safely operate the ship practically by himself). But I'm getting seriously tired of taking orders from my video games, especially when it seems like someone else could just as easily give me hand or even do something themselves. Of course, when this does happen in Dead Space, the helpers usually get dead. And this is all meant to make you feel alone amidst the chaos, and certainly it works to create tension.
Sadly, this is about where the horror ends in Dead Space. Despite that the game has been lauded as the best survival-horror since Resident Evil 4, I don't see it. Granted, the game does much in the tradition of survival-horrors like the Resident Evil series, as well as pulling references from just about every main-stream sci-fi horror movie to date. It even tends to subtly poke fun at the RE series' archaic design choices but using science fiction to explain them away (even though, for some reason, baby zombies drop loads of military-grade munitions when they die). But what made old school survival-horrors scary was that it was difficult to survive. Resident Evil wasn't just about shuffling zombies popping out of closets. It was also about the very likely chance that before, during, or after that encounter, you might be out of ammo, health, or even both. But this never happens in Dead Space. I finished the game with tons of the stuff, and I died for completely unrelated reasons (stupid centrifuge...).
But let's say, for arguments sake, that you didn't just come off of playing Demon's Souls, a game that makes it difficult to get out of the "defensive gamer" mindset, and went all willy-nilly with your mining tools-converted-to-weapons and find yourself ammo-less (and broke, since you can buy ammo). Luckily, your high tech space suit allows you to pick up random stuff (saw blades, explosives, and even stray body parts) and chuck them at the oncoming hoards. And let's continue to play devil's advocate and say that either you're a crappy shot who can't manage to sever the zombies' over-sized limbs ('cause that's how they die) or there's so many of them that you can't quickly fire a limb, pick one up, and fire it again before they swarm you. Well, not to worry--you can just freeze them with your suit's other power! And while they won't stay frozen for long, you should have plently of time to dismember them.
Defeating a space zombie: 3 rounds of ammo.
Freezing them, shooting their legs out from under them, pistol whipping their faces off as they fall, and finally, curb stomping them once they hit the ground: priceless!
Which brings me to my final conceit. I still really like this game. Once I came to terms with this being more of an action-horror game like Resident Evil 5 (though admittedly scarier) and less of a survival-horror game like Resident Evil, I really got to enjoying it. The fact that all of the game's vital information appears either on or from Isaac's suit allows for great atmosphere by keeping unnecessary crap off the screen is a welcome change of pace. And what atmosphere it is! The zero-gravity and vacuum segments are not only original, but handled masterfully. And even though the story is completely ridiculous at times (At one point a ship load of armored, armed, and battle-stations ready space marines attempts to come to the Ishimura's rescue only to be overwhelmed by one, one, escape-pod jettisoned zombie. One!) it's cohesive and compelling.
Where I feel it falls short, however, is in the execution of its scares. Dead Space could have come in as the single-most frightening video game of all-time, even wetting the trousers of the most jaded gamers. Instead, it's an action game with frightening moments. And even these thin out as they start to get repetitive. At first, the zombies like using the ship's vents and grates to sneak around and jump out at you. After the first few times, it stops being scary. And just as this happens, it's like the zombies get lazy.Suddenly they're just lumbering at you down long hallways. Or they continuously spawn out of the same grate for a few minutes. And yes, some of these moments are frightening, but you're never overwhelmed--a few well-placed shots and you're on the straight-and-narrow again. Okay, one more conceit. I can imagine the game being insane on the unlockable uber-difficult mode, especially since you can't choose the difficulty of your New Game+ (taking all your high-tech gadgets with you), so I can only speak for the core mode. But even Resident Evil was scary and hard on the normal difficultly (especially if you unwisely chose to play as Chris "I-Got-No-Pockets!" Redfield). Still, perhaps I'll be singing a different tune once I play it again--just not "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." That song's forever ruined for me.
Questions? Quibbles? Controversies?