Dead Space Review
Developer: Visceral Games
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: 2.8 GHz Processor, 1 GB RAM, DirectX 9.0c compatible video and sound cards, 7 GB HD space, Windows XP or more recent operating system
Contact has been lost with the planetcracker USG Ishimura, an interstellar mining vessel that literally rips planets apart to refine and collect usable ore. To deal with the problem, engineer Isaac Clarke is part of a small team sent to restore communications with the Ishimura. Upon arrival, the problems turn out to be more serious than simply failed equipment – the ship has been overrun by something horrifyingly alien, and most of the crew have been spread across the decks as a slippery layer of gore. As Clarke battles his way through the Ishimura's decks to restore ship functionality and escape with his life, he uncovers elements of an expansive governmental cover-up and a plot by religious fanatics to end all life in the galaxy.
Dead Space is a gloriously horrific gore-fest chronicling the gruesome takeover of an interstellar mining vessel by a wholly alien life form from a distant world. While brilliant fun, the biggest disappointment of Dead Space on the PC is simply that the platform's strengths should have made Dead Space an even more impressive and engaging outing than on consoles, and instead the PC's abilities were dumbed-down to release an experience on par with that available on consoles, albeit with slightly more impressive graphics.
In truth, Dead Space is a remarkable achievement, and while the plot is somewhat derivative (feeling like a bit of cross between System Shock 2 and Doom 3), the game's refined interface and play are brilliant. Immediately, the most striking thing about Dead Space is the user interface. The game is played from the third-person perspective, and everything necessary for play is integrated into the environment. The player's health indicator is prominently displayed on the protagonist's spine. Video communications, inventory, map, and so forth are all available as holographic projections from the player's "RIG," appearing seamlessly atop the rest of the environment. Ammo reserves are displayed as part of a deployed weapon's projection.
These are all projections from the player's equipment, so play doesn't stop to accommodate checking menus and maps – needing to find a safe location to check equipment reserves is simply part of the play experience. There are a few times that camera angles make it difficult to see important UI elements but these are few and far between, such as in cramped elevators. Even better, at the touch of a button, the suit will project a holographic line indicating the direction to the player's next goal. This isn't always the best path, nor will it reveal every useful item in the environment, but it's a wonderful tool when lost or disoriented after a battle with a vicious reanimated and reformed crew member.
Furthermore, Dead Space is particularly good at keeping players on the kind of fairly linear path that allows game designers to craft tense moments, while maintaining a sense of open freedom. Areas will need to be visited and revisited, with different paths available each time, providing a sense of freedom of movement while keeping the player moving along a particular course of action. This allows the developers to create true horror – Dead Space is a shooter, but it also made me do my utmost to avoid shooting things, carefully hording my ammo and trying to find the resources to upgrade my equipment so I could survive. While I rarely ever died and needed to reload a segment, I felt as if death were always imminent and only the utmost caution would keep me alive through the experience – exactly what a good horror game achieves. With all that, and enhanced by incredibly creepy positional sound, Dead Space had me regularly jumping out of my seat.
I was particularly impressed with Dead Space's zero-gravity sequences. The game solidly adapted the feeling of zero-gravity, where magnetic boots can transform any surface into "down," and anything not secured floats freely throughout the environment, even making combat and navigation puzzles without gravity work well.
The game's much-touted "dismemberment engine" left me indifferent. Rather than making reanimated alien creatures vulnerable in the head, the best way to stop them is to cut (or shoot) off their limbs and tentacles. It worked well enough, but was hardly an exciting new feature – you shoot nasty things to keep them from transforming your newly-dead flesh into another monstrosity.
The only serious problem with the PC version of Dead Space was that it felt deliberately handicapped to simulate the console experience. The mouse and keyboard interface, possibly the most responsive control combination available in gaming, was slowed to make it replicate a gamepad – making the mouse respond like it was being dragged through pudding. Similarly, a game that desperately needed the ability to save anywhere required me to navigate through unnecessary menus at "save stations" in order to record my progress. It felt like the developers had to work harder to make the PC controls less responsive than they would have needed to work to give PC gamers the level of control we demand.
Fundamentally, Dead Space is a brilliant science-fiction-themed, survival-style horror game that maintains its tension throughout the experience. If only the developers had made a few simple concessions to the PC as a platform rather than demoting PC gamers to console gamers' poorer cousins, the game would have been a truly stellar accomplishment.