Review - Dead Space

Developer: EA Redwood Shores
Publisher: EA Games
Platform(s): PC, Xbox 360, PS3

My list of favourite movies has been consistently evolving over the past couple of years, but to my memory I don't think there's been a moment since 2004 where Alien hasn't been at the very top. The movie does everything right in all respects: the plot rarely if ever gives into cliche, the acting is totally natural and most of the effects still hold up to today's standards - if not better at times; most of the dialogue is improvised, familiar and seamless; the score is wonderfully composed and arranged, the titular creature magnificently designed and executed, and the entire film radiates with haunting, claustrophobic paranoia.

In short, it's a wonderful movie and I enthusiastically recommend it for anyone who hasn't yet seen it. But for all its merits, Alien hasn't translated incredibly well to the game medium. Had I a regular audience, I'd surely receive several comments mentioning how great Aliens versus Predator and Aliens versus Predator 2 for the PC were. And great they were - excellent in fact. Yet take note of those titles: Aliens versus Predator, denoting the second and still very entertaining film in the series. To its merit, Aliens has some truly tense moments - the leadup to the atmosphere processor, the facehugger sequence and the Operations attack come right to mind - but they lack the subtlety and even the grace that many of the more horrific scenes in Alien (quite an understatement for a film that contains implied rape by what is essentially an eight-foot-tall extraterrestrial Freudian monstrosity).

Aliens has had an easier translation to the video game medium for the same reason why it's a more accessible film than Alien: it's constantly engaging and more action than horror - and I say these things with no intention of disparaging James Cameron's wonderful film, one I have many fond memories of. A completely accurate electronic incarnation of Alien would certainly never work: weapons would be limited and there's only one enemy to speak of, a stealthy and intelligent one though it may be.

Strangely enough, despite Dead Space's unique arsenal and abundant enemies, it feels much more like Alien than any other franchise game thus far, though Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade is somewhat wont to disagree. The USG Ishimura is undoubtedly the video game equivalent to the ill-fated Nostromo in Alien. While much bigger and more heavily populated, the Ishimura is very much a haunted house in space. The physical and psychological horror in this game is enough to make David Cronenberg and David Lynch respectively proud.

I'm avoiding the usual process of detailing plot, general gameplay mechanics, etc. - these can all be found on any gaming-related website or magazine. The controls are an improvement on the scheme made famous by Resident Evil 4, there are vacuum and zero-G environments, and the like. I just want to avoid a few paragraphs of needless exposition and stick right to the heart of why this game is just plain excellent.

Specific moments, even if taken out of context, often paint a better picture than a summary. Take for example one particular sequence in the Ishimura's medical deck. My character - engineer Isaac Clarke - is walking down a darkened corridor, plasma cutter in hand. I hear something banging against metal not too far ahead. I ready my weapon, intending not to be caught off guard, and proceed onward.

There is no enemy here, however. No twisted, screaming monstrosity ready to claw my eyes out. It is simply a man, some poor, utterly insane crewmember. He faces the opposite bulkhead, slamming his forhead against a metal pipe in steady, disturbing rhythm. Moving closer I notice that his clothing and skin have been removed in chunks, leaving him half-flayed. Less than a second later his head collapses inward with a sickening crunch, and he rests limp against the wall.

What drives a man to do this? What kind of horror would leave someone dazed, broken, pulverizing his skull as though he has no other choice? This is why Dead Space is so effective: like the best survival horror games - Silent Hill 2, the GameCube remake of the first Resident Evil - this tale thrives on the art of implication. It's everywhere here: frantically scribbled notes dot the walls. A closer look throughout the game reveals that more and more of the graffiti - in what medium? paint? blood? - is written in an confusing, almost (gasp) alien script. One of the more subtly horrific scenes is in the crew quarters: we descend into the main foyer, where the bodies of the dead crew - many of their heads bound in white cloth - sit next to each other in eternal silence. An arrangement of candles cast an eerie, funereal glow about the chamber. We later learn that this has been the site of a mass crew suicide, which doesn't exactly lessen the dread we feel as we make our way through the deck, noticing that many of the walls are coated in a slimy, fleshy mucous that has become a far too familiar site in the Ishimura's dark corridors.

Many have criticized the game for not being a survival horror work in the purest sense. Ammunition is abundant - though in my two times of playing through the game it always seems to dip in the aforementioned crew quarters - and the weapons are complex and fierce, to say the least. However I've found myself sticking largely to the pistol-esque plasma cutter and the pulse rifle. Every other weapon feels too specialized, and their respective sources of ammunition are somewhat limited. I imagine the game might have drawn more purists were we forced to stick to these particular weapons, forcing us to assess threats on a case-by-case basis and use the appropriate killing tool rather than merely pointing and firing.

However, I am simplifying the combat somewhat. The enemies in this game - the part-zombie, part-alien "Necromorphs" - have numerous weak points, though most of these are relegated to their sharp, flailing limbs. GameTrailers mentioned the game's unique decision to force players to "relearn the headshot," so to speak. It's an interesting choice in terms of playing mechanics but one that ultimately works. Despite the rapidly-moving nature of your targets, there are plenty of tentacles to go around.

The voice cast is great, with no character being particularly overacted. Keith Szarabajka, known for his character on Buffy and his background role in The Dark Knight plays an unhinged but benign scientist quite well. At no point could I consider any of the dialogue to have been particularly bad.

One of the near-universal bones of contention with this game has been its plot and atmosphere. Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, the witty and long-winded humourist and critic of Zero Punctuation fame pointed out how the game seems largely ripped from the frames of Event Horizon (great film, that). I hadn't yet seen that particular film by the time I brought Dead Space home from EB but I will concede the two works definitely have a fair share of similarities: the abandoned ship, the crazed scientist, and even the stern but sympathetic black commanding officer. Watching the movie and then playing the opening chapters of Dead Space in succession will likely produce an intense wave of nostalgia, to say the least. Yet, even though I know I should be critical and bash the Hell out of this game for that reason, I simply can't. By no means is the game's aesthetic original - leaves have already been removed from the pages of Alien, Sunshine and even Soderbergh's interpretation of Solaris - but it's remarkable how much it accomplishes. Like Rapture in 2K Boston's BioShock, the Ishimura is one of the more engaging environments in recent video game history.

In short, the game will not strike a chord with any gamer that feeds on innovation. Instead, Dead Space has managed to distill one of the purest survival horror games of this generation. Where Silent Hill: Homecoming and Resident Evil 5 have let down Dead Space is certain to please.

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