A short time ago we were invited out to San Francisco to get some time with Dead Space and learn all about the game. While there I got to play the game for a solid chunk of time including the first level which were forced to keep under wraps until about two days ago. While I got my hands on more of the game than just this, we figured that you’ve probably read all about the levels that had been repeatedly reported on so we bit our tongue until we could bring you all the info on the first level. That being said, one of the best and scariest parts of Dead Space is the element of surprise, so if you don’t want anything spoiled I’ll just give you a heads up that you may only want to read the next paragraph and the last paragraph as everything in between has a few scares that would be all the better without knowing about them.
The game opens with almost no opening cutscene. In keeping in spirit with the entire game’s philosophy of not taking the player away from Isaac’s point of view, and thus keeping the player in the game, the player is pretty much instantly thrown into the third person perspective with Isaac sitting in a chair aboard the ship that has come to find out what is wrong with the Ishimura. Upon arrival the captain of the ship takes the docking a bit rough and the ship takes some damage. We also learn that Isaac has a lady on board the Ishimura who he hasn’t heard from since they were called to fix the ship. Again, this is all explained during a conversation while the player is stuck on a chair in third person. After the ship docks, in a rare occurrence, the camera rotates around Isaac and reveals his face. I can’t say that I was too impressed with this as it seemed to belay the whole “Isaac as an avatar” idea. Especially when the rest of the game tries to throw the player into the world so wholeheartedly with the lack of a HUD and Isaac being a completely silent protagonist. Aside from revealing Isaac’s face though, the first level of the game is nothing but impressive.
As the crew boards the Ishimura, Isaac dons his now famous suit and helmet and turns into the clunking protagonist we all know and love. In the beginning the only thing Isaac can do is walk and open doors. No Plasma Cutters to slice through enemies or fancy tricks that let you levitate objects. The ship is mysteriously empty and on lockdown, so Isaac must work his way into a separate room in order to unlock the doors for the crew. It’s the classic “separated by a piece of glass so you can watch all the horrors that are about to occur but do nothing about them” setup. Sure enough the second you unlock the door the power goes out and all hell starts to break loose.
Two dead crew members and a lot of blood splatter later, the Necromorphs, who we have yet to get a good glimpse at, seem to realize that Isaac is on the other side of the glass and start charging for him through the game’s vent system, as the remaining crew members basically tell you to run like none other. You won’t really want to be doing anything else either since the lights have started flickering on and off, sirens are roaring and it sounds like the monsters are about to drop out of the ceiling. Oh, and remember you’re unarmed. Running down a narrow hallway with two creatures chasing you unarmed might have been the scariest moment I experienced in the game. Not only were two deadly monsters after me, but I had no idea where I was going, how I was going to survive or when something even scarier was going to pop up in front of me. While much of the rest of the game I played was scary for its gore and plethora of nasty looking bad guys, this part had me going on tension alone. Very well done.
Thankfully Isaac makes it to an elevator just as a creature is about to jump on top of him and completely obliterate his body. The doors squeak closed and Isaac is safe…until the damn monster wrenches them open again and scares the shit out of the player. I jumped, luckily none of the other journalist around me saw or at least they were too engrossed in the game to stop playing and point and laugh. Thankfully, the elevator wins out as it closes on the half human, half monster’s head, which subsequently rolls around the elevator as you enjoy a ride upwards towards the rest of the game.
After this you pick up the Plasma Cutter in a room where “cut of their arms” is scrawled in blood on the wall. Thus the player is introduced to the dismemberment gameplay that has been talked about so much. Actually you’re introduced to it when a Necromorph attacks you at high speed, but that’s just a small detail. But Dead Space has another side to it with its puzzle play aspects. Often players will be confronted with puzzle challenges in order to progress. For instance, in the first level you have to get a tram car moving, but it’s being held up by two large magnetic bars and needs power. Thus the player learns to use one of Isaac’s special abilities. Basically, Isaac has telekinesis and can move things with his mind. We saw a few instances where he used this tactic — in a later level he had to hurl floating chunks of debris into some sort of power stream in order to clear a room for example. In the first level you simply have to slow the metal rods down so that they have time to connect with their power source and get the tram moving again. Simple, but effective.
Overall I was really impressed with the first level, possibly even more so than the later levels we have all read and heard about. It seemed scarier and did a great job getting the player used to not having a HUD on the screen, while introducing all the gameplay mechanics. Most importantly though, it is instantly scary, something many games lack when they begin. Luckily, Dead Space will hook players in quickly and hopefully continue to deliver throughout.