Review / Dead Space (Xbox 360)

The holiday gaming season is officially upon us. Dead Space, the first true blockbuster gaming experience of the mad rush of high end games that is the fourth quarter, hit shelves yesterday and is hoping to scare the beejeebus out of gamers everywhere and start the money making party that is gaming during the holidays. Sure it’s starting the party, but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s actually the best game to spend your hard earned money on in the coming months. We’ve all got some tough decisions to make.

Luckily for you TVGB got a copy of the game and I spent the past week dismembering necromorphs, wandering through abandoned hallways and curb stomping dead bodies. After thirteen plus hours of this, beating the game and actually screaming out loud when my upstairs neighbor dropped something on the floor while I was playing, scaring the piss out of me, I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on whether or not the game is worth your $60 in a holiday season full of games that you desperately want.

Dead Space is a survival horror game. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. While it might look from the trailers that the game has a bit too much action in it than a survival horror should, once a player picks up the controller it becomes obvious that surviving is the key to gameplay, not shooting like a maniac.

As players take on the role of Isaac, a mechanic sent to repair the USG Ishimura along with a few other characters after a distress call is received from the mining ship, they will be constantly worried about ammo levels and whether they have enough health to tackle the next swarm of monsters. This being said, the game hits what is possibly the perfect balance between survival horror and action via a few key elements that really stand out.

First is the gameplay itself. While most survival horror games focus on the surviving aspect and often forgo the fighting aspects, Dead Space has gameplay based around dismembering the strange creatures, called necromorphs, that keep on jumping out of the ship’s vents (the vent system in which necromorphs can crawl around in is amazing) to shrill musical cues. Shooting an enemy in the head isn’t always the best idea as it might just make them angrier when their head falls off. Take out a leg on the other hand and they’ll have to start crawling at you a bit more slowly, then take off their arm and they’ll have nothing to move with and you can curb stomp their head in. Of course that strategy only works on one type of enemy. For another you might sheer their leg off using one of Isaac’s host of weapons, and the creature will come at you even faster. It makes enemy encounters a constantly strategic and engrossing experience and leaves you with that rare feeling in gaming that you want to replay the encounter over and over until you got it exactly right.

Isaac has a host of weapons and aids to help him in dismembering his many foes. Eventually players can buy up to seven different weapons including a flame thrower, a buzz saw shooting gun and a chargeable force gun. However, nothing beats the satisfaction of dismembering a bad guy with the plasma cutter which is Isaac’s basic weapon. Able to turn vertical and horizontal this gun was designed for the gameplay and works with it perfectly. There are some creatures who aren’t killed too effectively by it (Flood like things that come bursting out of a necromorph’s bloated stomach if you shoot him there are better dealt with a flamethrower is one example) most of the time you’ll want to play with this sucker just because it’s more fun.

Isaac has other aids aside from weapons. Telekinesis allows him to pick up and move objects, and subsequently hurl them at opponents while stasis allows him to slow down fast moving objects or enemies. Both come into play both in simple puzzle exercises as well as fighting. While telekinesis could be used in battle, I found I rarely did use it, reserving it mostly for when I had to move objects in order to advance. Stasis on the other hand is a fantastic addition. Slowing down a more powerful enemy so I can take out the smaller ones and then deal with him one-on-one was a key strategy to getting through a ton of battles and emphasized the fact that players can’t just run and gun through the game.

The Dead Space team did a really great job of making what could have been an extremely complicated control system, in part thanks to the lack of a HUD (more on that later), into an intuitive affair. Aiming at a necromorph’s plethora of flailing limbs was never an issue and I never felt unfairly robbed of a glorious kill. In fact most of the times when I died I was actually a little excited because Isaac’s death sequences at the hands of necromorphs were so insanely over the top. One especially nasty enemy will impale him twice swing his body around on its hands then sort of look at him quizically wondering what it should do next. Having decided, he withdraws one of his spike like arms from Isaac’s body and lops his head off. It got to the point where whenever I encountered a new necromorph I’d intentionally die just to see the death sequence. It’s touches like this that turn a good game into a great one.