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Dead Space Retro Review

Since the first Dead Space game came out in 2008, there have been two animated films, a Wii exclusive adaptation, along with a downloadable arcade game based on the series.  With Dead Space 2 coming out this week, lets take a look back at the first installment in this franchise.  

At first glance, Dead Space appeared to be just another survival horror game, but IN SPACE.  After just a little bit of time with the game, players and critics saw plenty of little refinements which made it stand out from the crowd.  The opening scene established that the story would be told in-game using a story-telling method similar to Half-life 2, where the player is always in control of their character, even during cutscenes.  The Heads Up Display was conspicuously missing, and all information about your character’s “Stats” was displayed without the need to super-impose a health meter, or ammo counter at the top of the screen.  There was no radar, or map, and an in-game holographic display showed the inventory.  Best of all, instead of a playing a grizzled marine, or super-cop, Dead Space put players in the boots of an engineer.
That engineer is Isaac Clarke.  Isaac is assigned to a team sent to investigate the sudden loss of communications from a space ship called the Ishimura, which is a “Planet Cracker”, a form of mining ship.  Isaac’s wife happens to be a crewmember on the Ishimura, and he received a cryptic message from her before the ship went silent.  Now Isaac has the double motivation of figuring out what happened to the ship, as well as rescuing his wife. 

It’s not a spoiler to say that the crew of the Ishimura was infected by an alien virus that turned them into space monsters called Necromorphs.  They’re a little bit like zombies, preferring hand-to-hand combat, but they differ from typical video game zombies in that headshots only make them angry. Aiming “Center of mass” doesn’t help much either; the Necromorphs have to be literally blown to pieces by shooting off their limbs, and Isaac has just the tools for that job.  Yes, it’s “Tools” not “Weapons”.  Dead Space gives you an arsenal of weird future tools that are well suited to truncating limbs, including a sawblade gun that shoots remote-controlled circular saw blades.  This “Strategic Dismemberment” makes combat tricky, but creative, and the enemies all have lots of extra appendages to be hacked off.

Isaac also has an assortment of special abilities, like telekinesis, and a “Satsis” power which slows down time in the target area.  These are used for puzzle-solving and add a little more creativity to the combat combat. Adding to the unique feel of the game, there is a button dedicated just to stomping enemies, which comes in handy considering that the game requires players to blast their legs off.
The space ship setting at times could be interchanged with any other set of rooms and hallways, however, there are numerous locations which are unique to being in outer space, such as Zero Gravity levels.  In these areas, Isaac can launch himself across rooms then use magnetic boots to walk on walls and ceilings.  This creates unusual combat scenarios as Isaac and his enemies fight at disorienting angles.  It brings to mind the Zero-G combat tactics from the “Ender’s Game” books, and this playstyle is unique to Dead Space.

There are a few Vacuum levels in which Isaac must travel across the outer hull of the ship in his space suit before his oxygen supply runs out.  These essentially amount to timed missions, but the sense of urgency is much greater when players are presented with a clear, and plausible reason for the timer.

One of my personal favorite aspects of Dead Space is the overt mockery of religion.  The bad guys are from a religious cult called Unitology, an unabashed parody of Scientology, and cults in general.  Electronic Arts even promotes the game by giving out religious tracts for this fictional church at videogame conventions. 

The game is very well optimized for PCs.  It looks great, and plays smoothly.  The only real problem is that the inventory system and some of the menus are designed to work with a console’s D-Pad.  This means on the PC version players must take their hands off the mouse to select inventory items, and use the keyboard arrow keys.  It’s a minor issue, though, because in general the game controls very well.

In retrospect, Dead Space was certainly good enough to warrant the current push to turn it into a franchise.  However the imminent sequel turns out, the fist installment in this series is absolutely worth playing for horror fans who missed out the first time around.

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