Dead Space 1 & 2
I’ve decided to combine these reviews, because after playing both of EA’s Dead Space games, I’ve noticed the two are almost identical. (Note: There will be some spoilers in the description of Dead Space 2, though only in the description of the story. I’ll keep the gameplay section spoiler free).
In 2008, EA Redwood Shores (now known as Visceral Games) released its newest creation, Dead Space. A hybrid of survival horror, Alien and The Thing, the game puts you in the role of Engineer Isaac Clarke. In the year 2507, a crew sent to investigate the distress call from another “planet-cracking” ship, the USG Ishimura. Attempting to dock with the now-silent vessel, Clarke’s ship malfunctions and crashes into the Ishimura, leaving him and the crew stranded. As they begin to explore the ship they soon find a new kind of horror known as the Necromorphs, an alienparasite that reanimates and reconfigures dead bodies into twisted terrifying creatures. Clarke has a personal reason to find out and stop whatever’s happening — his girlfriend Nicole was posted on the Ishimura. Searching for a way to get off the ship, his girlfriend and what this Unitologist religion has to do with some “Marker” all while battling the Necromorphs, means Clarke has his work cut out for him.
In Dead Space 2, released in 2011, Clarke has survived his escape from the planet and the destruction of the Marker. Clarke now finds himself on Titan, Saturn’s moon, being interrogated about the events of Dead Space and committed to a mental institution for his ramblings. It’s not long however, before Clarke is released from his cell in the midst of a Necromorph attack. Running for his life and plagued by demonic visions of his dead girlfriend, Clarke must piece together his sanity in order to survive.
Gameplay wise, the Dead Space series is very reminiscent of Resident Evil 4. An over-the-shoulder, third-person perspective, stopping to aim and fire weapons, looting ammo and money from the environment and enemies, shopping for items and upgrading your equipment, the list of comparisons goes on and on. However, this setup works – especially if you’re a fan of RE 4. The first game takes place almost entirely on the Ishimura and the second on Titan Station; both give the sense of something gone wrong from the outset. In both cases, blood is everywhere; the ship is a mess and the necromorph infestations allow the buggers to appear from anywhere. Although most enemies are scripted, it’s not uncommon for one or two to simply “pop” out of the ceiling behind you at any given moment. This adds a lot of tension to the game, as you’re never really sure when you’re completely alone. The most unnerving part of the game is when you stop for a moment and just look around. Listen to the sounds of a dying ship/colony. From the far off screams and roars, to the unexplained whispers just behind the walls, I found the game is scariest when there isn’t a seven-foot-tall monster jumping out at you. (Side note: Why do developers feel the need to add an elementary school section to horror games? I feel they’re capitalizing on my now new found fear of dead, possessed children.)
A huge part of the games is the dismemberment of enemies. The Necromorphs don’t simply roll over when shot in the head, as a good zombie ought to. Clarke must use his weapons to blast enough limbs from the creatures in order to put them down for good. Using what’s called “kinesis”, Clarke can even take limbs from fallen foes and fire them into live ones, effectively impaling them. These games aren’t for the squeamish. I’m a fan of the HUD elements. Isaac’s health is shown on his RIG, as a hologram going up his spine. His weapons all have a holographic display for ammo, and a video or audio box pops up whenever a character wishes to communicate. The objective marker that appears when clicking in the right stick makes things a bit too easy when trying to figure out where to go, but can also be adjusted to show the nearest store, upgrade bench, or save station.
The soundtrack is minimal and this works in favour of the game’s atmosphere. It does a decent job of following the traditional trills when an enemy bursts from the darkness, but otherwise the atmosphere carries the bulk of in-game sound. Cries, moans, snarls, growls, all of the sound effects do a decent job of adding to the overall feel. As an aside, I personally like the way the game mutes almost everything while you’re in a vacuum. Most sci-fi games and films seem to think that sound waves can travel through space; it’s always nice when reality is understood and implemented
Problems with the games are few and far between. Both games look highly polished and there were no framerate issues for either. 2 did suffer from low-res issues at times, especially when looking at the Necromorph “growth”. One pointless gripe is Clarke’s ‘stomp’ move, used to smash open boxes for goodies. It’s hilariously overpowered. When stomping on a corpse to recover ammo or credits, it’s possible to see limbs crushed and destroyed. The same applies for regular humans; try stomping an unfortunate soul and you’ll see its legs, arms or head detach. I guess those suits really pump up your leg-power.
There are several “space” situations in both games, tying effectively into gameplay. As the damage to both games’ areas grows, the effects such as vacuums or zero-gravity can and do make frequent appearances. In zero gravity, Clarke must manipulate himself through the environment in order to solve engineering puzzles. Both games do this differently, which I’ll touch on momentarily. In a vacuum, Clarke’s suit uses an (upgradable) air supply, but fighting the Necromorphs while your O2 meter slowly counts down adds another sense of urgency.
Differences between the two games are actually few and far between. The first game worked so well that Visceral took the old “If it ain’t broke” adage seriously. Aside from the new locations, the only real differences I noticed:
- Perhaps most noticeable, Isaac is the silent protagonist in Dead Space. In 2, he becomes fully voiced and the game is all the better for it. Gunnar Wright does a decent job of portraying a guy just trying to keep it together.
- Multiplayer: Dead Space 2 joined the long list of single-player sequels that throw together an online mode simply to “extend” the life of the game. I’ll be honest; I didn’t even try to play online, simply because it doesn’t fit with the rest of the Dead Space atmosphere.
- Zero-G: A minor note, but noticeable. In Dead Space, Isaac “jumps” from location to location while weightless. In 2, he now has thrusters that allow him to go anywhere. This obviously allows more freedom, and works better.
- The usual sequel stuff: New enemies, new weapons (though not as many), new difficulty levels (there are five in Dead Space 2; the highest allows you to save only three times) and new locations.
Visceral has done a fantastic job of creating a world in which space feels dangerous, not wonderful. Over two games, you’ll come to sympathize for Isaac Clarke and his struggle just to survive. Do yourself a favor and play these in order. The gameplay differences won’t throw you for a loop, but the story is such that to play the second without having beaten the first is a disservice. If you’re a fan of sci-fi, survival horror, Alien, The Thing or just love some good ol’ clichéd monsters jumping out at you, give the Dead Space series a try. Altman Be Praised.