Dead Space is one of my favourite video game franchises. It’s like it’s made to appeal to me – horror, sci-fi and twisted monsters intent on tearing you apart. During the series’ hey-day, I enthusiastically consumed every bit of Dead Space media I could get my hands on. The franchise has had its ups and downs, which makes it ripe for a Love/Hate series! Naturally, we’ll start at the beginning with 2008’s Dead Space…
- Solid Gameplay – Dead Space was conceptualized as a spiritual successor to Resident Evil 4 and builds on that game’s foundation in some fantastic ways. For a long time people said that the restrictive controls in early survival horror games were a key part of the experience. Dead Space showed that you could have free movement and enjoyable gameplay and still have a terrifying game experience. More specifically:
- Strategic dismemberment makes combat far more interesting than just making enemies into bullet sponges. Blowing limbs off also dynamically changes necromorph attacks – cut out their legs and they’ll crawl after you, blow off their head and they’ll flail wildly, take off an arm and they’ll have one less way to kill you, etc. Some enemies are also only vulnerable to specific attacks so it keeps combat constantly engaging.
- Stasis and kinesis are also great tools for combat, light puzzle-solving and environmental traversal. Stasis in particular is essential to survive the swarms of enemies you’ll face in the late game and kinesis can be the difference between life and death when ammo gets scarce.
- Another thing that I really appreciate about Dead Space‘s design is that ammo and health pickups are wisely restricted to keep you desperate, especially in the late game. I can still remember getting into combat encounters where I had a handful of ammo and had to actively strategize how to get through the next encounter alive, it makes for intense, thrilling gameplay.
- Immersive In-Universe HUD – One of the coolest design aspects of Dead Space is that it doesn’t have a traditional HUD showing health, ammo, etc. Instead, these are all built into Isaac’s outfit (RIG) and weapons. Unlike some other games at the time which tried to cut down on HUD elements (such as Splinter Cell: Double Agent, which removed the visibility meter for a binary red light/green light), the information visible to the player isn’t inadequate either, everything they would need to know is clearly communicated and visible at a glance.
- Sound Design – One aspect in which the Dead Space series was universally commended on was its sound design. From the blasts of your weapons, to the screeches and roars of the necromorphs (I can still remember being freaked out the first time I heard a Divider), to the sounds of things scuttling around out of sight, it all helps to create a pervasive horror atmosphere for the game. The way that sound is almost entirely absent during sections that take place in space are particularly notable, featuring just dull thuds which makes these areas an eerie highlight.
- The Horror – Dead Space‘s horror takes elements of the Resident Evil games and mixes them in with influences from The Thing, Alien, Event Horizon and zombie movies to give us an enticing cocktail. You’re just constantly on edge, unsure where or when danger is going to come at you. It even trains you over time – is something going to come out of that air vent? Is that slasher just playing dead (you quickly learn to stomp every corpse, even human ones, just to be safe)? When the door opens is there going to be something on the other side? The resource management I’ve previously mentioned also helps here, keeping every single encounter tense and ensuring that you can never let your guard down.
- Enemy Variety – Dead Space features fifteen unique forms of necromorphs, enhanced forms of most of these, plus three boss monsters, all presenting unique threats and requiring different methods to dispatch them. This variety helps ensure that Dead Space‘s combat encounters never get old as the enemies and environments can be mixed and matched to present unique challenges. Particular highlights include the Pregnants, whose bloated chests will spew out several small enemies if shot, Leapers (who never fail to stress me out) and the shriek-inducing Twitchers. Also worth mentioning is The Hunter, a necromorph that rapidly regrows its limbs and stalks you as you try to complete your objectives during two parts of the game. The first time you encounter it, you have to use kinesis to create a path to escape as it’s bearing down on you – I can still remember being freaked out!
- Organic World Building – Like many games of its time, Dead Space populates its environment with audio logs and diary entries, filling out its world without forcing the player to sit through mandatory exposition dumps. Some of these logs are quite affecting – as you travel through the game you’ll find snippets from Jacob Temple and Elizabeth Cross, another couple who are fighting to reunite with one another. When you finally catch up with them, it makes for a tragic moment because you’ve invested so much in their journey and serves to make the psychotic Dr. Mercer that much more of a villain. In addition, the game imparts details about fictional concepts like planet cracking, the state of the galaxy and the Church of Unitology organically, giving us a sense of what the Dead Space universe is like without having to show us directly.
- The Ishimura Layout – The Ishimura makes for a claustrophobic and cramped locale to try to survive on. It feels appropriately old, grimy and lived-in and each deck has its own unique feel to it. It’s a fun, varied environment that helps drive most of the game’s terrors.
- Brutal Death Sequences – No one wants to die in a video game, but if it’s gonna happen then at least you can revel in the morbid satisfaction that is Dead Space‘s BRUTAL death sequences. Isaac gets chopped to bits in various manners that really drive home how relentless and merciless the necromorphs are.
- The Story is Functional But Unremarkable – The story in Dead Space is pretty simple – bad stuff happening in space, Isaac volunteers to man the rescue mission because his girlfriend is caught up in the middle of it all. From there you spend the next several hours surviving and uncovering exactly what happened, but a lot of it ultimately boils down to bitch work: something bad happens on the ship, so Isaac gets told to go fix it. It works and it helps drive the game forward, but it’s not super compelling on its own. There’s a twist towards the end that is also not particularly satisfying because the red herring is really obvious.
- Oxygen Meter is Kind of Pointless – Isaac has a limited reserve of oxygen when entering the vacuum of space. Initially this creates some additional anxiety and you can even upgrade your RIG to have a greater reserve… however, this is a waste of a power node. You realize pretty quickly that oxygen is more of a threat than a real problem – after all, the developers had to design all vacuum sections to be completed without requiring upgrades. In addition, there are O2 refill stations and, if that wasn’t enough, portable air canisters. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever died from lack of O2, nor have I bothered to waste my valuable power nodes on upgrading my supply. Spend that shit on stasis or your guns.
- Zero G Sections Are Clunky – While functional at the time, movement in the zero gravity segments of the game is pretty stiff. Basically, you have to aim at platforms and press a button, which will launch Isaac towards it automatically. Again, this works, but compared to later games in the series, it’s far less enjoyable to move around in zero G.
- Situational Weapons – There are seven weapons in Dead Space, each with a primary and alternate fire mode… and some of these are just crap. The flamethrower in particular is almost universally acknowledged to be dogshit in nearly every situation, especially when its jobs could easily be done with a less situational weapon. To add insult to injury, it can’t even be used in a vacuum in this game and can’t even hit most of the bosses at all! The Pulse Rifle and Ripper are also quite weak without significant investment in upgrades. I also never liked the Force Gun, it’s is only really good for knocking back enemies, but I’d rather just kill them outright. Personally, I tend to stick with the Plasma Cutter as my mainstay, Line Gun for heavier targets, then maybe the Pulse Rifle, Ripper or Contact Beam for my last two slots, depending on what I need at the time.
- Silent Isaac – The sequels made Isaac’s “silent protagonist” turn in Dead Space worse, but even at the time this was a dated element of the game. While Isaac does manage to show a bit of personality just through his actions, it really limits how engaging he can be, in favour of being a blank slate for the player to project on. Even then, it’s just plain weird that he’s not talking to people who are talking to him or reacting to all the horrors going on. Like, he’s not gonna say anything about the monsters or the people committing suicide in front of him…?
- Final Boss is Disappointing – After hours of tense horror, the final boss fight suddenly turns Dead Space into an action spectacle. It goes against the whole point of the game and doesn’t provide much of a challenge for that matter. I feel like the regenerating Hunter provided a better template for how to make a horrifying boss, but the Hive Mind makes for a disappointing finale.
- DLC – Being a PS3/Xbox 360 game, Dead Space comes with obligatory DLC in the form of reskinned costumes and weapon skin packs. The costumes that give you in-game effects that shake up the game slightly, but there really isn’t much to them and they don’t change the game enough to be worth it in my opinion. Effectively, it’s DLC for the sake of DLC.
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