From the very beginning Dead Space was conceived as a multi-media franchise. To that end it managed to build up quite the impressive collection of extended universe material in the five years it was active. Having dabbled in EU material from Star Wars, Halo, Warhammer 40,000 and Splinter Cell (among others), a lot of the time these story extensions are viewed as inessential marketing material. As a result, they typically aren’t very well written, don’t stand on their own merits, or are just “bolter porn” (eg, action fests with little in the way of characters or depth). Luckily, Dead Space has some real gems within its EU, although there is still plenty of material which fit into the latter categories… Sounds ripe for a love/hate breakdown to me!
Also, before we begin, I need to mention that the only piece of Dead Space media I never consumed was the mobile game, due to me not having a smartphone at the time. If I had played it I’d probably include it here and from what I hear it was a fantastic game, but the game is no longer supported on modern Android devices and is unavailable on the Play store. If I can manage to get ahold of it I’ll write a whole entry for it, assuming I have enough thoughts for a post. Anyway, with that aside out of the way, let’s dive in!
Dead Space (graphic novel) – EA and Visceral games demonstrated that they were not fucking around with the Dead Space brand as the very first piece of media out of the gate was this six issue comic series and it is easily the best entry in the franchise outside of the actual games. There are a few reasons why this graphic novel is essential reading for horror fans. First of all, the writing is pretty great. Antony Johnston portrays how the entire Aegis VII colony goes to hell in compelling detail, slowly building up the tension to the point of absolute desperation. Secondly, Ben Templesmith’s art is perfect for this kind of story, being very clear but stylized and inked in a manner which gives it this manic, twisted and dark edge. Thirdly, it is the definitive tome about what happened on Aegis VII, which we only get bits and pieces of in Extraction, and therefore is essential for fans. Finally, it’s the perfect entry point to get into the franchise – you don’t need to know the lore to understand it, because everything gets laid out for you organically.
Dead Space: Extraction (comic) – Perhaps unsurprisingly, the one-off direct follow-up to the Dead Space comics is just as compelling and essential for fans of the series. Antony Johnston and Ben Templesmith essentially take a victory lap, showing us what Nicole is up to on the Ishimura during the outbreak and gives us more insight into her psychology and personality than any other entry into the franchise. That alone is enough to make Extraction worthwhile reading (especially since Nicole is essentially treated like an objective rather than a person elsewhere), but there’s such a bleak and tragic atmosphere to the whole proceeding that makes it so sad to read, especially since you know how it’s all going to turn out.
Dead Space: Martyr – This one really surprised me. Like I said up top, video game extended universe novels have a shaky track record and going through the first chapter of Martyr made me think that my low expectations were going to be met. However, by the time the second chapter starts, Martyr gets enthralling. It works for the same reasons that the Dead Space graphic novel works – it’s all about the build-up. You’re going to notice a trend as this goes along: necromorphs are great video game monsters, but an outbreak is boring in a non-interactive medium. Martyr focuses on the madness that the marker causes and the machinations of the people around it, for good or evil. It also gives fans essential insight into Michael Altman, the “Prophet” of the Church of Unitology, and shows us that he’s not a bad guy as we might have expected. Martyr really surprised me with how good it was and it makes for a chilling read with an ending which is just pitch-black.
Samuel Irons – I’ll cover Dead Space: Downfall in its own section later, but the one thing I love in it is Samuel Irons, who I would argue is straight-up the best character in the entire Dead Space franchise. Seriously, he’s a goddamn champ and is literally the only Unitologist we get to see who isn’t portrayed as a fanatic or outright evil. Dude even gets his own badass line before he goes off to face a swarm of necromorphs: “I’m not a hero… just a man”.
Dead Space: Salvage – In the interstice between Dead Space and Dead Space 2, Ben Templesmith was dropped as the artist on the comic series and was replaced with Christopher Shy. I don’t know if this was for creative or financial reasons, but Shy’s artwork is as gorgeous as it is haunting and very befitting of the Dead Space universe. However, this is ultimately a blessing and a curse for Salvage. On the one hand, it lends the graphic novel a distinct and captivating visual style, making every panel a work of art. However, Shy’s style doesn’t lend itself very well to the story being told here. Salvage follows a team of “Magpies”, illegal salvagers who stumble upon the remains of the Ishimura as Earthgov is seeking it in the aftermath of the first game. We’re introduced to a huge cast of characters, but Shy’s art style makes it difficult to tell who is who in any given panel, who is saying what and even what is going on at times. Like, you can understand the broad strokes of the story with little issue, but good luck knowing what’s happening panel-to-panel. Hell, about two-thirds of the way through I realized that all the Magpies were on board the Ishimura – I had thought that only a recon team went aboard that whole time! Like I said, the art alone makes slogging through Salvage worthwhile, plus it gives us some really interesting insight into the greater Dead Space universe and the story itself is enjoyable enough when you can understand it, but the unnecessary confusion makes Salvage more difficult to appreciate than it should be.
Dead Space: Aftermath – I have a soft spot in my heart for Aftermath which makes me overlook its glaring flaws. First off, it must be said – the CG animation in this movie? DOGSHIT. Seriously, the animation is ReBoot levels of quality (which isn’t a knock on ReBoot, for the record, but you’d think that 17 years of advances in computer technology would raise the minimum threshold). Since almost half the movie is rendered in this machinima-level style, that’s a major issue right off the bat. However, the story structure and characters manage to make Aftermath interesting (for fans of the series at least). Each of the four main characters’ gets a POV section where their part in the story is told via a different anime style flashback. It’s really obvious that this was done so that five different animation studios could be working on the movie simultaneously and for minimal expenditure, but it’s integrated into the narrative itself in an ideal manner. Plus it helps that all of these anime segments are well animated, as opposed to Dead Space: Downfall (which we’ll get to soon enough…). The characters aren’t revolutionary, but they’re interesting enough to carry the proceedings, especially Nolan Stross, whose role in Dead Space 2 is far more interesting when you have this film’s insight into his backstory. Unfortunately, the film suddenly devolves into yet another outbreak story about halfway through, and I really do mean sudden – one minute everything’s fine, the next there’s necromorphs all over the O’Bannon. Aftermath‘s first half does a really good job setting up the madness and expanding the series’ lore, so when it rushes into a half-assed and boring outbreak scenario it’s a real bummer. Like I said, I have a soft spot for Aftermath in spite of its several flaws which would probably throw it right into the “Hate” section for most, but there’s just enough interesting lore and story here that I can’t help but find it interesting.
Dead Space: Catalyst – After the surprisingly good Martyr, my excitement for B.K. Evenson’s follow-up novel, Catalyst, couldn’t be higher as the hype train for Dead Space 3 approached. Unfortunately, it isn’t nearly as captivating as its predecessor was and is arguably the single most inessential piece of media in the Dead Space extended universe. It follows estranged brothers Istvan and Jensi, along with Jensi’s friend Henry. Istvan has some sort of mental illness which makes him psychotic, which eventually leads him to assassinate a political figure and end up in a remote prison facility where a marker research station is housed. Jensi and Henry try to rescue Istvan… but then another outbreak happens. Sigh. Compared to Martyr, Catalyst has far more interesting and compelling characters and the whole setup works really well. Unfortunately, it’s all in service of just giving us yet another necromorph outbreak story and little else beyond that. About the only revelation with potential impact is that Istvan’s mental illness is such that he can change the marker signal, but it is barely developed and Evenson is careful to cut off that source of potential future storytelling. It’s an alright novel, but it didn’t stick with me or demand my attention the way Martyr did.
Dead Space: Liberation – Acting as a direct prequel to Dead Space 3, Liberation gives us the backstory for John Carver, showing us the shittiest day of his life. Christopher Shy is back but this time his style has been reined in to be far less ethereal and abstract and instead more moody and realistic. This makes it far easier to follow the story and I can’t say I was ever lost or confused. However, Antony Johnston (writer on the Dead Space comics and games up to this point) was replaced with Ian Edginton (his series Scarlet Traces is well worth checking out!) and the difference in style between the two is night-and-day. Like Dead Space 3, Liberation is a fast-paced, high-stakes action story, where necromorph outbreaks are so inconsequential that we get two of them! Liberation really suffers from being a prequel – there’s no conclusion and all the major plot beats are basically just to set up stuff that will happen in Dead Space 3. Of all the Dead Space extended universe media, Liberation may just be the most obvious marketing ploy of them all. That said, the only things making it worthwhile at all are getting insight into John Carver’s character and Shy’s continued exceptional artwork.
Dead Space: Downfall – I rewatched this movie for this article and good God I still dislike it. The first big issue? The awful, bargain-basement animation. Just look at that screenshot above – it lacks any sort of detail and is meant to be as simple as possible. As bad as it looks in screenshots, it looks even more terrible in motion, with choppy animation demonstrating that they couldn’t afford/be bothered to key in enough frames to make it look smooth. I don’t know if the studio just got overwhelmed with the work they had to do, but it makes me glad that Aftermath took the approach of farming out work to several studios as its animated segments look leagues better (y’know, aside from the awful CG parts). The second big issue is that the main character, Alissa Vincent, sucks. She’s your generic take-no-nonsense head of security and spends the whole movie being insubordinate, hot-headed and doing random acrobatics in the middle of gun fights. She feels like a lame RPG character rather than someone who belongs in the more grounded Dead Space universe. The third big issue is that the story kind of sucks. There’s some enjoyment to be had in seeing the Ishimura plunge into chaos, especially Captain Matthius’ growing paranoia and delusion, but when the film turns into a montage of Vincent and her Dungeons & Dragons party getting into several shootouts with necromorphs it’s just plain dull. Sure, Downfall has Samuel Irons, but he’s the only thing about this movie that I actually love. Dead Space: Extraction covers the fall of the Ishimura as well, so as far as I’m concerned Downfall can be straight-up ignored in the continuity of the franchise.
Dead Space: Ignition – Soooooo, I know for a fact I’ve never played this game, but checking through my PlayStation account reveals that at some point I bought it and then never played it… So, um, I want my $5 back, EA. That said, I’m probably better off for never having played Ignition because it’s apparently the crappiest entry in the entire franchise (and that’s factoring in all the games and extended universe, including Downfall). Do you like hacking minigames and cheap comic book art? I sure hope you do because that’s all you’re going to get out of this experience! The only purpose this game serves to the series’ narrative is letting us know a bit about Franco before he’s immediately offed at the beginning of Dead Space 2, but like… who cares? Skip this one for sure.
EU Peters Out By Dead Space 3 – Moving on to more general thoughts, it sucks that Dead Space 3 killed the series because it effectively killed the extended universe while it was at it. This especially sucks because Dead Space 3‘s story was ripe for spin-off tales. After all, it introduced a rogue, militant terrorist faction of the Unitologist Church who come out of nowhere, wipe out Earthgov and then cause outbreaks across the galaxy, which the game promptly forgets. That’s a bunch of potential horror stories that went completely unmined. Even then, the two EU stories we did get during Dead Space 3‘s cycle, Catalyst and Liberation did almost nothing to expand the series’ scope or lore. Dead Space and Dead Space 2‘s cycles both gave us new insights into the universe or background events, which makes the sudden disinterest come Dead Space 3 even more depressing.
The Portrayal of Religion – One thing that has always annoyed me about the extended universe in Dead Space is that it’s really obvious that the writers have a bone to pick with religion. Everyone writes off Unitologists immediately and calls them crazy, despite the fact that they’re often being confronted face-to-face with the literal holy object of their religion. Like, I’m no Scientologist, but if someone showed me Xenu I’d at least consider the possibility that they might have some answers. Naturally, every Unitologist (except for Samuel Irons, the goddamn champ) gets written as a fanatic or downright evil, while the people who explicitly oppose them are “rational” thinkers like scientists, doctors and… uh… the police. This despite the fact that about half of the Unitologist characters weren’t even known to be Unitologists until the events of the stories, showing that they’re really just regular people for the most part. It’s just so obviously anti-religious sentiment and is excessively simplified to the point of being insulting (such as the implication that being religious causes you to be more susceptible to the marker’s maddening effects). This also ignores that the Dead Space series makes it explicitly clear that governments are the real villains, Unitology is just a tool. Hell, even the series’ writers seem to have forgotten this because by the time Dead Space 3 rolls around the government’s killed off-screen and we have moustache-twirling religious loonies as the villains. The treatment in the franchise is just lazy and makes “Unitologist” shorthand for “villain” 99% of the time.
No Resolution – Sure, you could argue that Awakened ends the franchise with everyone dying, but I don’t buy that. Dead Space has too many loose ends still dangling, the most crucial of which is Lexine. Dead Space 4 (or an EU story at the very least) NEEDED to bring Lexine into the forefront and make good on Nicole’s revelations in the Extraction comic – it is possible to defeat the necromorphs. Hell… I’m half tempted to write my own version, because EA sure as fuck is never going to.
Tau Volantis is Cool – I remember a lot of fans complained that a Dead Space game was going to be taking place on a planet back in the day, but I’ve never had an issue with this. For one thing, it’s still sci-fi and for another, a frozen planet is barely a step down from the existential danger of space. In fact, it opens up new opportunities for horror – enemies hidden in the snow, body temperature regulation, snow squalls, etc. Visceral Games use all of these elements throughout the game and make the most of the setting within the framework they set for themselves.
Side-quests – One of the most interesting new additions in Dead Space 3 is the optional “side-quests” that you can embark on. These reward the player with supplies for completion and, most importantly, provide little self-contained stories to uncover. I’m a sucker for side-quests and appreciate their inclusion in this game – it gives me some fun, optional content to explore and rewards you for taking the risk.
Co-Op is Entirely Optional – Co-op modes were being shoehorned into games during this time period and often resulted in you being forced to wrangle a friend whenever you wanted to play, or dealing with invariably awful AI companions. Dead Space 3 makes the elegant decision to make the game’s marquee co-op mode entirely optional. Want to play through the game solo? That’s cool, Carver will be awkwardly on the fringes of the entire story, but you’re otherwise not even going to notice. It is a far more preferable solution to this than brain-dead AI that turns into a frustrating burden. The only issue is that certain side-quests are co-op only, making it feel like you’re missing out on content for not participating.
Extensive Weapon Crafting System – Dead Space 3 is often criticized for its weapon crafting system, being blamed for reducing the horror. However, I feel like it provides a more elegant solution to the weapon management system from the previous games, effectively allowing you to pick the weapons you actually want to use and mash them together into two personal super-guns. Sure, this also results in them being potentially overpowered, jack-of-all-trades crutch weapons, but Dead Space 3 is designed around that so it works. Getting your preferred weapon to a “just right” state is satisfying in itself and there are so many combinations you can produce that it’s cool to see it in action.
Supercharged Kinesis – In the very late game Dead Space 3 goes off the rails in terms of its stakes. One of the best parts of this though is the supercharged kinesis – kinesis has always been fun, but how do you like the idea of tearing the limbs right off of attacking necromorphs or launching entire markers at the real hive mind of the necromorphs? It’s a power fantasy but it feels so damn good while it lasts.
The Space Section – After the introduction, Dead Space 3 spends a good hour or two in orbit around Tau Volantis. It feels like a watered down version of classic Dead Space, but it’s still a blast to play through as you fly through a spaceship graveyard and trying to get the parts to repair your own craft. I especially like the art direction on the necromorphs here, they’ve been dormant for almost 200 years and they look so desiccated after all this time.
Feeders – Dead Space 3 doesn’t introduce a lot of new enemies, but a couple of them are great. Most pertinent are the Feeders, blind necromorphs that are attracted to strong light sources and sound. Having to deal with enemies in a non-combative way is a great change for the series and provides some of the few true horror moments in the game. Plus their backstory is amazing, having been created after starving humans got desperate enough to feed on the flesh of defeated necromorphs. In addition to Feeders, the Shambler is also a cool concept, where a necromorph decapitates a victim and then embeds itself in their neck cavity to control the body.
Body Temperature Regulation is Underutilized – I know I praised Dead Space 3 for how it makes the most of Tau Volantis, but one thing it could have done more with is body temperature regulation. When you crash land on the planet you have to stay in proximity to heat to avoid freezing to death, but you soon find a thermal suit and never have to worry about it again. If they hadn’t done this then there’s definitely the potential for this to just become a burden, but handled well I feel like having to worry about freezing to death would have added far more tension to the game and made Tau Volantis itself a more dangerous setting.
Awakened DLC – Once again, a Dead Space story DLC lands in the mixed section, for similar reasons. On the plus side, Awakened drastically ups the horror elements compared to the main game, making for a tenser and more interesting experience. However, its ending leaves a real sour taste in my mouth. For one thing, it effectively undoes the ending of the main game, going from a bittersweet ending to one that is straight-up nihilistic. The fact that this is the last piece of Dead Space story we’ve ever gotten just makes it worse. Don’t get me wrong, a bleak ending can work but I don’t feel like it was earned at all. In addition, are you telling me that no one managed to evacuate Earth to the several stations and colonies we know humanity has? Hell, I was under the impression that the vast majority of The Sprawl was evacuated in Dead Space 2 and that was in the middle of a full-on outbreak in a confined station. It just makes me even more annoyed that we never got Dead Space 4 starring Lexine Murdoch-Weller going out to kick some necromorph ass.
Balance Is Out of Whack – Dead Space and Dead Space 2 struck a fantastic balance of making health and ammo scarce while giving you just enough enemies to deal with where you felt like you were barely holding on. Dead Space 3, however, completely fails in this regard and just feels cheap at times. The game inundates you health pickups, to the point where I never managed to run out (and, to be more accurate, my inventory was chocked full of them at all times). You’re also never going to run out of ammo for any particular weapon, because ammo pickups are now universal. Enemy encounters are just a pain in the ass though – you get swarmed by enemies from all angles, to the point where it just feels cheap. I’m not sure if this is because the game only has one spawn system to cover for single player and co-op, or if the game has just been designed to try to overwhelm you, but it makes planning less important than spraying and praying.
Microtransactions – Dead Space 3 was the prototype for forced-in microtransactions in single player games. I remember thinking that it wasn’t a big deal back in the day because I never felt like you needed to rely on them to get supplies, but goddamn if their putrid legacy can’t be felt to this day. The fact that this game was so groundbreaking for something so shitty is an irredeemable blight on the game that can’t be taken away.
Human Enemies – By far one of the worst aspects of this game is that it turns into a cover shooter at certain points. I’m playing Dead Space, I don’t want to play a crappy version of Uncharted or Gears of War. It’s just… ugh.
Everything is Watered Down – Did you like Dead Space‘s mix of horror and gore? Cool, then how about we give you an action game in the vein of Uncharted instead… While Dead Space 3 does have occasional moments of light horror, the game is on the whole orders of magnitude less scary and far less violent. Hell, even aspects of the previous game which return here, such as the Stalkers, are changed to be less scary (instead of trying to flank you, they just charge instantly). Like I said, the weapon crafting and universal ammo reduce the tension as well in favour of straight action. What do we get instead? Over-the-top set pieces which quickly outstay their welcome. Even some of the necromorphs are wielding weapons in this game, which just makes them less inhuman terrors.
The Story – Hoo boy, strap in because there is a lot to talk about in this regard:
In regards to the set-up of this game, within the first few minutes we’re told that Unitologist terrorists have straight-up wiped out EarthGov and are launching terrorist attacks across the galaxy to try to initiate convergence. Holy shit, that’s crazy! I hope you don’t care about this interesting turn of events though because the game never returns to it and we never got any extended universe content to cover these monumental developments. To make matters worse, Awakened ends with Isaac and Carver trying to contact EarthGov so… did they (by which I mean the writers) forget what happened?
I also don’t like the concept of the Brethren Moons. For one thing, we don’t need to know what controls and creates the markers, the mystery is part of the allure. Beyond that, we’ve already got enough complication – the markers make the hive mind, which controls the necromorphs… so what’s the point of a hive mind if there are actually Brethren Moons? It’s the sort of plot development that I hate, where it relies on ever-growing stakes to feel important. Like, what was next for Dead Space 4, finding out what’s controlling the Brethren Moons?
Oh and nearly every single character in Dead Space 3 SUUUUUUUCKS. Main human antagonist, Danik? He’s such a lame villain. At least Tiedemann in Dead Space 2 was somewhat understandable in his motivations, Danik is just a monologuing asshole. And speaking of assholes, Norton spends the entire game being a jealous prick to Isaac. Even Carver’s a real dick, but at least he has something of an arc where he becomes friendly over time. Most of the rest of the cast are cannon fodder, except for…
Ellie Has Been Sexed Up – God damn, EA wanted Dead Space 3 to appeal to the Call of Duty crowd, so what’s one way they went about this? They sexed up Ellie Langford, softening her features, presumably giving her implants and then showing off a ton of cleavage whenever possible. Like… it’s so in your face and so obviously pandering that I hate it.
It’s Compromised to the Core – Perhaps the worst thing about Dead Space 3 after all this time is that the game is fundamentally compromised. Visceral clearly didn’t get to make the story or game they wanted to, but in order to keep the series going they had to give in to EA’s demands… and for what? The game still didn’t do well enough to keep the franchise alive and even if it did we would have gotten a Dead Space 4 that was even more removed from what made this franchise great in the first place. All we’re left with is a game which betrays everything we liked about Dead Space to begin with and ends the series on a truly sour note.
Welcome back to the next entry in the Dead Space Love/Hate series. Today we’re going to be looking at Dead Space 2, which is probably my favourite entry in the franchise and straight-up one of my favourite games ever. That said, there are still things that bother me even in my favourite games, so let’s get into them…
Builds On The First Game’s Strengths – For the most part Dead Space 2 plays like the first game did, but better. There’s more of everything – more enemies, more weapons, more varied encounters, more intensity, more polish, etc. It doesn’t take any huge leaps forward but it doesn’t need to – it takes an already solid foundation and just makes it better in every way.
Balance of Horror and Action – A lot of people say that Dead Space 2 isn’t nearly as scary as the first game, but I disagree. While Dead Space 2 has a bit more action, it still balances this with intense encounters and a pervasive scary atmosphere. Just as much as the first game you’re having to balance your sparse reserves of health and ammo and plan out how you’re going to survive every encounter. Big set-pieces like the Tormentor fight are still intense and terrifying and to this day I can remember moments of horror like fighting my way through the necromorph infested school.
Isaac Speaks! – Dead Space 2 really drives home how much Isaac Clarke’s silent protagonist turn in the first game was a mistake, because he displays so much more personality here. It opens up so much more opportunity to interact and react to the world around you. It also makes it easier to show off his personality and the influence that the marker is having on his sanity.
Story Is Improved – One area where Dead Space 2 excels over its predecessor is its much more interesting story progression. Kicking off in one of the most viscerally-memorable opening sequences I’ve ever experienced in a game, Dead Space 2 throws you into the middle of an active necromorph outbreak as Earthgov and the Church of Unitology fight over control of Isaac. Meanwhile, Isaac is just trying to figure out how to destroy the marker and survive, while being taunted by haunting visions of his deceased girlfriend, Nicole, as his sanity is ripped away. It makes for a far more interesting narrative than the relatively simple “bitch work” in the first game. The story even explores some deeper themes, showing the toll that grief takes on the mind and the process of overcoming it.
New Enemies Are Amazing – Dead Space 2 introduces several new and iconic enemies to the series, making combat encounters even more varied than they were before. The best is by far the Stalkers, velociraptor-like necromorphs that hunt in packs, peeking out around corners at you and running away to find the best place to get a sneaky flank on. Hearing one of these things letting out their charge-scream when you don’t know where it is coming from is panic-inducing. Pukers are also very iconic enemies, to the point where I had completely forgotten that they weren’t in the first game. Their corrosive and slowing projectile vomit attacks can create really tense problems for Isaac if they aren’t managed carefully and getting too close is a potential death sentence. The Pack and Crawlers are also great enemies and terrifying reminders that the necromorphs are merciless, wiping out all living beings regardless of their age.
New Weapons Add More Variety – There are three new weapons in Dead Space 2, adding more ways to dismember necromorphs. Of these, by far the coolest is the javelin gun, a weapon which shoots out huge javelins which can impale necromorphs and pin them to walls and, to add insult to injury, be electrocuted for additional damage. The detonator is also cool, acting as a grenade launcher that can be used to set traps around the environment. Finally, the seeker rifle is effectively a powerful battle rifle, allowing you to fire at distant enemies with greater precision. Furthermore, old weapons have been rebalanced to make them more useful, such as the pulse rifle gaining a far more useful grenade launcher alt-fire mode. The flamethrower’s still pretty meh though.
Free Movement in Zero-G – The space sections of Dead Space felt gimmicky, but the feature is fully fleshed out in Dead Space 2, allowing you full ability to move and shoot in zero gravity. Put simply, it makes these sequences much more exciting and fun to play through.
Severed DLC – The Severed story DLC for Dead Space 2 is such a mixed bag of glorious highs and disappointing lows. One the plus side: holy shit, it’s a bite-sized narrative sequel to Dead Space: Extraction! It gives us even more of Dead Space 2‘s fantastic gameplay! We get some really interesting lore for the factions in the Dead Space universe! Twitchers are back! But on the disappointing side… it’s barely an hour long (for ~$7)! Lexine’s back and gets screwed over even harder than in Dead Space: Extraction (she’s shunted into a relationship with Gabe, despite both of them not getting along at all in Extraction, and spends the entire game being damselled despite once again being the most important person in the Dead Space universe)! Ultimately, it’s more Dead Space 2 so it’s worth it for me, but I can’t help but wish it was its own fully fleshed-out experience.
Obligatory Multiplayer – Like many AAA games of the era, Dead Space 2 has a tacked-on multiplayer mode that no one wanted or asked for, which exists purely to extend player engagement and sell multiplayer DLC packs. Don’t get me wrong, there are tacked-on multiplayer modes from this era which were surprisingly fun, such as Metal Gear Online and The Last of Us, but that was because they offered some sort of fun unique experience that you couldn’t get elsewhere. While the concept of playing as a necromorph is enticing, it is ultimately just not very fun to play and struggles to justify the mode’s existence. Like… if I’m playing Dead Space 2, I’m there for the story mode. There’s nothing here to keep me interested.
Hard Core Mode is BRUTAL – I don’t bother to go for Platinum trophies unless I really enjoy a game, so the fact that I went for it on Dead Space 2 should show how much I was dedicated to the pursuit. To this day there is only one roadblock keeping me from the Platinum – beat the game in Hard Core mode. Can’t be that bad, right? I soldiered through Zealot mode no problem, what more can the game throw at me? How about beating the game on Hard but with only 3 saves to get you through the whole 6+ hour runtime of the game? So not only do you have to plan out the points you save ahead of time, but if you reach that point and your health/ammo are low? Too bad, you’re screwed. Oh, you died? Say good bye to an hour and a half of gameplay! And don’t even think about having a life, you have to dedicate it to this game solely if you want to earn this trophy. Seriously, I just don’t have the time to throw myself into this mode and deal with the frustration that it demands just to get a digital trophy. The fact that even 6% of players have beaten the game on this difficulty is insane to me.
Final Boss Fight… Again – Once again the final boss fight in a Dead Space game is questionable. After blasting through hordes of enemies and barely surviving the regenerating ubermorph, Isaac reaches the marker and gets dragged into a hallucination where he has to fight off Nicole, necromorphs and damage the marker. Do this three times and convergence is stopped… because the marker’s creator has to be absorbed in order for it to work? What? The marker is destroyed because he managed to literally overcome his grief? It’s better than the original Dead Space‘s ending and it makes sense thematically, but it’s a weird-ass way to defeat the final boss for an otherwise straightforward game like this and just makes the lore around markers convoluted… Okay, that’s a bit of a nit-picky hate, but seriously, this game is just so damn good.
For the second entry in the Dead Space Love/Hate series, we have Dead Space: Extraction, the shockingly good rail shooter spinoff for the Wii… like, just typing that out makes it even more surprising that this game is as good as it is. I played this when it was ported to the PS3 alongside Dead Space 2 and had a great time with it. That said, for everything I love there are always things to hate – let’s take a look at the breakdown.
Wisely Translates Dead Space to Motion Controls – The Wii had a terrible track record of nigh-unplayable ports which were marred from the system’s underpowered specs and reliance on motion controls. Rather than try to put a lesser version of the original game onto the Wii, the devs at Visceral Games wisely chose to make a brand new experience from the ground up. This allows Extraction to provide a fun experience well worth checking out for fans of the first game and exist on its own merits at the same time. It also manages to keep the horror elements mostly intact, providing plenty of build-up before confrontations and making running out of ammo terrifying as you get swarmed by necromorphs.
Compelling Side-Story – Prequels and side-stories often struggle to justify themselves in video games, but Extraction has the benefit of being legitimately interesting. Dead Space‘s world was designed to be expanded upon and the events that took place on Aegis VII were only hinted at in the first game. The comics and movies cover this ground as well, but Extraction is the most comprehensive and engrossing version of what happened on Aegis VII and the Ishimura. As a result, it’s well worth playing for fans of the series and doesn’t suffer from demystifying the events that led up to Dead Space. It also helps that the mainline Dead Space games always happen long after or in the middle of necromorph outbreaks, so seeing one from the very beginning provides a very different and just as compelling experience.
Action Reloads – In addition to all its changes as a result of adapting to the Wii’s hardware, Extraction introduces action reloads to the series. It’s a small change but it is so satisfying to pull these off consistently (that sound effect is pure bliss) and necessary to survive the swarms of enemies that come at you. Fumbling an action reload can be a horror unto itself as you’re stuck reloading those extra moments while a necromorph is bearing down on you.
Enjoyable Characters – Extraction spends a lot of time just letting you get to know the characters and having them interact with one another. They’re all fairly stock characters (Nathan’s a detective, Gabe’s a soldier, Lexine is the over-her-head civilian and Warren’s the executive company man), but the amount of time we get to spend with everyone makes them grow on you and there are a few twists and turns as it goes along. Lexine in particular has a fascinating secret which I wish would have been explored further in Dead Space 3 or 4.
Pacing – Rail shooters tend to conjure up images of endless bullet-fests, but Extraction tends to take its time between confrontations, building up the characters, atmosphere and tension instead. While this ultimately makes for a better experience in my opinion, it’s undeniable that you’re going to need patience because Extraction can take a long time to get from place to place, moreso than any of the mainline games in the series.
Voice Acting is Spotty – As much as I enjoy the characters and interactions in this game, and as great as Laura Pyper’s Irish accent is, it’s hard to deny that the voice acting is questionable at times. Whether it’s weird delivery or bad acting, every single main character suffers from this at some point. It’s not constant and it’s not a crippling issue, but it does make the game’s emphasis on the characters awkward at times.
Poor Graphics – I get that Extraction is a Wii game so Visceral had to work with what they could, but the game still looks really rough, especially in the HD PS3 port. I think that a lot of the game’s assets are recycled from Dead Space, but scaled down so that we’re stuck with really muddy textures. The bodies of dead necromorphs also immediately dissolve, which I can only imagine is related to the Wii’s underpowered tech. That said, at least the framerate is silky smooth in the PS3 port (can’t confirm whether this carries over to the Wii version), which is important since the whole game is in first person with a lot of head-bobbing. A sub-60fps would be nigh unplayable so while the graphics are bad at least the game’s still very enjoyable in spite of this.
Seriously, Another Asteroid Shooting Gallery? – One of the universal complaints about the first Dead Space is that the section where Isaac has to man a cannon and shoot asteroids is the worst part of the game. So what do they do in Extraction? Why, they added another shooting gallery as you approach the Ishimura! It’s just as bad as it was in Dead Space and judging the distances of incoming projectiles is unforgiving.
The Objectification of Lexine – Like I said earlier, Lexine is probably the most fascinating character in the game. Everyone else is an archetype, but she gets at least a bit more potential in that she’s a civilian who’s caught up in all of this mess and has to make the most of it. The fact that she’s immune to the Marker signal and causes the people around her to be as well also makes her potentially the most important character in all of the Dead Space universe, brimming with story potential. So what does Extraction do with her? Well, within a minute of the game starting she’s getting overt sex comments from her boyfriend. That’s innocuous enough, but then it’s implied that Nathan McNeil keeps her around because he wants to seduce her, he stares at her ass at one point, he stares at her during one scene when she’s gratuitously naked and she needs to be rescued on several occasions. When you add it all up, Lexine’s portrayal turns her into a damsel and sex object. None of the other characters get this sort of treatment and it sucks.
Rushed Ending – The ending of Extraction is strangely rushed and sudden. After the survivors escape the Ishimura, suddenly the screen fades to a necromorph POV which attacks Lexine… and that’s it. Did a necromorph sneak on board the ship? Did they survive? It’s so ambiguous that Word of God had to step in and reveal that this necromorph was Nathan McNeil, who somehow got infected and transformed on the ship as they got away. We now know that Gabe and Lexine survived, but there’s no way to know this based on the way Extraction ends.
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.