VIDEO: The trailer for Dead Space
In a survival horror game, the setting is everything. Dead Space has a good one. You play as Isaac Clarke, member of a three-man rescue team sent to answer a distress call from the deep-space mining vessel Ishimura. He arrives to find the ship deserted by its crew, and crawling with hordes of unholy beasts. No, the premise isn’t terribly original, and neither are the events that follow. But the developers have done a superb job of grounding the story line in convincing physical space, and that makes all the difference.
The claustrophobic, monochromatic corridors of the Ishimura are not anything we haven’t seen before. Compare Dead Space to two of its obvious influences: its corners aren’t stuffed with revealing details, like the city of Rapture in BioShock, and neither does the ship itself seem like a sentient foe, as was the case in both System Shock games. The Ishimura is laid out in a utilitarian style, built from prefabricated parts that seem purely functional. People worked here, even if you don’t get the sense that anybody once lived here.
The game’s stroke of genius is to integrate usually player-specific gameplay elements, like Isaac’s heads-up display, into the game world. When you check Isaac’s map or inventory, you’ll see the holograms of the appropriate images projected in front of him. The effect is to eliminate the security a player usually feels while accessing menus. Isaac can find himself attacked while scouting his route or watching a video transmission from a crewmate. It’s a sneaky — and brilliant — way to shred one of the few safety nets a player has in the typical survival horror game.
Despite that innovation, or perhaps because of it, the bulk of Dead Space’s gameplay seems all too formulaic. Grinding through one tight corridor after another tends to undercut the sensation that you’re adrift in deep space. Occasional interludes in zero gravity or the vacuum of space are terrifying — not because there are icky monsters crawling everywhere, but for the suffocating sensation of isolation they impose. The single most memorable moment of the game isn’t a boss battle; it’s a mad dash across the hull of the ship, in dead silence, as Isaac’s air is running out.
Otherwise, the horror experience hits the same note over and over. The monsters — gruesome, writhing things called Necromorphs — keep bursting out of vents at inopportune times. Their limbs are more vulnerable to your weapons than are their bodies, so dismemberment is the key to victory. After a skirmish, Isaac stands knee-deep in body parts. Despite the grotesque æsthetics, it all plays out like a standard shooter. A few boss battles are massive in scale, but almost all of them are based on the old stand-by of shooting your foe’s glowing weak spots. Even a zero-G duel against one massive beast doesn’t ask you to do much more than aim and fire.
You may jump in fright often when playing Dead Space. You won’t feel that sense of building dread — of true horror. Partly that’s due to a lack of the psychological depth that marks the genre’s best games. Isaac spends most of his time running around fixing things for other characters. Despite hints that he had a former lover on board the Ishimura, we never get a sense that anything is at stake for him beyond the obvious. By the time a story line develops, it’s too little, too late, and capped by a truly cheap ending. Still, Dead Space succeeds as a polished, entertaining shooter. It’s engaging from beginning to end. It’s just not a new entry in the pantheon of survival horror.