Dead Space Review: It’s Not Just the Space That’s Dead

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Dead Space is out today. But because I’m a member of the East Coast media elite, I’ve actually had a copy for a couple of weeks, which I’ve been playing whenever I’m not out rigging elections and manipulating the stock markets and such. Dead Space is an extremely intense, beautifully produced zombie-survival-horror-first-person-shooter type game, as you’ll see from the trailer:

There’s some irony to the fact that you’re shooting zombies, because this whole game is kind of zombie-like: it’s made up of parts of other games that have been roughly sutured together and then reanimated to form one monstrous whole.

First, the plot. You’re an engineer who’s paying a visit to a mining ship. On which it turns out that things have gone horribly horribly wrong. On arrival you find that it’s not so much the “space” that is “dead” as it is “everybody on the ship, and maybe your girlfriend too.” The culprit seems to be an alien race that kills people and then animates their bodies into hideous deformed zombies that scream and run at you. You and two lucky chums have the pleasure of figuring out what happened and not getting killed while you’re doing that.

So premise-wise you’re basically looking at a combination of System Shock and Alien. (One of your chums, I’m pretty sure, is going to turn out to have been sent by your employers to try to bring back a sample of the alien species for commercial exploitation, like Ash in Alien. Spoiler alert!)

Like the plot, the gameplay consists of good things scavenged from other places. You’ve got a gravity-gun type tool, as in Half-Life 2, and a time-slowdown tool, as in Max Payne. There’s some zero-grav combat à la Prey. (Overall, the feel of the action is very Doom 3-y.) There are vending kiosks just like in Bioshock. (Every time I use one I hear that slogan in my head: “Kill your cravings at the circus of value!”) There’s even bloody graffiti scrawled on the walls by survivors, just like in Portal. If it doesn’t say “the cake is a lie” somewhere in this ship I will be very disappointed.

There are some gameplay innovations in Dead Space, they just didn’t make a huge impression on me. One is that you’re not encouraged to score body hits on the zombies, you’re supposed to shoot their limbs off instead, which is harder. (Shoot their legs off and they sort of drag themselves toward you with their arms. You gotta admire their grit.) Also, if you get lost you can always call up a silvery trail that shows you how to get to your next objective, which saves you from wandering around too much.

But now that I’ve talked all kinds of smack, let me say this: Dead Space is a very fine game. The environments are gorgeous — the first time you walk into a zero-grav area, with trash and body parts floating lazily around you, you can’t believe you’re playing a current-gen console. It’s that beautiful. There’s some gorgeous work with light too — there are shifting, barred shadows everywhere. All the textures are crisp and spot on. There are some nice reveals and shocks, which I won’t spoil for you. The weapons are quite satisfying. This is FPS goodness.

Now, more complaints! It’s a bit dark for my taste. The zombies are seriously revolting — all twisted flesh and skinny arms, always screaming at you and such. And more than once you come across a crew member in the act of committing suicide, which is disturbing. And man, there’s a lot of blood. You can’t look at one of these dudes funny without them barfing out a bunch of plasma at you. And as in all games since the beginning of time, the camera sometimes sucks: you’re working in an over-the-shoulder POV, and in places the bulk of your own manly shoulders basically guarantees that you can’t see a damn thing.

Also — last complaint — you’re slow! You sort of lumber around, even in sprint mode. Oh, and you can’t jump. A couple of years ago I swore a mighty oath never to play another game where you have to walk around a six-inch bump in the floor because you can’t jump over it. I have blasphemed against that oath many times, but in my heart I feel it still.

But bottom line? I’d buy it. Originality is overrated.