I’m always a good while behind the times when it comes to games, often picking them up a year or more after release. I tend to regard them as a treat, a reward for completing a story or finishing a draft, to be indulged only occasionally due to the huge amount of time they suck up. My most recent gaming reward was Dead Space (Visceral Games 2008).
Ah Space, cold empty space, where no one can hear you scream, or dismember astrozombies with a variety of power tools. The isolation, paranoia and inherent danger conjured by the human imagination when considering future sojourns across the inky blackness between worlds has long been a staple of horror based science-fiction. Films like Alien and Event Horizon envisage a uber-industrialised future where technology reliant humans are almost defenseless against unforeseen alien threats. Dead Space occupies the same aesthetic template, a future of deeply shadowed walk-ways, harsh fluorescent lighting, brutally functional technology and cavernous interiors.
Players are cast in the role of Isaac, an operative on a search and rescue ship sent to investigate the sudden loss of communication with the gargantuan mining vessel Ishiguro. It should come as no surprise that BAD THINGS have happened aboard the Ishiguro and Isaac is soon plunged into a battle for survival. Guided by two bickering and distrustful fellow crew members who may, or may not, know more than they seem, you fight your way from one corpse strewn deck to another, completing repair missions and dispatching hordes of former crew members now transformed by an alien contagion into ravenous rage filled monsters dubbed necromorphs (because ‘space zombie’ is a little cheesy).
As you would expect in this type of game various weapons are on offer, each wreaking a different type of carnage. My favourite is the power saw, useful when selectively dismembering attackers or cutting them off at the knees with a single shot. There’s also the stasis field, with which enemies and malfunctioning ship components can be placed in slow-mo time warp, and the Kinesis module which allows you to interact with useful objects, ah la the gravity gun in Half-Life. The action is also enlivened by Isaac’s repeated forays into micro-gravity environments or the airless exterior of the ship, where you are obliged to engage in dizzying jumps from one surface to another with a constantly shifting sense of up and down.
Where Dead Space succeeds is in creating an atmosphere of unease and desperation. The gore is graphically rendered, at least on a PS3, and body parts fly around with happy abandon taking full advantage of the physics engines available to modern game developers. Whilst those less attuned to the horror-survival genre may find this level of splatter prurient or excessive, it certainly adds to the impression of constant threat that pervades the game. Equally disturbing are the occasional encounters with crew members driven mad by the horrors they’ve witnessed. In one scene a doctor cuts her own throat as you watch helplessly from behind a glass wall. In another, you find an insane woman weeping in a corridor. She just stands there wailing in terror, not reacting to your presence and there’s an uncomfortable moment as you consider using your plasma cutter to put her out of her misery. Heightening the sense of knife-edge survival is the fact that Isaac is rarely at full health, often shambling along and groaning in pain, and frequently has barely sufficient ammunition to complete the next objective. Whilst this ensures a challenging gaming experience it can also bring some levels close to crossing the line from difficult to pointlessly annoying and repetitive. There are only so many times to you can saw a particularly nasty space-beastie into bloody chunks, only for his hitherto unseen mates push you in a corner and tear you to pieces, before it starts to grate.
This aside Dead Space is highly recommended and the sequel tagged as high priority on my Lovefilm list.