With EA’s recent announcement to shut down Visceral Games (Kotaku) I thought there was no better time to talk about the original Dead Space. It all started when a team from EA Redwood Shores decided they wanted to make their own Resident Evil 4. It’s understandable given that Resident Evil 4 is considered by many to be not only the best game in the series but arguably the best game of its generation. The team set out to make a sci-fi horror game that would chill players to the bone. After years of work, Dead Space finally released in October of 2008 and proved that EA was as big a player in horror as anyone.
Dead Space starts off fairly unassuming. You’re Isaac Clarke, an engineer sent in to repair the communications on the USG Ishimura. The mining vessel went silent after cracking open Aegis VII and you’re to bring her back up to snuff. Things don’t start off well when your ship crash lands onto the Ishimura, only adding to your problems. As you begin to assess the damage, you find what appears to be a…trail of…blood? What happened here? Why does it appear that every important ship function has been compromised in some way? Where is this supposed thousand strong crew? Why did the room go into lockdown….and what the hell is that noise? Is that…in the vents? What the….HOLY SHIT!!!!!
Some…creature drops from the vent behind you as your crewmates seem to be firing away at another in the other room. Over the comms, one of them yells, “Isaac, run!” Defenseless and horrified, you run down the hallway, looking for anything to defend yourself. More of the creatures appear, bursting from the air ducts with their scythe-like appendages. In the distance, an elevator! If you can only make it! As you frantically enter, the creatures seem to give up their chase…UNTIL SUDDENLY ONE TRIES TO RIP OPEN THE DOORS TO THE ELEVATOR OH GOD WHY?!?!?!
Luckily the fearless elevator slams its doors shut, ripping apart the creature and leaving a few limbs behind to accompany you. When you reach the bottom, the game begins to display some of what makes it special. As you hear what sounds like (and certainly is) someone banging on the nearby closed door begging for help, you are introduced to the plasma cutter. What would normally be little more than your average mining tool in normal circumstances, the plasma cutter is arguably the game’s best weapon. As you look above it, the words “cut off their limbs” is written in what appears to be (and certainly is) blood. You then learn the plasma cutter has the ability to fire vertically and horizontally. This will come in handy when you open that door and find that OH THAT POOR MAN, HE’S BEING RIPPED TO SHREDS. SOMEONE SHOULD DO SOMETH…OH RIGHT!
With your trusty plasma cutter, you’re ready to take down that creature. Except, just shooting it doesn’t seem to be doing enough. Sure you can take it down, but there has to be an easier way. That thing nearly took your head off. Wait a minute, what if you aim for its head….oh, oh no. That just makes it flail around in your general direction with reckless abandon. No, that won’t do. What if….what if we flipped it to vertical and shot off its arms? Oh, then we can flip it back to horizontal and take off its head in one clean blow. Nothing to flail at me now, and…oh wow, he died pretty easy that way. Oh and this nearby audio recording just reinforced what that bloody wall said, maybe it was his blood? He seems like a nice guy.
Strategic dismemberment is the name of the game, and it was everything in Dead Space. It wasn’t just enough to blast away at your opponents, you had to pick them apart bit by bit until they weren’t able to get you even if they wanted to. Take out the legs to slow down the fast ones. Aim for the tentacles on the…babies…so they stop shooting little spiky things at you. It was a radical departure from other games at the time. This was the height of the FPS, the days when it was all about aim for the head and your problems go away, except that wasn’t enough in Dead Space. To master this system feels like being a god in a world of people with glass bones.
So now you’re shooting off the legs of hapless creatures, which by the way you now know are necromorphs, space zombies but wayyyyy cooler, and watch as they crawl toward you in a futile attempt to defy your newfound godhood. Now you’re the toughest sonofabitch on this station. Except, well, the room you’re in just went dark, and some kind of new necromorph was scurrying around above you. Maybe you shouldn’t get ahead of yourself and declare yourself a god just yet. In fact, how about we just never do that.
I could spend page after page detailing every step on your journey into the depths of the Ishimura, but for now, let’s just appreciate just how meticulously designed this ship is. It’s like in the future they watched the alien movies and based their ships off of that. While we have established elevators are fearless and don’t take shit from anyone, let alone necromorphs, and are therefore your only form of sanctuary, the rest of this lifeless vessel is full of dread. Light from the vents push shadows across the walls of the vessels while the spinning fans will sometimes cause a fearful twitch reaction as you swear you just saw something. With just enough lighting to help you find your way, but not quite enough to make out everything in the distance, it’s easy to fall into a few traps here and there that make sure you never feel as safe as you’d like to. It’s a terror wet dream for people who want to always feel that tension in the air.
The industrial design might wear out its welcome in a more traditional shooter, but the Ishimura remains thrilling despite some backtracking as the game progresses. Every time you return to an area of the ship, things have taken a turn for the worse. Fleshy growths cover the walls and floor to slow your steps, while other areas are plagued by poisonous gasses. Others feature entirely new and different threats the likes of which you were never prepared for. Massive necromorphs that can rip you in two, ones with clubs that explode all over you as they scream bloody murder. What Dead Space may ultimately lack in overall variety, it makes up for by nailing what it does to near perfection.
When it released, Dead Space was among the generation’s best-looking games, seemingly pushing the PS3 and 360 to their limits while still maintaining a solid framerate. I mentioned the lighting before as a horror element, but Dead Space was one of the first games I remember from that generation that really perfected lighting and its impact on the scene. Yeah, it made things scary, but it also set the scene and made the game look even better. The moist look of the fleshy growths and their subtle movement is gross but in a good way. Character models looked great and models moved well. Jank would have pulled the player out of the mood immediately, so it’s a good thing the devs seemed to spend more than enough time making sure things moved as well as they looked. They also made a particularly bold move by removing the in-game HUD. Want to see how many rounds are left in the clip? Aim your weapon and a hologram will show you. Want to see how much is left after that? Pull up your inventory. Need to see how much health you have left? Look no further than the big colored bar on Isaac’s back. It was eloquent, and it kep the focus right where it should be. No distracting ammo counters or bars cluttering the screen. It enhanced the cinematic feeling of the game, again keeping you in the moment as much as possible.
As good as the game looked, it was the sound design that truly stole the show. At this point, Dead Space is starting to show a bit of its age visually, not being as crisp as many other modern games, but in the realm of sound design few games can claim to be as masterful. Much of what makes Dead Space great are the moments where it’s just you and the heavy breaths of Isaac. The metallic effect on the voice combined with the subtle sounds of rustling in the distant vents and the sounds of the ship itself as it shifts positions floating in space are a treat for the ears. Then there are the moments when the game gets loud. The moments where the robotic voice states that “Quarantine is now in effect,” and the yellow flashing lights are all you have to go by. Dead Space is a master of positional audio, a game truly built for surround sound. The growls and gurgles, as well as the rustling in the vents just before the necromorphs burst through create an additional level of tension and dread. It’s not just knowing they’re there, it’s hearing them. It’s thinking the room is clear only to hear one final foe shuffle up behind you forcing you to turn in a panic lest your life end right there and then.
Dead Space is, in my humble opinion, a masterwork of survival horror. There’s so much I haven’t even touched on such as some of the game’s more subtle mechanics. There’s also the fantastic story that urges you on through the scares because you just have to know what is going to happen next. I realize this is going to sound extreme, but I consider Dead Space to be the Bioshock of survival horror games, but with a better final act. This is a game that has it all, knows what it is, does it to near perfection, and never shies away or tries to be something it isn’t. There is a reason there were two sequels, and there’s an even bigger reason why those sequels never lived up to this original. Dead Space is lightning in a bottle, and with the current rising style of first-person horror games, as well as EA’s complete lack of desire to try and salvage the franchise, it’s unlikely we’ll see another game like it for the foreseeable future.