torstai 30. kesäkuuta 2011

REVIEW - Dead Space (2008)

GENRE(S): Action / Survival horror
RELEASED: October 2008
DEVELOPER(S): EA Redwood Shores
PUBLISHER(S): Electronic Arts

If there is one game in history which came to us at the exact right time, it's Dead Space. Nearly two decades before Dead Space, the survival horror genre was born. Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil popularized the term, and it was the highly acclaimed Resident Evil that led to the insurgence of several survival horror franchises, most prolific of its followers being Silent Hill. During the 21st century, real survival horror games continued to be developed with very unstable critical and commercial success; Sony's Siren (a.k.a. Forbidden Siren) was an anticipated, extremely stylish game, but it was nearly unplayable. Tecmo's Fatal Frame (a.k.a. Project Zero) was greeted with critical acclaim, but bad sales because many people did not understand or simply like its unique gameplay - including yours truly. People thought they could always rely on Capcom and Konami to deliver the goods in the field of survival horror. They delivered the goods... but not survival horror. Resident Evil was the first franchise to change completely, from narrow corridors to wide open areas and hordes of brainwashed cultists instead of zombies and other monsters in Resident Evil 4 - a masterpiece, but only in the action genre. With Silent Hill Homecoming, the new developers of the franchise trashed many of the elements that always made Silent Hill a psychologically rattling and creepy experience, no matter how bad the games were - The Room had good atmosphere, but it was a bad game. Homecoming didn't even have atmosphere on its side. Many survival horror fans were left wondering: how can you mix the modern, action-packed gameplay of Resident Evil with the morbid, "too quiet" atmosphere of Silent Hill in its prime? Then came Dead Space and showed us what it means to be freaked out by a video game for the first time in years.

In space no one can hear you grunt

Tonantzin Carmelo : Kendra Daniels
K.G. Hertzler : Captain Benjamin Mathius
Iyari Limon : Nicole Brennan
Peter Mensah : Sgt. Zach Hammond
Navid Negahban : Dr. Challus Mercer
Keith Szarabajka : Dr. Terrence Kyne
Brian Bloom : Baily / Bram Neumann / Crew Member
Matt Kaminsky : Mining Supervisor Dallas / Game Show Announcer / Crew Member
Christopher Corey Smith : Commander Cadigan
Aimee Miles : Natalie Gauthier

It's the year 2508. USG Ishimura, the largest and most advanced "planet cracker" - a mining ship - sends out an enigmatic distress call to the CEC (Concordance Extraction Corporation) during what seems to be a standard mining operation on the planet Aegis VII. CEC sends out a team to investigate, and all they find is a seemingly abandoned ship with faulty electronics. Suddenly, the team is attacked by grotesque beings that appear to be half-humanoid, half-alien. Only three members of the team survive the initial onslaught - CEC Sergeant Zach Hammond, IT specialist Kendra Daniels and engineer Isaac Clarke, to whom finding out what happened on Ishimura is extremely important due to his girlfriend being a crew member. An escape attempt from the Ishimura utterly fails and Isaac gets separated from his allies. He finds himself surrounded by the abominable creatures, plagued by disturbing sights and swirling deeper into madness as he tries to find out the truth, and an alternate way to escape the ship.

I didn't even read any reviews of the game - I saw two or three screenshots, and I said to myself: I've GOT to get that game. When I did read the reviews, my hunger for the game grew. On Christmas 2008, it boiled down to two choices - LittleBigPlanet or Dead Space. Well, as I've mentioned before, my sister got me the first choice, but luckily my neighbor and good friend got both games. I finished Dead Space off this very extended borrowed time, but I still bought the game last summer, for many reasons. One, it's a game that simply belongs in my shelf with its atmosphere alone. Two, I was (and still am) going for the Platinum. Three, a brand new retail copy cost me less than ten euros. The GameStop clerk almost refused to sell me the game, because he was saving the last copy for himself - he didn't believe anyone was going to buy it, and the usually very calm and reserved clerk anxiously praised the game to high heaven right there. Did I agree with his praises of a masterpiece? No. As a game, Dead Space is a bit shy of a masterpiece - it has splinters which affect the gameplay and my take on it on a personal level. But it still is a damn good, creepy, spooky, scary game - right up there with the best in the genre.

Isaac's thoughts: "I have a pretty good feeling
some shit's gonna hit the fan."
The story of the game is just shameless. Event Horizon, Alien, The Thing - they've all been cited as primary influences to Dead Space by EA Redwood Shores, and it definitely shows. If you're a fan of sci-fi horror, I'm sure you keep picking up bits and pieces of all three movies in better and worse. Alien is one of my favourite movies of all time (although Aliens is even better), and there are not many moments in Dead Space that pass by without me thinking of it. Then again, when have you seen a good Alien game? Hell, when have you seen a good "survival sci-fi" game? The story of the game is still very solid; some holes are punched into it nearing the end, but it keeps you in a constant grip - despite a bad cast of characters. On paper, Isaac is an excellent protagonist. He's a throwback to the good old days of Silent Hill, when the main characters didn't have much to go on when it came to combat training. The game is designed so the player really feels like being in it, but there's one problem: Isaac does not say one word during the game. He just grunts. And screams. I find it very disturbing on a personal level. Also, there are no traditional cutscenes in the game apart from the opening and the closing ones. All NPC conv... excuse me, monologues, are part of the game itself. Isaac just watches and listens as characters speak to him, usually from behind a glass or via an uplink. He shows close to no reaction. It's the player's exclusive privilege to react to the game's events, Isaac just stands there.

The supporting characters in the game are nothing less of annoying. They're well scripted ones, but since Isaac never gets a say during the game, I think you can imagine that in turn, the supporting cast never shuts up. The game forces you to listen to them. You can't skip pseudo-cutscenes or real-time messages via the uplink, and each time you confront an important NPC behind a glass or whatever, all doors around you are locked until the NPC has finally shut his/her yap. I'll tell you more in just a bit.

Technically speaking, we've seen better graphics, of course we have, but the style of the game is just out of this world. Dozens of different nasty death animations are some of the game's most popular unique qualities within the Dead Space fanbase - I believe there are a few video collections of them out. I haven't seen a visually disturbing game quite like Dead Space since Silent Hill 3; huge ominous shadows without a proper source, wall writings in blood, blood trails that lead to dead ends, constantly flickering lights, crew members hanging from nooses, still barely living crew members that have poked their own eyes out in a fit of insanity... it's all there, and there's so much more. Of course, rooms with anti-gravity give full 3D a whole new meaning. Dead Space is an absolute treat to look at if you're a sci-fi horror buff, and the best thing is that it's one of the few current-gen games that truly look good from any type of TV screen. Say what you want about that, but usually, many details are lost without an HD screen. It's refreshing to see that a game that partly lives on graphical details doesn't lose that much when played from an old-school tube. Even the grimy results of cutting off the leg of a Necromorph stunned with stasis hit the spot without reserve.

Isaac's thoughts: "What crappy handwriting."
The sound effects rip another page off the big book of Silent Hill. There's not much music - the effects are what count, and they play all the time. There's not a quiet moment, there's always at least the sound of a broken gust of air coming from somewhere, which is quite symbolic in the game's case, as the Necromorph creatures usually hide in and move through the ventilation systems. At some key moments, there are these single strokes of an off-key violin to make you shit your leggings, screams, and some totally random noises such as screeching sounds and thuds. Once again I'm reminded of one certain room in Silent Hill 3 - I'll remember it forever. A darkened storage room with mannequins. There's nothing there, you just pass through, and when you get to the exit - *click* something drops on the floor. And something drops into your pants. Nothing happens. It's the sight of the mannequin and the totally random noise that disturb you - even worse is that the sound doesn't play on every playthrough. For the next 20 minutes, you think twice before going around corners. The simply unforgettable "knock-knock" scene in the restroom... on the first playthrough, I bit a huge gap into my lower lip and didn't even notice it before I stopped playing. I'm not here to talk about Silent Hill 3, though. Dead Space evokes similar emotions tens, if not even hundreds of times. It's a much larger game than you would imagine by looking at the ship's size - there's a lot of backtracking, I won't lie to you, but you won't really even notice it. Very often there's something new to welcome you back to hell.

Preventing the game's sound design from boldly raising the bar where no bar's been raised before, is lackluster voice acting. I don't know what the priority was in casting people; the face or talent. Dead Space wasn't the first game to have each main character modelled after his/her voice actor - to my knowledge, 24 was the first (you can correct me on that if you want, I'm very interested as you can probably tell). However, Dead Space is very often credited to be a unique game in that sense; nowadays, this procedure is very common. Aside from Peter Mensah, who's perhaps best known as the victim of Gerard Butler's infamous "THIS IS SPARTA!" kick in 300, and common supporting actor Keith Szarabajka, the cast list's full of unknowns who were probably hired for looking the parts. If we're going to be all technical about it, the voiceover work is not exactly bad, but it's very monotonic. Each message from Kendra sounds exactly the same even if the content was completely different. "Isaac... huhhhh... it's Kendra." "Isaac... aahhhh... it's Kendra." That chick loves to breathe heavily. And bitch about something. For the most part of the game, I was just waiting for her to drop dead. The worst part is she rarely gives you all the intel she has at once - meaning, she might contact you three times within five minutes. "Isaac... eehhhh..." Enough. Mensah is probably the worst actor in the bunch. His accent keeps breaking down all the time, and he has a few lines that almost put some of the favourite quotes from the original Resident Evil to shame - that's a true accomplishment! Guess what, Peter Mensah? ...This... is... SPARTAAAAA!!! Kick. Scream. Thud.

Button mapping in Dead Space is very unique, quite daring if you ask me, but surprisingly it works. All of the standard action buttons are in some form of mandatory use, so the left trigger button is used for running. This wouldn't work on any other but the Godfather engine which was used in Dead Space, I think. The square button is used for quick healing, the X for confirming case-specific actions, and the triangle is used to bring up the uniquely real-time inventory, log library and map. The left bumper (sorry if I'm offending someone of being stuck with the X-terms) is used as a universal aiming button - while you're pressing it, you can perform other actions. As per usual, the right bumper is used for shooting. The right trigger is used for an alternate attack which each weapon has. If you're not aiming, the right buttons are mapped for melee attacks. During aiming, you use square for stasis, the circle for kinesis (more about stasis and kinesis to come), and the X to reload your weapon. A single press of the right analog stick controls the deck navigation system; you're shown the route to your destination by a clear line that goes along the ground (I didn't figure this out before my third playthrough!), and each direction on the D-Pad changes your weapon. The whole damn controller is in fine use. This might all sound very confusing, a bit too confusing, but Dead Space is surprisingly easy and pleasant to play.

Isaac's thoughts: "Looks like rain. Oh, an asteroid
field. Well, it's a good thing they have these
conveniently placed covers then."
Some keen players might pay attention to the HUD right away - it's quite unique, since it's on Isaac himself, as a part of his technically advanced worksuit. His health meter goes along his spine, the stasis meter is right next to it as an add-on, the ammo counter's on his wrist, and during sequences in which you need the suit's oxygen tank, the air supply lights up just below Isaac's neck. Of course it only affects the game's style, but nicely so. What a unique idea to go with the deck navigation system I already mentioned. The holographic menu is also very unique. You can go to the menu at any time and continue your business as usual while navigating it. It's not always too practical, especially if you walk straight into a hornet's nest while managing your items, and if you happen to be of the panicking type. There's a real-time 3D map of the Ishimura in the menu too, which you can read the same time as you run or walk around, but I personally prefer the deck navigation system - which I indeed hadn't even noticed before yesterday, and I've been playing the game for nearly three years. This game is going to get a slightly better rating than I originally had in mind, all thanks to the DNS. It is THAT handy.

There are 12 chapters in the game, which consist of varied amounts of mission objectives. For the most part, your primary objective is to fix the Ishimura, as funny as it sounds like. What it means is that there's no immediate escape for you, so you might as well fix the ship's interior and exterior tram and defense systems to keep what's left of your crew safe, and at the same time, explore the whole hunk of junk to find out what exactly happened on the Ishimura, and who's responsible. Finally, Isaac has the serious personal issue of a missing girlfriend to boggle his already unstable mind. Isaac's skills in engineering are the aesthetic key to winning this game. Despite clearly being a quite disturbed individual, he has a brilliant mind for electronics and tinkering with weapons.

Let's talk about the weapons, 'cause they are some of the neatest weapons you've ever seen. The enemies in this game aren't some run-of-the-mill zombies you can just nail between the eyes and continue your journey. They're more like parasitic shells, meaning they have no brain for you to destroy. Even parasites cannot control bodies without limbs, so in this game, you target them - necks, arms and legs. Decapitating an enemy does not mean he's dead. Sometimes, it might not even be enough to decapitate him and bust one in both of his kneecaps. The game will inform you when it's over for a single enemy. Due to the game's fine art of dismemberment, the best weapons in this game are designed for precise cutting, but there are also some traditional ones.

Isaac's thoughts: "I knew Bin Laden was behind
Many people say that the Plasma Cutter, the first weapon you get in this game, is the best weapon in the whole game, and it's hard to argue with that. A Trophy even provokes you to beat the whole game by using the Plasma Cutter only. It's a small "pistol" used mainly for cutting wires, I think. The Line Gun is similar, but it has a radius wide enough to cut off both of the enemy's legs at once. The Pulse Rifle is a quite traditional assault rifle. The Force Gun and the Contact Beam are both weapons with high energy damage, and probably the hardest weapons to learn to use in full effect. The Flamethrower explains itself, and it's quite weak against large enemies, but great for swarms of tiny, annoying bastards. It also works surprisingly well on one certain recurring, moderately tough enemy - I didn't realize this before the third playthrough, either! Last but definitely not least, we have the nastiest weapon in the game - promptly called the Ripper. The name of the weapon tells stories, and using it tells a few sequels. It's probably my personal favourite in the bunch. I'm sure you know what a circular saw looks like. Imagine a remote controlled one. You shoot one single blade, and you can control it yourself for a duration defined by the Ripper's current upgrade level, until your enemy is out of limbs, and there's a LOT of blood on the floor. "Hey, Kendra, you wanted a sample of the creature's DNA? Take a look on Deck 2. The walls've got all the samples you need." "Isaac... uuhhhh... stop playing with the Ripper!" Each weapon has an alternate attack that can prove to be very useful, or utterly useless. I can pretty much bet you will find that changing the orientation of the Cutter from time to time and using the timed mines of the Line Gun will save your sorry ass a few specific times.

Ishimura's systems are fucked up to the point that Isaac's natural talent as an engineer is not enough. Both of Isaac's special abilities and situations outside of the margin are introduced rather quickly into the game. First up, stasis. You can use this to slow down machinery, haywire doors and lifts, even enemies - stasis will prove to be your life insurance on numerous occasions towards the end of the game as the enemies become bigger and faster, I assure you. It can be reloaded at conveniently placed Stasis Recharge stations, or manually with Stasis Packs. Kinesis is just as essential when it comes to fixing stuff and simply fucking around; I don't usually use it in combat. Kinesis is easy to explain: you can move stuff with it, any stuff that isn't bolted on the floor. Think of the Force Grip from any Star Wars media franchise. Yes, you can also use kinesis to shoot the stuff at enemies, in case you're out of ammo or something like that - portable fuel tanks, furniture, dead bodies, hell, even the body parts of their fallen brethren.

Kendra: "Isaac... eehhhh... be careful. There's a
boss in there with you." Isaac's thoughts: "No
shit, woman! It's spread all across the wall!"
Finally, there are two different types of spaces besides the normal, breathable atmosphere; areas with zero gravity and vacuums. Zero gravity's fun as you are granted permission to jump around anywhere in the room in 360 degrees, but it's also a bit clumsy; sometimes, you need to look spots you're allowed to jump on for ages. Fighting in zero gravity is not very fun, as the enemies can move anywhere just like you, and the camera takes good care that you will pop a vein while trying to track down one of those tiny, tentacle-headed, rocket-shooting bastards in zero gravity. Inside vacuums, you have a strict time limit to take into account before you ditch your route and go exploring too much. You can replenish your oxygen at Oxygen Stations, and with portable air cans.

You use workbenches designed for circuit repair to upgrade not just your weapons, but also your RIG, which determines your oxygen and maximum health level, and your Stasis Module, which is used to adjust the duration of the stasis. Upgrading all your weapons and equipment to the hilt with rare Power Nodes in a style very reminiscent of the character development system in Final Fantasy X, takes about two and a half playthroughs. I know it for sure, since I just did it an hour ago. It's a little too long, I think; I would've gladly digested one and a half playthroughs. I'll tell you later why it's so tedious - it's a bit hard to explain, but I'll try. The Store is directly related to the workbench, since you can buy the Power Nodes you need for upgrading equipment from there, in addition to searching for them. They're 10,000 credits each, though - they're not really worth it on the first playthrough. Downloadable suits and weapon skins can be collected from the Store free of charge. You can also sell items and weapons, of course, and place everything you don't need inside a safe. To be able to buy certain items from the Store, you must find the schematics for them first.

There aren't many different schematics. The most important collectable items in the game are those Power Nodes, all points considered, but there are also video, audio and text logs hidden all over the ship for those truly interested in the story to find and enjoy. I'm actually still missing a few, although I thought I've searched every corner of the Ishimura. I even found the fabled Peng treasure by accident!

Isaac's thoughts: "I really hope that thing's not
my girlfriend."
Every element I've mentioned so far is one of Dead Space's best qualities. Then come the ugly spots. First, the save and checkpoint systems suck ass. You cannot skip any speeches or anything reminiscent of a cutscene, not even on consequent tries - good luck in keeping your arteries intact in the final boss. On the top of that, the loading times last forever; luckily the game only loads between deaths and respawns, and chapters. The precision of the checkpoints varies by a humongous lot. Sometimes, you start right where you left off, but at other times, you need to start whole sequences again, and they might consist of two confrontations with NPC's, three to four waves of enemies, and several stasis/kinesis bits. Then, at some point you might figure that hey, perhaps you can collect all those items ahead of you, return to save the game again before the wave, and then return to the checkpoint, maybe you will at least get to keep those items if you happen to die again. Well, yes, that works, but guess what? You will no longer start from the checkpoint, instead you'll be taken all the way back to the save point. Retarded, much?

It pains me to say this since I managed for 18 years without a Trophy/Achievement system, but it is the worst part of Dead Space. Like I mentioned before, I am going for the Platinum, but that doesn't mean I like the build-up. I've finished the game three times now, and I have 79% of the Trophies. Two more Golds would raise my percentage to 97%. What's left besides those? Two Bronzes. BRONZES, which are probably the hardest Trophies to get in the whole game, and simply because they're mostly dependent on luck. That's not why I hate the Trophies, but the fact that if you want to get all of the Trophies without having to see the game through for a million times, you pretty much have to play on Hard from the beginning. For my best friend, that would be no problem at all; he has this belief that Hard always determines the game's true difficulty level, to him Hard equals Normal. It wouldn't be a problem for me either, but the truth is that Dead Space is not an easy game to begin with. You pretty much need that Medium difficulty to test yourself and see what the game has in store before jumping straight into Hard and getting your ass raped by it.

Isaac's thoughts: "Its limbs just grew back. What
would MacGyver do?"
Equipment transfers to your next playthrough, but only within one difficulty level. So, you beat the game on Medium. You couldn't upgrade all of your stuff. You want to go at the game on Hard. Well, you have to start from scratch on Hard; the only way for you to upgrade your old stuff is to beat the game on Medium again, plus four more chapters on a third Medium playthrough. Then, you can start a new game on Hard, to finally unlock the Impossible difficulty setting, and beat that one to finally gain the Epic Tier 3 Engineer Trophy. They could've at least let us unlock Impossible just by beating the game once on any setting. I pretty much have to face the facts: three playthroughs were fine, but I don't have the energy, or the interest in taking on Dead Space not once, but twice more, on these kind of difficulty levels since even the Medium's not a walk in the park. I still haven't got the One Gun Trophy, for God's sake, and I don't believe that's even possible to get without beating the game on the lower levels! But, as far as the record goes, I'm still trying. And perhaps I really will, not in the near future though.

Even with its annoying design problems and a retarded minigame that just doesn't belong (and isn't worth a bigger mention than this), Dead Space is a great survival horror game, and the main thing that makes it so great is that it came like lightning from the blue sky and struck a vein that hadn't been properly exploited in five years. If you don't like sci-fi, that's OK. However, if you do like survival horror, Dead Space is a game you simply must play and see to the end, no matter how tiring it might get at its worst, and no matter how much the characters might get on your nerves.

SOUND : 8.9


GameRankings: 85.84% (PC), 89.07% (PS3), 88.96% (X360)

British comic book artist and avid player, Warren Ellis, was involved in the very early stages of the game's development.

The game was originally intended to be one of the last titles developed for the original Xbox.

Isaac Clarke is named after sci-fi authors Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

The critically acclaimed Italian horror director Dario Argento voices Terrence Kyne in the Italian version of the game.

Supervisor Dallas is named after the male protagonist of the original Alien.

Unitology, a fictional religion in the Dead Space universe, was partly inspired by Scientology.

The first letters of the 12 chapters reveal a very important plot point when combined (a spoiler to those who haven't finished the game).

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