Clunk. If Dead Space is about anything, it’s about clunk, that faintly-metallic, ponderous and definitely loud sound. Perhaps it’s near, perhaps it’s far away, but it is most certainly a clunk.
Clunk go distant echoes in air vents, ominous noises from the other side of that thin wall that, now you think about it, didn’t used to have that hole in it. You play Isaac, the ship engineer part of a three-person rescue outfit, sent to investigate a spaceship that’s gone dark. At this point I would obviously think “Aliens” but these guys are caught completely off guard by the sudden realisation that it was, in fact, aliens. The spaceship is dark and brooding and does a good job of projecting a feeling of immensity and menace. Though you’re basically following a straight line, it is a well-orchestrated straight line that maintains that illusion.
Clunk goes your plasma cutter, the weapon that Isaac starts out with, a meaty device. It fires a line of particles and the big difference to a normal shooter is that you’re not going for heads. If you want to kill these aliens quickly then you have to remove their limbs. You have to get out of the habit of instinctively clicking on the head and instead make sure your line is properly severing those little bandy legs of the bounding buglike monster heading at you. They attack swiftly, you aim and attack slowly, so you’re constantly looking around, trying to ensure you have line of sight on all the approaches. They take several hits, even if you do blast off the arms and legs first time. You’re very much aware that you are the weaker one, and the only way you’re not going to get overwhelmed is by being prepared.
Not all of the available weapons are similarly heavy engineering tools, so I recommend you meet the game halfway and limit yourself to the cutter and the ripper, which sends out a rotating buzzsaw a few feet in front of you. As a buzzsaw matador you’re seeking to scrape the enemy’s shins as they bounce towards you, before swinging it upwards to finish them off. There’s other things as well but those two keep combat close, personal and visceral, and mean you’re constantly being backed into a corner, swinging your rotating edge around desperately to stop them getting closer.
Clunk go the spindly scuttling man-sized things that you are fighting, bursting out of air vents, jumping off the ceiling, emerging from the floor. The game is intense, certainly, I couldn’t take it more than a chapter at a time without having to take a break, and more than once I was left at the end of a fight surrounded by twitching corpses, breathless. It is a monster-jump form of terror rather than a building psychological one, though. The aliens are made out of bits of human spliced back together with extra tentacles and so they ain’t great to look at but they’re not spiders, they’re not snakes, they’re not terrifying in their own right.
There’s a variety of the bastards, though mainly differently stretched takes on the same mantis template. What I did like was that there were very few novelty fights, very few incidents where you’d need to learn a whole new way of attacking. That simple thing – go for the legs and arms – that stayed true throughout the game, and they just changed the size or the position of the arms and legs. Okay occasionally you had to shoot bright yellow weakspots too, but not often.
Clunk go your boots, heavy and destructive. Despite the fact you’re on a spaceship and that spaceship is undoubtably filled with alien monstrosities, Isaac isn’t going to be bothering with stealth today, he’s going to march around in his hobnailed boots, kicking up a racket. As you shuffle around, you boots bounce everything that they hit, knocking back furniture and pushing around corpses. A large part of the atmosphere is that you’re never really sure if that noise you heard was from you bumping into a table or…an alien bumping into a table. So you spin around, slowly, looking for the abomination and yeah nine times out of ten it turns out to be your clumsy feet. I like that.
Isaac doesn’t move fast, though he can break into a sort of almost-jog when startled. If he wants to be safe, if he wants to be able to react in time, he’s going to walk. If he sees something he doesn’t like, he’s going to stamp on it, hard. The stamping animation was the first thing that endeared me to Dead Space, as Isaac lets out a mighty war cry and throws his whole frame into squishing whatever is there. This is not just a nice animation, it’s a necessity for survival, as the aliens you fight have this delightful habit of playing dead from time to time. Rather than waste ammo on possible corpses, just go over there and splatter their goo all over your size tens. I found it very cathartic after clearing a room to jog around doing this, screaming obscenities at that giant fucking burnt mantis who’d attempted to disembowel me.
Clunky goes the interface, at least at first. The view is third person, but rather than being directly behind your head it’s about a metre to the right. This is….disconcerting, the visible arc is now much narrower and you’re far less aware of your environment, constantly having to scan painstakingly in both directions before you’re sure an area is clear. This is good for heightening tension but can be bad for headaches, I’ve spoken to more than one person who found the combination of viewpoint and blur downright nauseating (indeed so did I on my previous computer), but you do get used to it. Controls are badly explained, but you get used to it. What I did like was how everything was kept in-game, even when you’re accessing a shop menu it’s something that pops up in front of you, you can still get attacked while selling your surplus ammo. Your health is shown by a bar on your suit, so is your air supply. It may not exactly be realistic or practical but it is immersive.
You know what, in a lot of ways it’s similar to Bioshock 2, which I suppose makes sense as they’re both ultimately following on from System Shock. You’re the same slow-moving man in a tin can sifting through the residue of the apocalypse on a self-contained environment. There’s the same nightmarish mockeries of men swarming over the place and the same iterative improvement of your equipment to deal with them. Where it differs is the atmosphere. Where Bioshock was incongruous, Dead Space is mostly consistent. The plot feels so much more natural, to me. Stabilise the gravity centrifuges, restart the fuel pumps, sort out the air filtration, send out a distress beacon…these are sensible and reasonable tasks to be doing and that does a great deal of good for your immersion.
That sense of a consistent story was enhanced in lots of little ways. The start and end of every mission was at the tram station for that part of the ship, a little oasis of calm before you set out to face the horrors. Occasionally you’d return to a part of the ship you’d been earlier, like the bridge, and the stuff you’d done there previously would have been recognise. The lockers you’d opened and cleared out would still be open, the rock that smashed through the glass would still be there, much cooler now. The toilet block full of corpses you passed the first time around would now have much less corpses and much more monsters. I also liked how you upgraded your equipment, particularly the armour. At the start Isaac is wearing a sort of lightweight travelling suit, then as time goes on he bolts on more strips and pieces of metal to make it tougher. It’s still the same suit under it all.
Where Bioshock is bright and breezy, Dead Space is dark and intense, both in lighting and tone. This isn’t always done well, Isaac has this whole is-she-isn’t-she-dead thing going on with his wife who was serving on the ship that was, dare I say it, clunkily handled. But the people you deal with and their motivations for doing what they do are also a little bit more believable, mainly through their actions not being minutely dissected. There are little text, audio and video logs all over the place, that do paint a reasonable picture of the downfall of the spaceship. It does repeat Bioshock’s putting-people-in-booths motif, though fortunately not as often, and I didn’t find myself hating everybody else.
There’s a few gimmicky additions, stasis and kinesis, which initially feel like they’re specifically there for puzzles. Move this block! Freeze this fan! However they’re both useful combat additions as well, and overall they fitted in well. Unlike the plasmids, I found myself using them frequently and intuitively. Overall, it’s just that much more of a polished, tight experience. There’s no filler missions, no sidequests, no parts where you’re wandering around for the sake of it. Everything you do in Dead Space is for important mission goals, or part of a battle for survival. Is it fun? Sorta. Is it replayable? Probably not. Will I remember it fondly? Oh yes.
4 stars, 14 hours played (campaign, normal)