Friday, October 31, 2008

Dead Space (Xbox 360)

[2008; EA Redwood Shores]


There is a difference between a game being impossible (Ninja Gaiden) and a game feeling like it is impossible. There is one genre that expanded the later--I'm not talking about the adventure genre for you, the puzzle-challenged. I'm speaking of the survival horror genre that was popularized by Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Clock Tower. Dead Space is the first new franchise in this genre for some time and among the best. It offers the biggest scares of the genre, and, more importantly, offers a consistently fun and compelling game underneath it all. It's the ideal of the genre: a game that you don't want to put down because its fun but also because you want the horror to end before it gives you nightmares for another night.

Dead Space isn't merely a sci-fi/horror story but one that pays tribute to all those that came before it. There are obvious nods to Event Horizon, Alien, and The Thing, not to mention that the game takes many main story elements from these along with recent cinematic games such as Bioshock and Half-Life. Some have said this takes away from the game's integrity, but all of these elements are crafted as lovingly as the originators have. In short, the story never impresses but it never fails as it is upheld by classic stories. Either way, we haven't seen an environment like this in a game before (Dino Crisis 3 looks on angrily), or a game as dedicated to telling a story in recent months.

Nearly every element of the gameplay and world can be linked to a game that came from the last 10 years: Half-Life script events, Bioshock upgrading, Resident Evil 4's action and camera, and System Shock 2's brooding, hopeless world. Dead Space doesn't refine any of these games as much as it mixes and matches with great success, adding one or two elements of its own. The first of which are the zero gravity segments that will make Mario Galaxy look like child's play (durr). Then there is the shooting which is always a challenge to hit an enemy's weak point, rather then aiming at their head which will only make them grow stronger. You'll be damned for your penchant toward Call of Duty headshots. All these elements make up fun gameplay that is easily forgotten, for better or worse, as you marvel at the level design and surrender yourself to the mystery that lays on board the Ishimura.

RE4 is a superior game to Dead Space and not just because it was the first to bring so many new game mechanics to life (almost all of which Dead Space utilizes). It must be said though that Dead Space is the first game to truly bring RE4's template back to its series' original "survival-horror" context, and in the most unexpected of all places: space. Checking your inventory after every fight and going down a dark corridor brings back a certain vulnerability that RE4 traded for more visceral thrills. Dead Space is as masochistic as horror titles get, so it's fortunate it has enough item hording, upgrading, and compelling action to make the emotional trauma almost seem worthwhile.

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