Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dying in space, again


Game A was released in 1999. You played a guy fighting through a starship filled with zombies, who covered the walls with their throbbing biomass. You pick up text and audio messages left by the dearly departed. You are betrayed by she who guides you. It’s scary as hell.

Game B was released in 2008. You played a guy fighting through a starship filled with zombies, who covered the walls with their throbbing biomass. You pick up the text and audio messages left by the dearly departed. You are betrayed by she who guides you. It’s scary as hell.

Game A is System Shock 2. Game B is Dead Space.

Sub-thesis: Dead Space is System Shock 2.

Thesis: this is awesome.


These have been busy times for Irrational Games’ fin-de-si├Ęcle masterpiece. First, SS2 papa Ken Levine puts out a cunning makeover – you may have heard of it – Bioshock. With Dead Space, EA Redwood invested the formula into a AAA, third-person title, with top-notch production values and an original aesthetic. By original aesthetic, I mean it made SS2 look like a maternity ward, and Bioshock look like an aquarium. The USG Ishimura, a goliath mining vessel, radiates with filth and squalor. The “gritty” aesthetic has worn out its welcome, since everyone felt the need to smear their lenses in grime post-Gears of War. Dead Space is the real thing.

Anyone who’s played Resident Evil 4 will feel at home with Dead Space. Left analog moves you forward, while right rotates around your hazard su-I mean, Rig. Left trigger draws your gun. Guess what – you can move and shoot at the same time (take that, Resident Evil 5). Menu items are projected from your suit, so ammo, health, air and energy are all displayed sans heads-up display. Nothing has felt more like an interactive movie.

All this would be meaningless without gameplay to back it up. Thankfully, Dead Space is as fun to play as it is to look at. Much has been made of the dismemberment system, and with due cause – plugging a zombie in the chest will get you nowhere. You need to blow off their limbs and then stomp in their heads. With the more nefarious enemies, this won’t get you anywhere either. You can only survive them until you’re able to lead them into the path of a jet engine or a freezing chamber.

Zero gravity segments add a twist to the gunplay. You can jump to almost any flat surface in the room, making your enemies fight on your terms, not theirs. Some segments require a dash through decompressed areas, or across the ship’s hull – get bogged down in a fight, and you suffocate.

Despite the flawless production and solid gameplay, the true achievement of Dead Space is sound. It won two BAFTAs this year, one for soundtrack and one for sound design – the only game besides Call of Duty 4 to win more than one award. Washingtonian Jay Ulwick may have said it best – you can sit with your back turned to the game and know exactly what is happening on screen. I would have never guessed there was a sonic poetry to a tin can full of scythe-limbed dead things, but I was wrong. How many ways can you hear metal clank against metal, or flesh sear apart? So many ways. So many wonderful ways.

While Dead Space is an overall well-paced game, it loves to hit you with hordes. You’ll blow through health pack after health pack, drench yourself in zombie blood, and sure enough, more will charge through the door, burst through the floor panels, or snipe at you from corners with projectile stingers. Never pass up a save point.

Some time ago I let loose the breath I’d been holding for System Shock 3. Hell, Ken Levine isn’t even developing Bioshock 2. If SS3 ever arrives, it’s unlikely it’ll be the game it should be. Stop looking out the window, puny hacker (that’s an in-joke). Fire up Dead Space. You’ll feel right at home.