Dead Space (Xbox 360)
The monsters are coming.
I know, because I can hear them. They scuttle overhead, through the air ducts. I can hear the cold tick-tick-tick of their limbs against steel. What's that up ahead? Did I just see something moving in the shadows?
Lights flicker. Corpses are littered about. In their dying moments, these dead people apparently found the strength to write helpful and not-helpful messages in blood on the walls. Someone wrote, "Cut off their limbs!" (Helpful.) Someone else wrote, "This ship is f***ed." (Not helpful, but obviously very true.) The developers do a terrific job of laying on the terror nice and thick in Dead Space's opening moments.
And then, suddenly -- boo! -- a monster appears.
It's running towards you. It looks like a man crossed with a praying mantis. You shoot off a wing, and it keeps coming. You shoot off a leg, and it crawls. You shoot off its head, and it uses its last wing to crawl towards you.
Finally, once it's dead, you think, Wait a second. Was that thing wearing pants?
Yes, some of the monsters wear pants in Dead Space. Maybe there's a monster pants store somewhere. I can picture them, trying on their ragged, gore-covered pants, saying to one another, "Do I look scary in these?"
The point here is this: Dead Space is actually frightening, before it parades out its various creatures.
By "various creatures" I mean the crawling ones. And the fat ones. And the ones that look charred, like they were on the hibachi for too long. And the little ones that wave tentacles at you, which shoot some weird darts. And the big, armor-covered ones, which are in the habit of galloping past you, conveniently exposing their unarmored backsides.
Dead Space tells the story of Isaac Clarke, one-fifth of a rescue party sent to investigate a troubled mining ship. Within the game's opening moments, the five-person rescue party is reduced to a three-person rescue party. There's a curiously bitchy woman, a bald dude and you. (You just knew those two blank-faced guys weren't going to last long.)
For the remainder of the game, bitchy woman and bald dude give you things to do. Most of these so-called "missions" feel, at best, like random excuses to get you to some far-flung part of the ship. And at worst, they feel like petty errands. "Isaac," the bitchy woman says to me, "You need to go to the cargo bay and get the gravitational centrifuge switched back on."
That's describes the majority of Dead Space's missions: Go here. Do this. Go there. Do that. Fight a few monsters. Maybe fight a boss. And pick up my dry cleaning on the way back, if you don't mind.
The game has all the classic survival horror ingredients: underpowered weapons, limited ammo and a painfully slow-moving avatar. Well, Isaac doesn't exactly move: He lumbers and lurches. Your task is to kill (or avoid, if you can lumber and lurch away) the monsters, solve the occasional rudimentary puzzle, make efficient use of the bits of ammo you have, and explore the ship, all in the name of creeping yourself out.
We're going to need some of that orange sawdust that the janitor used to spread on puke in elementary school.
A massive, empty spaceship full of corpses seems like it should be fertile ground for a survival horror game. Unfortunately, I felt like I was constantly traversing the same hallways, climbing the same sets of stairs, and enduring countless wasn't-I-just-here moments. Looking at my notes, I see that I've written "FEELS LIKE I AM SPENDING A LOT OF TIME RIDING IN ELEVATORS."
Blame BioShock for spoiling me, but this vacant spaceship never felt like a real place to me. I never believed -- not for a second -- that actual people ever lived here, the way that I did in practically every moment of BioShock. Sure, there were toilets -- the squarest damn toilets I've ever seen -- and trams, and waiting rooms, etc. But the architectural proportions of these places always seemed off, making the whole ship feel sort of like a dollhouse that's been cobbled together from the parts of other dollhouses.
I did appreciate the retro aesthetic of Isaac's mining suit. I like how he hunches over as he walks, as if that big, diving-bell helmet is simply too heavy for him to carry. He looks more like a reluctant welder going to work rather than your typical videogame bad-ass. That's a good thing.
The game plays some nifty Eternal Darkness-like tricks on you during the later stages, making you question if what you're seeing -- and hearing -- is real or not, making you truly feel as if Isaac is slowly becoming psychologically unhinged. The soundtrack is simply superb: Even on my fairly low-end 5.1 surround sound system, I heard machinery clanging off in the distance, this hiss of air vents kicking on and, occasionally, weird, soft voices whispering from somewhere. At least, I thought I heard whispers.
Yet there's also a hint of sweaty desperation in Dead Space. In the name of mixing things up, the developers unwisely included several zero-gravity sections in the game. During these sections, you can float and fly around, solving puzzles and fighting monsters. In theory, a good idea; but in practice, zero-gravity doesn't work. Typically, I'd lose my bearings, losing sight of where I was supposed to go. And it's in these moments that you can depend on the developers dropping several monsters into the environment, making the game's camera spin out of control, while the monsters take turns giving you zero-gravity wedgies.
But the most unforgivable flaw of Dead Space can be found in the inherent stupidity of the monsters. Remember that moment in Resident Evil 4 -- what, you thought I was going to make it through the entire review without invoking RE4? -- when one of the possessed villagers barks out orders in Spanish to the other possessed villagers? I remember thinking, Shit, these mofos are organized. There was always this sense that there was a pecking order, a social hierarchy that was respected by the evils in RE4.
In contrast, the evils in Dead Space are an unorganized lot. Their sole motivation: kill, kill, kill. Their sole combat tactic: to run headlong at you, waving their arms above their heads.
If only the things you lumber everywhere to fight exhibited some crude smarts; if only they did something vaguely interesting, or different, now and then. Instead, in the end, it's their far-too-predictable behaviors that diminish the dramatic momentum Dead Space begins with, making the sojourn into space tedious instead of tense.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.