Just why are we in such a hurry to colonise space? If fifty years of celluloid is any guide, the only thing waiting for us in the cold void are angry monsters with poor dental hygiene, and an incredibly gory death that may, or may not, involve a penis exploding out of our chest. If this is the future, you can keep it, chum. Alas, these are not the words of Isaac Hayes, an engineer aboard the rescue shuttle Kellion, off to investigate the USG Ishimura, a deep space mining vessel which has gone ominously quiet.
Being a brainy chap, I like to believe Isaac would normally have recognised this as the suicide mission it quite clearly is and feigned a headache the morning of take off. Unfortunately for Isaac, his missus is aboard the Ishimura, providing some emotional impetus for the coming slaughter. Isaac’s also joined on his misadventure by computer technician, Kendra Daniels, and military man, Zach Hammond, who’s so overtly gruff that he quite obviously wears ladies underwear.
Needless to say, things don’t go according to plan. The Kellion inexplicably crashes into the Ishimura, trapping you onboard, and a minute later you’re being attacked by fleshy, murderous things that look suspiciously like the missing crew. Separated from your motley band, you’re tasked with hiking through the bowels of the ship to make repairs. Along the way you’ll listen to crew logs to piece together what happened and hopefully find your beloved in the process. If this setup sounds familiar, it should. At its best, Dead Space is a greatest-hits compilation of the horror genre’s best moments. In fact, you could probably make a fun drinking game by checking them off when spotted. Mutated monstrosities straight out of The Thing, that’ll be a shot of tequila, sir. Lost communication with a distant colony? A double vodka, I think. Towering alien monoliths. Come on, that has to be worth a Sambuca, or two. The list goes on, though this is not to suggest Dead Space doesn’t bring a few neat tricks of its own.
Chief among these is the Ishimura itself, a beautifully realised hell house, which manages to be unnerving even when there aren’t legions of nasties trying to spoon your brains out. Lights flicker, draping the narrow corridors in shadows, smoke curls out of vents, the twisted metal groans and gives ways to open space and though your oxygen is ticking away, you can’t help but stop and stare down at the blue-hued planet below that’s the source of all this mess.
Wisely, the game makes best use of this environment by dropping the screen clutter completely. This is accomplished by utilising the over-the-shoulder view popularised by the Resident Evil series, and making Isaac himself the HUD. Health is a bar running down the spine of his suit, while ammo counters for your weapons appear as holographic projections beside the barrel. Calling up the map or inventory screens drags up a 3D projection in front of Isaac, rather than the full screen effect we’re used to. It’s a subtle, tidy, but clever touch that shows the development team’s put a lot of thought into the little things. It’s a similar story with shooting stuff. The shambling beasties in Dead Space come in all shapes and sizes, and back up their antisocial behaviour with a variety of claws, talons, pincers, tails and tentacles that need to hacked off piece-by-piece to take them down. This was fun on the console version, but nothing beats the precision of a mouse – which allows you to pick apart your foes with an almost obscene glee.
One thing I have learned about these space zombies, however, is that after a hard day’s carnage, they love a bit of recreational shopping. This is evidenced by the fact that while they may have trashed every other system on the ship, there isn’t so much as a scratch on any of the shops. Which is lucky for Isaac, because in their capitalistic leanings they’ve sown the seeds of their own destruction. The stores sells everything from new suits – a bit roomier in the pockets, and offering added protection – to big, stonking space guns capable of tearing the beasties in two. Workbenches allow you to upgrade your boomsticks for greater damage, and throw in the ability to slow objects down, and move things around with your mind and you’ve got the ingredients for a decidedly entertaining bloodbath. At least for the first few hours.
Unfortunately, Dead Space overstays its welcome, and blows its load far too early. A few levels in and you’ll have seen everything it has to offer, and as the early peril of repairing a broken ship infested with monsters fades, you’re left with a dreary trudge as the game introduces increasingly ridiculous ways of getting you to flip a switch at the other end of the ship. Fix the tram, repair the engine, get the radar array up and running, fetch the captain’s pipe, build a BBQ. By the end of the game, you’ll be wondering why the ship ever needed a crew in the first place, given that it can so easily be run by one man with no tools whatsoever. Had there been some variety in these tasks, I might have felt a little kinder towards Dead Space, but challenges are inevitably solved by shooting something, picking something up, or slowing it down. Admittedly, this is very much like life at Den of Geek, but in a ten hour videogame there needs to be a little more.
The story isn’t bad and will undoubtedly keep you plodding along, but ultimately Dead Space runs out of ideas far too quickly to be wholeheartedly recommended. It’s a shame, because the first third was just about as much fun as I’ve had all year and for that I award the following…