Breaking Down the Backlog: Dead Space
In this week’s Breaking Down the Backlog, I tactically dismembered hundreds of aliens with mining equipment and was scared to death.
Dead Space is an interesting game to play. It was first released back in 2008 to deserved critical and commercial acclaim along with putting Visceral Games (sadly now defunct) on the map. It is, actually, a quality game; fun to play and well polished. So what makes it interesting? Well it feels, similar to the first Uncharted, like a game that has been designed almost as a proof of concept. So despite only being about a decade old, it has aged worse than a lot of other, much older, games. It has a laser focus on the foundations, and they are incredibly solid, but there isn’t much else to the game.
So Dead Space is very meat and potatoes, but what is there is high quality. Take the sound design, for example. Now the concept of sound is a rather ephemeral thing to praise, but it is a real highlight that deserves to be talked about. If you play Dead Space, you need to wear headphones, it makes the game infinitely more terrifying. You constantly hear the clattering of what, you hope, is machinery as you traipse around the space vessel along with the low hum of the general surroundings. This is coupled with some horribly unsettling whispering in the more quiet areas. This is then ramped up when, a few times throughout the game, a hushed voice cuts through the noise and is actually understandable. It never failed to unsettle me. The best atmospheric moments, though, are when you are walking in a vacuüm. All that can be heard is Isaac’s breathing. It is a real change of pace compared to the constant noise you are subjected to on the ship. I found the soundtrack to be a rather on-the-nose with its discordant violin strings and revolting time signatures whenever you fought something, but that is a rather minor quibble.
The combat, unlike the aforementioned Uncharted series, is sublime. Which is lucky because there isn’t much else to do. The gimmick of shooting off the limbs of the Necromorphs in order to do more damage and save ammo is a brilliant idea. I have been conditioned to shoot everything in the head, be it mammal, vegetable, mineral or alien. So to be forced to shoot in other places was a real breath of fresh air. The act of shooting the weapons is snappy and always satisfying thanks how great they sound when fired and the reactions of the necromorphs. The zombies scream and explode in the goriest gibs I have seen in a game. There are a selection of weapons to use and they are all roughly based around tools – although why a miner would use an assault rifle is beyond me – which really adds a visceral edge to firing them. You aren’t shooting bullets, you are shooting saw blades or nails. The combat has a real weight to it, think almost Gears of War but faster and was an absolute blast to play for the whole twelve hours or so.
Dead Space is terrifying. There are a lot of tools at your disposal so you never feel weak, so the survival horror aspects aren’t necessarily overwhelming. It is a testament to how the game is designed that it still gets under your skin. The constant whispering which cuts out with a violin sting when something jumps at you made me jump and shout obscenities at my screen. It isn’t all jump scares, although a lot of them in the game, as the sense of dread in this game really keeps you on edge. The necromorphs screaming at you, blood and viscera everywhere coupled with weird noises and Isaac’s wheeze made sure I was never calm throughout the game. The worst scare I experienced was: whilst I was upgrading my weapons, which requires you to interact with a terminal, a generic necromorph imminently ran up on me just as I left the terminal and I swear to you I jumped at least a foot in the air and shouted so loudly my housemate came to my room to see if I was OK. I don’t know if it was scripted or not, but I had to pause the game and take a breather. Admittedly, the longer the game went on, the less I was scared (Dead Space is no ‘Alien’) but early on I was having a hard time just playing it.
Graphically, the game isn’t a slouch, especially for something almost a decade old. The necromorphs, despite clearly being designed around the ‘tactical dismemberment’ gimmick, are seriously creepy and there are some really nice little animation touches with Isaac getting progressively hunched the more damage he takes and the angry way he stamps on the ground (whilst screaming incoherently). Every other character looks, to put it bluntly, barely human however. Also, there isn’t a lot of variation in the environment, either. Yes, a ship will have a finite amount of rooms to enter. But the amount of gun-metal corridors and lifts you traipse through is a real bummer. Also, I found the bosses to be rather generic. They were just massive mouths with tentacles. I was expecting something more lovecraftian in design, to be honest. The sense of scale is there, but not much else. It is small touches like this that really shows how ‘no frills’ Dead Space is.
The story is basically non-existent. There are some interesting themes of religious worship of the necromorphs and scientific obsession, but it is all shown through, admittedly well presented, projections. Same with the story, which sometimes is just a voice in your ear. I found it difficult to care about any of the characters and the twist was just laughable. They tried to make me care that a character wasn’t who they seemed when there was basically no character development to begin with. Most of the interaction with anyone who isn’t a necromorph is basically them telling you do to something whilst they try to survive. It all fell rather flat, to be honest. Also, I feel like Dead Space is too long. There are several moments where you are tasked to back-track or revisit locations in order to collect three to five things or flip a switch. It felt like the team played Resident Evil 4, decided to make a third-person shooter that length but without the budget or the variety to do the length justice. Luckily the game never stops being fun to play.
Would I recommend Dead Space? Only really if you have the context that it was the first game in the franchise and is over a decade old. From what I have read, it has been eclipsed by subsequent entries and I know there are better third-person shooters out there these days. As an example of high quality horror in a mainstream video-game, though, Dead Space is hard to beat.
Next time on Breaking Down the Backlog: Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty