Posterchild for "New EA's" focus on quality games?
360, (PS3, PC)
EA Redwood Shores
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Outer space, then. We don't see a whole lot of the stuff nowadays, in videogaming circles at least. Oh sure, there's the benign, tropical aquarium variety popularised by Halo 3 or Mass Effect, but we're talking about outer space as envisioned in films like Alien, Event Horizon and Sunshine: an inhuman void, comparable to the deepest reaches of our oceans but a million times more pitiless, light year upon light year of terrible, silent, icy pressure. The craft which negotiate this terrain aren't crystalline palaces of ethereal tech, but poorly-lit, haphazardly organised warrens of recycled air, creaking under the heel of infinity, only marginally less fragile in the face of the vacuum than the people who inhabit them.
EA Redwood's Dead Space gets it right first time. Forget those tentacular monstrosities clattering around in the air ducts - the real bogeyman here comes into view only when you peep beyond the disintegrating hull of the USG Ishimura, an immense "planet cracker" festering in orbit around a remote, barren world. Coolant bleeds from ruptured pipes and broken deck plates turn lazily overhead, bleached of colour by the constellations. As you exit the airlock the soundscape drains away like water down a plughole, leaving you alone with the hiss of your own breathing, increasingly laboured as your oxygen supply dwindles, and the muffled clunk of your magnetic boots.
After these brushes with oblivion, the sight of the ship interior, with its unidentifiable piles of former human being, flickering holographic controls and malfunctioning doors, comes as an intense relief. Tentacular monstrosities have their downsides, but at least they're a localised threat, something you can touch or, more sensibly, scythe to bits with a laser cutter. Interstellar nothingness ain't nearly so pliable.
Perhaps we're overegging the metaphysical pudding here. Perhaps Dead Space's terrific sense of showmanship has more to do with its stolid protagonist, Isaac Clarke, a member of the inevitable rescue-mission-turned-ragtag-band-of-survivors. As a graduate of the Metroid school of obstinately mute heroism, Isaac isn't up to much in a conversation, but the man has undeniable charisma as he stalks about in his corrugated vacuum suit, like a latter-day Beowulf. Rather brilliantly, EA Redwood has woven HUD elements like health and air gauges directly into the spine of the suit, while Isaac's inventory, map and objective menus are holographically projected into the game world itself.
So expertly has the Ishimura's claustrophobic ambience been realised, and so bleeding edge perfect is the tech which holds everything together - kudos in particular to the particle effects - that we're in danger of forgetting that Dead Space is neither very original nor, at heart, dazzlingly playable. One immediately obvious reference point is Resident Evil 4, whose offset shoulder view and semi-distinct exploration/combat stances (toggled with left trigger) are regurgitated here with a minimum of tweaks.
And the debts to Capcom's classic keep mounting up. There are computer-activated stores where you can buy, sell or stockpile equipment and ammo, and your guns pack handy little laser pointers. Downed monsters (or Necromorphs, as they're rather geekily termed) can be stomped to death, whether to conserve ammo or for maximated prejudicileness, yo. After an hour's play we were half-expecting Isaac to whip his battlemented helmet off and reveal Chris Redfield's floppy fringe underneath.