This PC game review is a little late. Dead Space came out in 2008.
The reason I didn’t play it sooner is that ‘survival horror’ games are not really my bread and butter. I still have System Shock 2-themed nightmares – walking around another corridor and spinning around to be faced with yet another Midwife. “I HAVE YOUR MEDICATION… I CAN SMELL YOU…”
So the bar is high. Very high.
And I have to admit that Dead Space is a really good game.
But I have one major issue – it didn’t scare me.
Perhaps it is because I have become an old hand at the “holy-shit-I’m-the-only-living-soul-on-a-space-station-filled-with-the-dead” genre. Or that I set my expectations so high given all the reviews that talked about how suspenseful it was.
So let’s analyze why I wasn’t.
First, the save points, those evil and twisted relics of console gaming. Those didn’t help. Sure, they added a little extra tension in that I couldn’t save until I got to the next one, and there’s one in particular near the end of the game that has the annoying tendency to be frequented by unkillable monsters. But they break the fourth wall unnecessarily in a game that usually goes out of its way not to, given the ultra-cool map and inventory interface built into Isaac’s HUD.
Second, speaking of the fourth wall, the third-person view makes for better, more cinematic visuals and action, but if you want to be scared shitless, first-person is the only way to go. Our focused binocular vision is great for hunting, but it’s hardwired for maximum freakout when something comes from the side, behind, below, or above. Watching this happen to someone, i.e. capable Isaac in his armored suit and nasty industrial weaponry – not so much.
Third, there’s that nasty industrial weaponry. Great fun, but not very scary. Who cares how many lurking undead are out there when I have a circular saw on steroids? Bring it! It’s the difference between playing as the Marine and the Predator in the old Aliens vs. Predator games. If you want to have fun, play as the Predator. You have half a dozen creative ways to kill anything that moves. If you want to be terrified, play the hairless ape, who has nothing going for him but a minigun, a motion tracker, and a flashlight, none of which particularly help in a dark room filled with aliens that are overly fond of disembowelment.
Fourth, there’s the predictability of it all.
One of the reasons that I simultaneously loved and hated System Shock 2 was its total lack of predictability, created by the completely sadistic inclusion of randomly spawning enemies. You’d think you killed everything on a floor, and then there’s one RIGHT BEHIND YOU. They never completely go away. As a result I never felt comfortable; I was always putting my back to a wall in some alcove to sort through my inventory and reload, all the while expecting to be jumped by some shambling corpse. This got ridiculous in a certain area (THE CARGO DECK!!!) populated by suicidal protocol robots that would suddenly appear every 30 seconds or so, charge you while making inane, creepy platitudes (“I’m sure this is all a misunderstanding…”), and then explode when close.
In Dead Space, once you’ve cleared an area, it stays clear. There are no roaming undead. There is also no roaming Isaac; there is a little play in your path through the ship, but not much. The designers did a very good job trying to keep me from thinking I was on rails, but it didn’t help that a TRAM was used to move me between levels, and every time I felt the urge to go back to a previous area, I’d have to remind myself that I couldn’t, no matter how logical my plan might be.
Oh, and fifth. No big baddies like SHODAN. Pathetic creature.
You might think from all these criticisms that I didn’t like the game. Not true. I liked it enough to order a copy of the sequel immediately after finishing. Despite my complaints, it is a visually gorgeous game with some good action, and while it is not scary, it does succeed in being creepy, and you know me – I’m a big fan of creepy.