2008 was an interesting year for video game publishing giant Electronic Arts, other wise abbreviated to EA. The year started off with them releasing a big name sequel in the month of January that was far different from the games that had normally come from that franchise in Burnout Paradise. As the year went on, EA’s catalog seemed to be full of more new releases and original IP’s than normal for a company who previously had relied on sequels in existing franchises and licensed titles: May saw the release of the criminally underrated Wii party title Boom Blox and the big fall games for the year came from two new franchises: The first-person parkour platformer from DICE of Battlefield fame, Mirror’s Edge, and a new horror game that I’m talking about today: Dead Space.
But wait, if it’s an original IP, why is it being looked at on a website dedicated to comic book video games? The reason is because of two of the writers on the project. In the credits of Dead Space, there’s no one given a credit for either story or writing, but it was later made public after the fact that two of the three writers on the game were famous comic book writers: Warren Ellis and Rick Remender:
“Rick Remender: Well Warren didn’t write Dead Space, he did the concepts- cooked up the universe for them basically. He set the stage, and once they had that stuff from him I came in and took his beats and character stuff and concept, and I wrote 6, 7, 8 outlines; I wrote the game out, the ending, a lot of the stuff in there, then Antony Johnston came in, and took the next step. He did all the dialogue and the final script writing, all of that stuff. Antony was the guy whose voice came across the most, for sure.”
Comic books are nothing without their creative teams of writers and artists who help bring them to life, and in the future I hope to look at other video games that were worked on by other creative types who got their start in comics. In Dead Space, you play as engineer Isaac Clarke, one person of a three-man team sent to investigate a distress beacon being sent out by the mining vessel USG Ishimura. When Isaac and his team arrive, they find the ship empty, save for alien space zombies called necromorphs who came to infest the ship after a mysterious alien artifact was brought on board.
You can tell that the three writers who worked on bringing the world of Dead Space to life were clearly inspired by Ridley Scott’s seminial sci-fi classic Alien and its James Cameron directed sequel. Inspired by is fine by me, as Dead Space takes what made those films so great: great monster design, the claustrophobia of being trapped in an inescapable environment, and the action heavy parts of Aliens without having the been there, done that feeling that a game like 2014’s Alien: Isolation. While that game had its merits, you’re less afraid of the beast that’s chasing you because you already know about its life cycle from movies, video games, books, etc. When you arrive on the Ishimura and start getting swarmed by necromorps, you have no idea what’s after you and it brings back that dread you felt when you watched something like Alien for the first time. Learning about the creatures: their origins, and the twisted religious cult that views the necromorphs as the path to God, is what will drive you through the eight-to-ten hour campaign, even when you’re afraid to turn the corner for fear of what awaits you.
While the world and universe of Dead Space are unique and easy to get invested into, the same can’t be said of the small cast of characters, including the one you play as. Isaac Clarke, who would thankfully see a lot of development in the second and third chapters of the franchise. You’re silent except for the screams of pain when you get hurt and die, and spend most of the game as a glorified janitor running errands for your two crew mates. There are a few twists and turns in the plot, but nothing that you really haven’t seen in other properties like this and pale in comparison against how interesting the universe of Dead Space is.
Dead Space can be considered a third-person shooter when looked at from its most basic parts, but to dismiss it as such would be doing it a huge disservice. Whereas in most games in the post Resident Evil 4 era, and even before it, where head shots ruled, aiming for the skull will do you little good in Dead Space. In order to put a necromorph down permanently, you have to do so by dismembering them, i.e removing their limbs. The opening creatures go down fairly easy with simple to target legs and arms, but the types of necromorphs introduced throughout the campaign helps to keep the act to limb hacking from ever getting stale. A special type of alien will bring back memories of being chased by the Nemesis from Resident Evil 3, while others scale the walls and attack you from weird angles and others will be super charged and best taken down with additional abilities built into your suit.
Like how the necromorphs have to be taken down uniquely, so to is the arsenal at your disposal for accomplishing your goals. As Isaac is an engineer, the weapons that he will acquire over the course of the game have more in common with tools than traditional weapons. Your starting weapon, the plasma cutter, with a secondary fire function that can cause it to be aimed both horizontally as well as vertically for maximum efficiency, is the best tool in your arsenal but it’s also almost too good. There’s an achievement/trophy in Dead Space for completing the game only using this weapon, but a better challenge perhaps would’ve been to stop using it as soon as possible. As this is a survival-horror game, ammo is scarce and focusing on one weapon instead of multiple ones makes ammo conservation much easier. Other weapons: ranging from a flame thrower to a buzz-saw shooter, are also suited to the task at hand, of. um, severing hands but not as much as the plasma cutter is.
Each weapon can have its fire power, reload speed and other things but as you have limited upgrade power ups to do so, focusing on one weapon like the plasma cutter is again preferred, at least for the first play through. Upon completion you can go through again with all your upgrades in New Game + and it’s there where experimentation is more encouraged. A better use of your upgrades is on your suits abilities to freeze enemies temporarily in place, which comes in very handy later on, and a secondary ability that basically gives you telekinetic powers. These secondary abilities are more so used in puzzle solving more so than combat, though the statis powers to freeze enemies is worth upgrading very early on, and take advantage of Isaac’s chosen profession of being an engineer. Though narratively its frustrating to be constantly told to clean up a mess, it’s never not fun to throw around machinery and switches with your TK abilities after you slow down a piece of harmful machinery that’s barreling towards you. This gets more interesting when your thrown into zero gravity and can freely move around a room by jumping from wall-to-wall or wall-to-ceiling, all the while getting attacked from all sides and never feeling quite safe because you simply don’t know where your assailnt is coming from.
Being in zero gravity can also mean having to venture into the vacuum of space, and it’s in these instances that truly highlight the best feature of Dead Space: the overall look and sound design. The Ishumara is a cold, worn down space ship and it’s unsettling just to be in; especially when you start hearing the groans of necromorphs coming from an undetermined direction. It is possible to get turned around within the Ishimura, as a lot of its hallways and corridors can tend to look the same after a while, but you have a handy tool to keep you on point to your next objective, but exploring is also encouraged to obtain valuable ammo and upgrade parts.
In the vacuum of space outside, you often find yourself just absorbing the beauty of the dark abyss, that is until a silent predator creeps up on you unawares and causes you to leap from your chair in fright. There’s also the matter of your limited air meter, shown on your back via a depleting meter reminding you to keep moving, which also is another of Dead Space’s excellent qualities: it’s user interface. Everything from your ammo, health, even your menu is also done on your persons so you’re not only still vulnerable while checking your limited supplies which increases the tension of the situation, but it also makes it such that your screen isn’t cluttered by a health meter and other things.
While we may not know how much input Warren Ellis and Rick Remender had in the development of the universe of Dead Space, everything from the creatures, weapons and ideas make it not only a great survival horror game, but a terrific start to a franchise that is now sadly dormant. The overall story being told is not exactly the most interesting, but its faults are elevated by the unique dismembering mechanic and the superb mix of audio, visuals and clean character driven interface. Eight years later, Dead Space is a game well worth playing for fans and new comers to the franchise as well as a terrific way to spend Halloween if you’re a fan of horror video games.