In April of 2007 a man by the name of John Riccitiello began work as the new Chief Operating Officer of Electronic Arts, one of the two largest video game conglomerates on earth. EA had fallen victim to its own massiveness in the years prior. In order to grow it had purchased and then cannibalized smaller, more imaginative game developers, absorbed the talent into their own offices, and centrally ran all operations. What happened as a result is that the people and projects they assimilated became infected with the shortcomings of the company entire: there was too much bureaucracy and too many levels of hierarchy. This took decision making and creativity away from the game development teams. As a result EA earned a rather poor reputation for making nothing but thin sequels, movie tie-ins, and sports games that did little to differentiate themselves from year to year.
One of Mr. Riccitiello’s first tasks was to issue a surprisingly frank mea culpa for the company. The big, bloated, centrally operating model was called a mistake. Instead the company would be divided into ‘city-states’ that would enjoy more autonomy and be able to make its own decisions about the games they were creating. As well, the company turned away from focusing on obtaining licences to make games with other people’s intellectual property and instead create their own fresh ideas. Over the past year and a half video game enthusiasts saw encouraging signs resulting from this shift in leadership structure in games like Army of Two, Battlefield: Bad Company, and Spore. Now with the arrival of Dead Space I think it’s safe to say that the company has truly turned a corner and is once again a best friend of the hardcore gamer.
Dead Space is a story-driven horror shooter that takes place on board a massive mining spaceship that the main character has been sent to repair. The player soon learns that something has gone terribly wrong aboard this star-faring factory and by game’s end the full nature of this evil will be revealed. From start to finish I found this game to be one of the most polished and engrossing video game experiences in memory. Video games are large affairs utilizing dozens of people working with very advanced technology and usually on tight time constraints. There is usually something or other that doesn’t work right for has room for improvement. I honestly found none of this in Dead Space. It is one of the most finely made games I’ve ever played.
I played Dead Space on the PS3, it looked absolutely fantastic and it played the same. The USG Ishimura is a spine-chilling place to visit, just brimming with atmosphere. The environments are subtle and solid, conveying both the super-science required to construct such a thing and the patina of age that convinces you of the ship’s sixty-plus year history. The Ishimura appears somehow both old and new, making every room captivating. Add to this the absolutely superb lighting and sounds and you have a place you dread entering further even while at the same time you cannot wait to see what’s next.
The entire ship is set up as a series of dungeons that you travel back and forth through, using a type of subway system as your main hub. Each of the twelve chapters brings you to one of the ship’s section, some of them twice. Some players might not like the re-using of levels in this way, preferring to be set in one directlion and the player moves constantly forward seeing new things. Being a spaceship I thought it made sense the way it was laid out and seeing how the Ishimura is packed with so many overwhelming set pieces I didn’t mind having to revisit them from time to time. Some of the rooms in Dead Space are straight from a madman’s funhouse and will have you gaping at them in wonder.
Combat in Dead Space takes the average shooter conventions and turns them on its head. The monstrous enemies seem fine with you shooting them in the body, instead you have to take off their limbs to stop them from eating you! Dead Space is dozen hours of gruesome dismemberment and to this end they give you the right tools for the job, cutting lazers and saw blades abound. Other games have had realistic damage models on their enemies but none I know of use the technology to create the core mechanic of the game. It is not only immensely satisfying, it results in your character being as big a monster as your foes are. It’s not enough that your enemies are scary, you have to kill them in ways that scare you too!
Like many games in the survival genre Dead Space has you collecting credits, ammunition, health packs, and other tools that you can store in your inventory. The wealth you discover can be used to purchase weapon upgrades and more powerful suits of armour. This isn’t anything new but it is done very well and creates an excellent inventory management system. True survival fans can play the game without ever buying health or ammo, leaving themselves at the mercy of the random loot drops. This can create a great deal of tension, as fans of games like Resident Evil 4 will attest. There were many times in my play through where I had to favour weapons that I was constantly finding ammo for while others languished. As well, dragging myself through the game at half health with none in reserve made for some nerve-wracking encounters. In a display of smart design ammo and health can be purchased for those who need the help but then the money spent can’t be used for weapon and armour upgrades, which is the true survivalist’s reward.
The story in Dead Space is truly excellent, the characters are believable and the plot is a tightly twisted conspiracy. There are not only plenty of scary thrills and revolting gore but the psychological overtones of some of the plot points are truly disturbing and had me thinking about them days afterward. Once I had completed the game I jumped right back in to see it all again rather than play new games sitting on my shelf. The game allows you to play a second time with all of your upgraded equipment, though you can only do so on the difficulty level you initially chose. You cannot take your medium difficulty character and play on hard, for example. This might irritate some but I appreciate this choice as hard with a fully decked out character isn’t really hard at all. The variety of great looking armours, plus the fact that not every weapon can be even half upgraded with a single completion means this game can be enjoyed many times.
Dead Space is a full-spectrum package and EA has planned to go multi-media with the concept from the get-go. To that end there are comic books and an animated feature already out. Other movies and of course sequel games are apparently in the works. As games get more expensive to create the recouping of costs by maximizing exposure of the property is probably the future. I can’t speak to the quality of those other products but I’ll obviously vouch for the game itself, emphatically.
It seems one of the ongoing themes of this generation of video games is products with great potential married with serious flaws. I think one cause of this is a great many software developers are still learning the new technology. Another cause is the compromise developers are making in trying to make their product more approachable in hopes of selling to a wider audience. Dead Space is remarkable because it has steered clear of that design philosophy. It’s a game without casual compromise, relying on tried, tested and true mechanics from the genre it exemplifies. In avoiding too much new ground it perfected what it was offering and in doing so comes off as a flawless experience. I cannot recommend this game highly enough, it has become one of my all-time favourites.