There’s no right way to play a game. That’s what people will tell you anyway. The freedom of choice and interaction is what makes games unique. So it feels weird to tell you that there’s a right way to play Dead Space. If you’re not playing it in the dark, with headphones or surround sound, on hard difficulty, you’re not getting the full experience. Call me elitist, but if you’re a “core” gamer, as I assume most of you are, push yourself a bit, because the rewards are tenfold. On hard, Dead Space is the greatest survival horror experience since the original Resident Evil.
The threat of danger is constant. Resource management is a necessity, and at least early on you will most likely run out of ammo. The monsters lumber towards you, demanding the use of your suit’s stasis ability to slow them, and expert aim to dismember them for the kill. Whatever your approach, they’ll relentlessly crowd you and waste away your resources.
The fear of running down to your last bullet or medkit aside, the fights are simply intense. Again, the use of headphones or surround sound is a necessity here. Fights are loud, with a sound mix that isn’t afraid to go to eleven when appropriate. The weapon report is only less deafening than the terrifying shrieks of the horrors around you. The camera angle, which intentionally limits your peripheral vision to claustrophobic levels, also serves to give everything a sense of heft and solidity. Isaac Clarke, the protagonist, looks large and physically capable – that you ultimate feel weak and helpless in comparison to the monsters makes them all the more frightening.
A constant heart beat, Isaac’s, pumps heavily in tense moments, and horror-movie-esque musical stings ensure your own heart will pound as well. There’s never a point where the game isn’t a blast, but fun seems to play second fiddle to other emotions: fear, helplessness, and suspense.
There aren’t a ton of “boo”-scares either, the game doesn’t bother with such cheap terror. Developer EA Redwood Shores plays with you, using smart gameplay balance and state-of-the-art sound design to keep you on your toes. Just when you adjust to the sounds of pipes creaking in the walls, or distant death curdles, the game turns these ambient noises into a real threat – the sounds of a relentless beast stalking you through the ventilation shafts of the space ship Ishimura.
The ship itself, the setting throughout most of the game, does a lot to create atmosphere. Spinal column architecture runs throughout, giving the sense of a dying nervous system you must work tirelessly to repair. Why anyone would create such foreboding living quarters is beyond me, but as a home to the undead it’s fitting.
You play the part of the ship’s repairman, accounting for damage on both its systems and crew. You find audio logs along the way, clues that hint at a deeper conspiracy, and satisfying references to its crossmedia prequels. I only wish there was more storytelling, for despite a somewhat predictable ending, the characters were interesting and stunningly animated.
Beyond the horror, Dead Space is simply solid. It’s the kind of product you expect out of AAA Japanese studios, on par with Metal Gear Solid, Ninja Gaiden, and Resident Evil 4 in terms of polish. American games just aren’t made with this level of consistency in design, graphical solidarity, and tight controls. Even Bioshock, a beautiful game with much in common with Dead Space, doesn’t even come close. Most games allow a peak behind the curtain here and there, shattering the illusion, but in Dead Space you’ll pray for that break in immersion.
It’s an excellent game, but so much of what’s great comes from how you experience it. Depending on how you play, it can range from satisfying adventure game to unforgettably haunting masterpiece. If only EA Redwood Shores had the backbone to make their perfectly balanced hard mode the standard difficulty. As it stands, many will find the threats in Dead Space a joke, as they drown in ammo and tear apart monsters. But let’s not end on a downer, because Dead Space is a haunting masterpiece – this year’s unforgettable experience in gaming.