It is a new direction for EA - this "M" rated title (which will probably make it R16 or higher here) is lining up to set a new standard in the Survival Horror genre.
The developers were given free reign over the creative vision, resulting in an atmospheric, intense, visually stunning piece of work which immerses the player in a dark and disturbing world. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Isaac Clarke’s got issues. Sent in to repair the communications array of a ship that mysteriously went silent after it came into contact with a mysterious alien artefact, he finds nothing but carnage on his arrival. Isaac’s mission goes from “repair” to “l just want to get out of here alive”. (And in case all you Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke fans are wondering - yes, the protagonist is named for those two giants of sci-fi.)
EA Redwood Shore’s entry to the survival horror genre innovates on a category beset with quiet hills and inhabitant evils by bringing the zombies into space. But wait - there’s more. We got to sink our teeth into this game in EA’s Demo Room at E3 and came away impressed.
Surviving a ship filled with gruesome nasties is not an easy task. There are enemies aplenty. Our first encounter was with a suspiciously puckered looking alien that grew tentacles and fired nasty little orb things at you. You’re always short on ammo, but you can improvise. Using your telekinetic engineering whatzit your character can pick up exploding containers and fling them at enemies, and, (if things get really dire) even shorn enemy limbs make for decent missile fire.
Strategic dismemberment is the name of the game. Mutant space zombies are an apparently tougher breed then their terran brethren. Headshots are oftentimes useless. The zombies will still keep coming at you anyway. Blow away their legs and they’ll just drag themselves along with their arms. It’s like a demented version of the Monty Python Black Knight Scene. And when the zombies do go down, it’s a good idea to hike it on over there and stomp them some more. Sometimes, they’ll play dead just to get you when you turn your back. Wounded critters even escape into airlocks, but don’t worry, they’ll be back to bite you in the back when you aren’t watching.
Design plays a huge role in Dead Space. The game looks beautiful, with shader and pixel effects galore, and it's clear that the designers didn’t want a HUD cluttering up the screen and pulling the user out of the experience. The health meter is incorporated into a glowing gauge running down Isaac’s equivalent of space suit overalls, and Isaac’s ammo count is clearly visible on an LCD panel on each weapon. Even the inventory screens, weapon selection, and automap are rendered as real-time projections from the suit, which means no hitting the pause button if you need time to clean your pants after a giant zombie tentacle arm comes out of nowhere and grabs you.
It’s not that easy to draw a bead on that critical joint when you’re being dragged and jostled down a pipe towards certain doom.
And plenty of doom there is. Failing to make that critical shot on the pipe tentacle results in a brief moment of hope when the tentacle disappears down a hole, however hope cruelly turns to despair when it suddenly reappears to drag you down to your demise. Disconcerting finishing moves against you can happen at any time, and if Isaac gets cut apart, his upper half flies off as his lower half unceremoniously collapses moments later.
You see, if you can strategically dismember an enemy, they can strategically dismember you, too. Set off an explosive and you might get an arm or a leg blown off. There’s no limping around doing an impression of Alex Murphy during the opening scenes of Robocop, though - lost limbs to the player always results in a fatality. EA Redwood Shores had to build a whole new engine from the top down to support this concept.
He may be beset by space zombies, but Isaac’s still got a couple of things going for him. He can perform upgrades to his suit and weapons, allowing the player to customize Isaac for their style of play, plus Isaac’s also got Stasis on his side (displayed as a circular gauge next to Isaac’s life gauge down his back). Stasis allows you to effectively freeze enemies, which lets you work out just which limb or tentacle to blow away first. Isaac’s just the repair guy, mind you, so weapons are largely limited to improvised engineering tools.
Sporting alternate fire modes, even the weapon mode indicator is cleverly represented by the way the weapon looks on screen. Although his bulky space engineering suit doesn’t allow for great agility, it does let Isaac survive in the vacuum of space courtesy of magnetic boots and life support functions (though space debris and simply losing your footing are hazards).
The EA representative demonstrated a boss fight in a zero gravity cylinder where the player had to jump from one end to the other to survive - jumping to a different area of the cylinder re-oriented the camera, which always showed the proper angle throughout our playthrough.
Dead Space is set for release on Halloween (31st October). Gruesomely brilliant, eerily creative, and frighteningly engrossing, it is one of the best games we’ve seen at E3 2008 so far. If you’re a fan of the survival horror genre or just plain like great immersive games, Dead Space is your game.
Just don’t forget to take your Brave Pills.