As much as I love my horror movies, it’s actually rare that I play a horror based game. Part of it is lack of options; my beloved Xbox360 has only offered an average of 2-3 games per year that are in the horror mold: the two Condemned games, Dead Rising, Alone in the Dark, and now Dead Space being the primary examples.
Oh, and there was Vampire Rain, but come on. No one counts that goddamn thing.
The other reason is that they never really scare me, which is what the developers spend most of their time trying to achieve. Instead of crafting a great story or interesting characters, they seemingly focus on “OK let’s have a big tentacle smash through the wall right here”, and I’ve seen enough horror movies to know exactly when a scare is coming. Condemned is an exception; the sound design and everyday locales (subway stations, a house, etc) provided a truly unsettling experience at times, because it was identifiable and based in some sort of reality. But Dead Space, like Alone in the Dark before it, never offers more than the (very) occasional jump scare; even during life or death boss matches I never felt truly terrified. Crazy homeless guys with bricks are far more terrifying a thought to me than a “Necromorph” or whatever the fuck.
So it’s not particularly scary. Is it a good story, with a plot you want to see unfold/see your hero succeed? Not at all. In fact, our hero is without a doubt the least personable in modern gaming history. The nameless drone in GTAIII had more personality than Dead Space’s Isaac Clarke, an engineer who never utters a single word throughout the entire game. The ending gives us a possible reason for this, but it’s flimsy at best, and I don’t quite buy it as an excuse for being mute anyway. Regardless of his situation, what kind of guy sees his girlfriend (that he’s there to rescue in the first place) and doesn’t even say “Yo”? As a result, I never really found myself truly engaged by the story (which is presented mainly via text logs and such; so if you’re not into reading, be prepared for a pretty story-free adventure). Honestly, as I reached the later levels, I didn’t really care if Clarke succeeded or not; my incentive to win was just to get the achievement points and rack up another “complete” game in my collection.
However, as an action/shooter in the vein of Gears of War (behind the shoulder view, similar mission goals), it certainly delivers gory thrills. The seven weapons you can obtain in the game are pretty fun to use (except for the flamethrower – does the damn thing EVER actually kill anything?), particularly the ripper, which is like the I Come In Peace CD weapon in gun form. I never grew tired of using stasis (slows enemies down to almost being frozen in place) and going apeshit with that thing, cutting each limb off in bloody slomo glory. And the difficulty is almost perfect; some things took a few tries, but I never felt that the game was being cheap, or that I was breezing through either (note – this reflects the medium difficulty).
But back to taking limbs off!
The game’s biggest (and pretty much only) original-ish idea is that merely shooting a monster in the head a couple times is hardly the best strategy (in some cases, it’s the worst), because it won’t even necessarily kill him. Each monster type (there are about a dozen) has a different weak point, and cutting that part off is your best bet to dispatch it quickly and with minimal ammo use (as in any survival horror game worth its salt, ammo is hardly unlimited, though it’s more plentiful than the earlier Resident Evil games). One guy has a giant hand; attack it too close, it will explode and probably take you out. Another has a disgusting sack belly that will unleash a dozen or so little critters that are tough to shoot (and will swarm all over you until you die or manage to shake them off). Then there are others that endlessly regenerate, which means you gotta use something besides what’s in your hand. In short – the enemy variety and strategic manners in which they must be dispatched are the game’s best asset by far, and almost enough to forgive the game’s low points.
Such as the repetition. There may be a dozen different enemies, but there are only like 2 or 3 different types of missions. Every level has you literally running in a circle (the ship has a tram service, so each level has you take the tram somewhere, do whatever, and then get back on the tram to go to the next place), and the mission goals never change: run from point A to point B to turn on something in room C, activate whatever that thing is in room C, and then run back to point A. A few of the later levels even have you running around the same areas you cleared in the early part of the game. There are occasional things that mix it up a bit (such as when you need to plant a beacon on a mini-asteroid and launch it out into space), but otherwise, be prepared for a heavy sense of déjà vu as you make your way through the game. Granted, you’re on a spaceship (albeit a massive one), so it’s not like a whole bunch of different locales were in the cards, but they could have at least designed it so that backtracking wasn’t so common; for example, at one point you have to go outside the ship, but only the one time. Maybe 1-2 other sequences like this would have helped give the game a little more variety in the visual department.
The game also could have benefited from simply opening up the entire ship and letting you solve its many electrical and structural problems at your own pace. Sure, there would still be backtracking, but it would feel more natural, and would also dull a lot of that “on rails” feeling. The game has almost zero story anyway, so it wouldn’t make much difference if you turned on the shields before or after you fixed the cargo lift.
Another issue is that the puzzles are way too easy. Again, a lot of them are the same (take out the battery that’s powering door X and put it into the slot for door Y comes up a lot), which doesn’t help matters. The only puzzle in the entire game that required some light brainwork was a bit late in the game when you’re being chased by one of those always regenerating monsters and you need to slide blocks around in order to make it from one end of the room to the other. Even the big bosses all have a pretty obvious weak spot (a giant yellow sack); it’s just a matter of lining up your shot and then dodging his retaliation attack. I’m actually pretty lousy at these games, but there was never a point where I needed to consult a walkthrough, which is, I believe, a first. After a while I was praying for an escort mission or even a timed sequence (both overused game clichés) just to mix it up a bit.
(Actually, to be fair – the final mission IS an escort mission of sorts, but it’s not a person, it’s a fucking rock).
To cap it off, there is little replay value. Once you finish it, you can start a new game with all of your upgraded equipment (the guns can be upgraded via “nodes” – it’s a concept that was used in BioShock, and even going back to Parasite Eve), which is kind of cool; the enemies never really get any more difficult as the game progresses, but it’s still satisfying to blow through the first couple levels with a maxed out gun you didn’t even have access to the first time around.
And of course, it’s impossible to get all of the achievements (or trophies, if you’re a PS3 person) the first time around, so if you’re an AP whore like me, it’s worth another run just to add another couple hundred points to your score (if you play the game on medium, you can get all but one achievement, which is pretty sweet; Gears of War, for example, only yields you about 200 or so for a medium difficulty playthrough). But there’s no other benefit to doing so – the story is too paper thin to benefit from further examination, and there are no “choices” to make during the game or even alternate paths to take to your goals. In short, apart from having stronger weapons, it’s the exact same game you already played, and the weapon upgrades don’t mean new ammo types or anything; they’re just stronger and faster (so the big change is that a guy will take 3-4 hits instead of 5-6). There are no multiplayer options either, and beyond new suits to wear, it doesn’t seem suited for downloadable content.
So basically, it’s a great rental, but for 60 bucks, EA didn’t really do anything to set itself apart from previous (superior) action horror games to warrant the cost, especially in a crowded holiday market (someone buy me Fallout 3!). It takes ideas from The Thing, Bioshock, Resident Evil, Parasite Eve (not to mention any number of space-set horror movies)... and doesn’t really add anything of its own. Even the dismemberment mechanic can be found in the Fallout games. And by now, you can buy all of those games combined for less money. Maybe if it came bundled with the comic and the prequel movie Downfall (which actually shows more effort in its respective medium), it would be a decent value, but otherwise, if you simply must buy it, you might want to wait until it gets marked down a bit, or else your sixty bucks will be spent faster than you can say Event Horizon.
What say you?