Monday, October 20, 2008

Stomping Around In Dead Space

I've been watching recent game releases, thinking of picking up a new game for my XBox 360 that would be worthy of the insane sixty dollar price tag. Reviews and free demos of Star Wars : The Force Unleased and Fracture made me decide to wait and see what else was coming out. Last week, I took the plunge and picked up Dead Space, an EA game of survival horror set aboard a huge planet-cracking space ship.

Now, the so-called survival horror genre kind of spent its nickel with me a long time ago, possibly as far back as Resident Evil, when those dogs come jumping through the window. Since then, nothing in gaming really makes me jump out of my seat like that, because every new room I enter, I'm remembering those dogs and am ready for it. You know the cliches, and in many of the genre's titles, Dead Space included, moody music cues you in to impending zombie "gotcha".

Dead Space does all the standard stuff very well, though. It plays with the over-the-right-shoulder view of Resident Evil 4, with your health bar running along your spine as a part of your Celestial-esque (a Jack Kirby/Marvel Comics reference, look it up) space armor. Corpses, debris, and gore are everywhere in the derelict ship, and the monsters that hop out at you consist of mutated things that claw and stab. It's the standard story of the nutjob scientist with delusions of grandeur, down on stagnated human evolution and thinking that somehow savagely violent virus-mutated monsters are the way ahead. And the spaceship is the standard design seen since those Alien movies, with dark metal halls lined with tubes and wires. Yawn.

Everything is very polished from the stunning graphics and moody lighting to the interfaces, heads-up displays, and the controls. My only complaint about the controls is that the inventory takes too long to come up, and one wrong movement on the D-pad can mean trouble if you pass over the med kit you need. The action does not pause when you're digging around in your inventory.

The game would be pretty good if it just did all that - got everything right and polished. But there are a few gameplay elements that really shine in Dead Space, the biggest one being the zero-gravity areas. Moving and fighting in these areas could have gone horribly wrong, but thankfully they got it working well. You're wearing magnetic boots, so when you enter zero gravity areas, you stick to the floor. When you need to get somewhere that's not on the floor, you aim the left trigger to where you want to go and hit the Y button to jump across.

This makes for some fun, vertigo-twisting gameplay a-la Super Mario Galaxy, when suddenly up is down. Another exceptional gamplay aspect is the need to dismember many of your enemies to take them down. Straight shots to the chest may slow them down, but only by taking off an arm and a leg (much like game makers do to us with these SIXTY DOLLAR GAMES) will you finish them off.

There's a cool stasis ability which can be a livesaver when it freezes / slows down enemies, and a kinesis ability that's use is akin to the awesome gravity gun from Half Life 2. In fact, I've used it in similar manners, shooting explosive tanks at oncoming enemies with the same effect. Both of these abilities are used to solve puzzles as well as in combat.

The armored hero has a powerful melee option, swinging wildly the gun he is holding, in a forward and return arc. He's also got a thundering stomp ability, not that useful all the time, but fun to break open crates with and pulp up the blood-splattering corpses of downed enemies.

I've reached as far as a really tough boss fight at the end of Chapter 6 of Dead Space so far, and I'm having a good time with it. Dead Space is the first really good title of the holiday season this year, doing all the conventional stuff of survival horror really well (and polished), and then becoming exceptional with some great new gameplay elements thrown into the mix.

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