by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 26th October, 2018
Dead Space, one of the best survival horror games and also one of the best Sci-Fi games of all times, turned ten years a couple weeks ago. Back when it launched in 2008 the game was sort of a new IP gamble for EA (oh, the good times when a major publisher was ready to launch a new single-player IP without expecting it to become the next big thing in video games) and the company didn't invest lots of money in promotion, resulting in the game arriving without massive hype which ultimately helped it to secure great review scores.
Yes, Dead Space ended up as one of the year's best games (and remember that 2008 was a phenomenal year for gaming with titles such as GTA IV, Fallout 3, Metal Gear Solid 4, Mirror's Edge, Resistance 2, Red Alert 3, Little Big Planet, Far Cry 2, Race Driver GRID, Braid, Valkyria Chronicles, Spore, Left 4 Dead, PC edition of Mass Effect, WOW: Wrath of the Lich King, and many more) and its legacy lives on even today, a decade after its release. The first game was soon followed by equally good if not better sequel but the weak Dead Space 3 put the series on ice, and with the closure of Visceral Games, we probably won't see another Dead Space game. Which is a shame because the mixture of ultra-tense survival horror and Sci-Fi setting is quite rare in video games and we sure would want to see another game taking a similar approach. But since no game of such shape (except maybe the remaster of the original System Shock) is in sight, it is worth replaying Dead Space because even today, this game is an amazing piece of video games history.
It all started back in EA Redwood Shores studio (which changed the name to Visceral Games in 2009) when a team of developers decided to create System Shock sequel. This System Shock 3 game should offer the same eerie horror vibes combined with space background setting and an anti-utopic story dealing with dangers of AI like we experienced in previous two games but after one cult classic game, the team decided to change direction. The game in question was Resident Evil 4, a title that started a new era for survival horror games and after seeing it in action, people in Redwood Shores team decided to abandon their System Shock 3 title and radically change direction. They kept Sci-Fi space setting but decided to create a dark and scary game capable of inducing fear and excitement in gamers from start to finish. Dead Space was born.
The game was announced in 2007 but since its promotion was low key compared to AAA titles the general public was practically unaware of the game at the time of its release, in October 2008. But soon after everyone started talking about Dead Space and rightfully so. The game proved to be a spectacular survival horror that changed haunting towns and far away villages in Africa for a deep space setting, which was never seen before in the genre. Other circumstances also favored the original. The rise of new generation of survival horror games, those that ditched weapons and went with stealth and running away approach was still years away with the originator of the trend, Penumbra, seeing its first two episodes in 2007 and 2008. On the other side, Resident Evil 5 was still half a year away and Silent Hill Homecoming got released less than a month before Dead Space only to be gutted by critics and gamers alike. The market needed a quality survival horror and Dead Space filled that gap perfectly.
Dead Space begins with an in-engine cinematic of a spaceship bridge talking about a rescue mission of a stranded ship called the USG Ishimura. The ship sends out a distress signal before cutting down all coms and a rescue mission was sent soon after. You play as one of the members of the mission, an engineer named Isaac Clarke (the name was a combination of names of Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke, the two greatest names in Science Fiction literature) who has a girlfriend on board the Ishimura making the mission personal. And after the first ten minutes of the game after the shit hits the fan you are left alone on a giant interstellar mining ship with a simple plasma cutter and a mission to simply survive. And during the first couple of minutes of gameplay Dead Space reveals almost all of its genius embodied in gameplay elements, weapons, visuals, environments, and the main characters. Let's discuss each of those and elaborate why Dead Space still is one of the best survival horrors of all times.
First, let's talk about Necromorphs, monsters you fight throughout the game. These horrific reanimated and mutated dead are one of the stars of the show. Every good survival horror has to have penetrative monsters capable of inducing primal fear in minds of gamers and Necromorphs are doing it without any effort. Their looks are grotesque and sick beyond limits. Developers used images of war victims and car crashes before designing Necromorphs and they perfectly emit huge amounts of suffering from their tortured, mutated, mutilated bodies, torment-filled facial expression, and agonizing screams capable of freezing the blood in your veins. And the game's controversial inclusion of children and babies, which also appeared as Necromorphs served the purpose of making you highly discomfort while shooting at them, making you forget about moral norms and making you really understand that if you want to survive, you have to do anything it takes. Necromorphs look, feel, and sound gruesome and are one of the things that launched Dead Space to the peak of survival horror genre.
And then when you try to shoot a Necromorph in the head it will not take damage, it will simply become annoyed and will lash at you while screaming in hellish voice. Dead Space abandoned the convention of shooting enemies in body and head and turned the gameplay around by making players to shoot monsters' limbs instead. This reversal of the most common norm in video games made Dead Space original and exciting shooter because everything you learned, your reflexes had to be contained while you strategically tore Necromorphs limb by limb. They could only be killed by dismembering their mutated claws rising out of their shoulders and their elongated and monstrous legs, and many of them stayed alive even when left without their limbs simply screaming and hobbling on the floor requiring you to stomp their heads and finally kill them. This change in shooting gameplay affected Dead Space in the most positive way, making players to learn a completely new strategy for defeating enemies, giving the game a fresh direction and original gameplay addition.
And dismembering is done with a highly unusual suite of weapons. Instead of reaching for tried and true arsenal of pistols, shotguns, future weapons like laser and plasma rifles, Dead Space offered set of engineering tools instead. You see Isaac is an engineer and it is logical he knows how to use plasma cutters, welding torch, rotary saw, and others tools used for mining. They may sound bland and uninteresting but playing the game with the set of mining tools made to cut stuff was a blast. Most weapons were amazing to use, especially the Plasma Cutter, which you get at the start of the game, a weapon that was highly useful to the very end. The game also offered players to upgrade their weapons and the suit, another crucial part of Dead Space.
The engineering suite worn by Isaac played the part of an immersive hud that made Dead Space much more engrossing than most other games. Instead of having your health, weapon used, map, and other info dotted all over the screen you played Dead Space without a single classic HUD element. Health and energy for special items were shown on the back of the suit (the famous spine health line) as well as the remaining air during parts played in a vacuum. A tiny hologram would appear above every weapon showing the remaining ammo. And there wasn't a mini map, you would have to call it by pressing M on the keyboard when a big holographic map would simply appear in front of you. And to substitute the lack of the minimap, developers gave players a waypoint system that showed the path to the next objective by projecting a holographic line on the floor. Holograms are also used to show items available in the store and weapon upgrades. The lack of the classic HUD was a phenomenal part of Dead Space and it made the fear and horrors even more believable with the level of immersion going through the roof.
Another ingenious part of Dead Space was the USG Ishimura, its set of tight corridors, its sprawling interior, and its charm of a perfect haunted house for this horror masterpiece. The Ishimura was a proper character of Dead Space. The design of the game made the ship to look gritty, industrious, cold, and more as a giant machine than a spaceship. The whole artistic direction of the game is less like Star Trek and more like the gritty world of near future The Expanse TV show and book series. Its corridors saw many different mining crews moving through them, its engines took humans to many different worlds which were later destroyed in the planet cracking mining process that sees whole planets literally turned to ash in order to excavate precious minerals, its halls have seen millions of different faces while they lived on Ishimura during their mining missions. The ship is huge, old, used up, and a perfect setting for a survival horror game. Tight corridors filled with darkness and many doors on each side guarantee tension while players lead Isaac through them. The ship's tram system is a tiny safety place where most missions begin and end, making you feel joyful and safe when reaching a tram station in each level, and also making you stressed up and fearful when starting a new mission, exiting the tram and going into unknown. The ship is filled with different environments but each carries the signature look and feel that reassures players they still wander about the old mining ship.
And that ship was filled with breached hull sections and with whole areas where the artificial gravity malfunctioned, offering the most original parts of Dead Space. Zero gravity parts of the game gave Dead Space a new dimension by forcing players to forget about up and down and to just try to survive while being attacked by gruesome undead. The parts of the game that takes place in the vacuum are horrific in their own way because you have that tiny hologram on Isaac's back that is slowly ticking down, showing how much time you have before your air supply runs out and before you suffocate. On top of all that, parts in vacuum feature complete silence (you know, sound cannot travel in the vacuum) that creates even bigger tension because you cannot know if something will crawl to you from the back. The parts that combined zero gravity and vacuum were the best parts of Dead Space, combining two eerie elements and further confirming the truth of the famous sentence that "in space, no one can hear you scream." The tension was aggravated by the fact that Isaac was silent as they can be.
And now we come to the other main character of Dead Space, aside from Ishimura, Isaac Clarke, an engineer that mostly does engineering jobs, aside from killing mutated monsters. You see, most objectives in Dead Space include fixing stuff; the remaining crew of the rescue ship will send you around the ship to fix its environmental systems, its power core, engines, tram system, and other parts that have to be fixed in order for the ship to be fully operational, allowing survivors of the rescue mission to return home. This perfectly fits Isaac's role so we don't see him as some superhero who will kill every bad guy and rescue everyone; instead, he's a simple engineer who may die any second but who is the only person capable of fixing the damn ship, thus making his solo journey believable. The character's charm lays also in the fact that Isaac won't say a word during the whole game, which can hurt the game if not done properly. But in Dead Space, a mute main character proved to be a winning choice.
The game's visuals are, much like the USG Ishimura, gritty and rough around the edges but that doesn't mean the game isn't a looker. Dead Space looked amazing by 2008 standards but the game utilized a sort of industrial design-like visuals that offered realism with detailed character models, matte surfaces, and sharp textures along with life-like animations but without unnecessary flair like over-the-top special effects, shiny and reflective surfaces (which were a thing back then, when Unreal 3 engine dominated the gaming industry), too much bloom and various screen effects like film grain, vignetting, motion blur or the awful chromatic aberration. This made the game look clean, sharp, and visually striking while allowing it to keep its grittiness and gory charm.
Dead Space also featured an eerie orchestral soundtrack that gave the game another dimension of horror and made players to sweat and tremble during each fight and to feel like on needles while exploring the ship, awaiting the next necromorph to jump out from the door or to fall on them from the ventilation shaft. The soundtrack sounds like some evil, dark masse symphony with industrial elements and twisted melodies that perfectly build tension and have a great contribution to the game's effective atmosphere. The mixture of peaceful, but unnerving, parts and grandiose crescendos that sound like they came out of the orchestral version of the new Septic Flesh album is cannot be more fitting for a game like Dead Space. The soundtrack is amazing and it simply has to be listened to on its own; it's that good.
And finally, the story. The story started slow, but it kept near perfect pace throughout the game. You would wonder about the origin of Necromorph infestation for the most part of Dead Space and the game will slowly give you answers in the form of many audio and text logs scattered through levels. But, instead of presenting additional parts of the lore, often uninteresting and not dealing with the main events of the game, audio and text logs in Dead Space played an important role in the main story. You would slowly find out, piece by piece, the flow of events that lead to the complete annihilation of the colony of the planet below and Ishimura itself, you would slowly find out details about Necromorphs not revealed in cinematics and conversation with NPC characters. Also, the fictional religion in Dead Space, that was the main reason for Necromorph infestation, Unitology (the satiric representation of Scientology) didn't really play a major role in the main story, but it had plenty to do with the Markers and with the incident that initiated the plague. And it was all scattered around each level and players had to go away from the main routes to find all bits of the story, which was truly interesting. And Markers were a perfect tribute to Isaac Clarke and his Monoliths found in Space Odyssey novels. But instead accelerating evolution in order to reveal humans secrets that will grant them advanced technology allowing them to live in peace and prosperity, Dead Space Markers accelerated evolution for nefarious goals, which included killing all sentient beings on a planet with the help of humans who will build Marker replicas to accelerate the process of destroying the planet's biosphere. Dead Space story was excellent and it gave the game an additional reason to play it till the end because you simply had to know everything about Necromorphs, the incident, about Isaac's girlfriend, and about the crew of the USG Ishimura.
And all these elements combined built an atmosphere so thick with tension and horror it was unreal. It is a shame Dead Space came out ten years ago because if the game came out today in the world of VR it would probably end as the best VR experience beside Resident Evil VII. Dead Space was a horrific game with elements that together built an experience capable of staying in your mind for decades. And this is why many gamers still have fond memories of this game; it left an important mark in video games history and it is a shame that its sequels didn't manage to offer the same mind-bending atmosphere and quality of the story and gameplay the original had. So go play Dead Space and find out why this game is considered as one of the most horrific, intense, visceral (pun not intended), and enjoyable survival horror experiences in modern gaming.