Dead Space is an effective an atmospheric horror game that deserves a spot among the best horror titles ever made.
I’ve never been one of those people who thinks that to experience true horror you need to be alone and in a dark room. On the contrary, I think the most horrifying experiences are those that can happen at daytime and even if you’re surrounded by people. That was definitely my experience with Slender: The Arrival, Resident Evil 4 and The Blair Witch Project to name a few of my favorite pieces of horror. Dead Space is an effective an atmospheric horror game that deserves a spot among the best horror titles ever made.
In Dead Space, you take on the role of Isaac Clarke, a ship assistant engineer who lands on a mining spaceship after receiving a help message from his girlfriend. But before the rescue mission even begins, all hell breaks loose, since the crew has been murdered and turned into creatures known as Necromorphs. So you need to pull out your plasma cutter and annihilate the gruesome monsters that infest the starship. As soon as I started playing the game, I was able to draw some comparisons to System Shock 2, a first-person RPG that’s usually regarded as one of the first survival horror games ever created. The weapons, use of audio logs to convey the story, the possibility of using abilities, the RPG elements and the unsettling atmosphere definitely have a System Shock 2-vibe and that’s definitely a good thing.
The most compelling aspects about Dead Space’s combat is that to get rid of you enemies you need to strategically remove their limbs. What does this mean exactly? Basically, you need to maim enemies using the arsenal at hand in order to defeat them more effectively. All weapons have a primary and secondary functions that you can access at all times. Sometimes this means that a particular weapon rotates from an horizontal position to a vertical one, but other weapons launch grenades or emit powerful shock waves. Since there’s a variety of enemies to consider at all times (and since each type has a specific set of strengthens and weaknesses,) you need to plan strategies on the fly and having different weapons encourages that. Shooting enemies in the head isn’t a practical strategy anymore, so not only do you need to focus on removing their legs and arms, but you also have to unlearn the head shot mechanic. Depending on where you shoot the enemies, they’ll adopt different stances and strategies, so you need to pay close attention to their behavior to find their weakness. The fact that the combat is so creative makes Dead Space a flexible and entertaining survival horror game.
There are also RPG elements to consider and that’s when the upgrade system comes into play. As you explore the space station, you find special items called “power nodes” which let you improve your equipment in a special workbenches. There are different maps for your suit and weapons and each point you set, improves the reload speed, accuracy and ammunition of your weapons, the hit points of your suit and so on. In the shops that are scattered around the environments, you can buy new weapons, health packs and ammunition and sell items that are useless to you.
Apart from exploring the ship, solving light puzzles, finding new equipment and killing enemies, there are special instances when there’s zero gravity and these are my favorite levels in Dead Space. Interestingly, in these sequences you need to rely on your magnetic boots to progress. Basically, there’s a large room and there are certain surfaces where you can step on and certain surfaces where you can’t. Most of the zero gravity sequences are amazing because they let you approach environments in creative and exciting new ways (what used to be the ceiling is now the floor) and items that seemed unreachable are now more accessible. There are also vacuum sequences where you need to rely on your oxygen tank and pressurized suit and while these parts of the game are compelling from an audiovisual perspective, dying in them can be a bit frustrating.
Although all the elements I’ve described so far are terrific, I think Dead Space’s most meaningful triumph is what the game accomplishes in terms of atmosphere. The grotesque looking monsters, disturbing sound effects and bleak universe make Dead Space striking and memorable. To be fair, Dead Space does rely on cliches (there are several, but one of the most prominent ones is the use of jump scares,) but I think most of them simply fit.
Something that definitely contributes to the game’s sense of helplessness is the fact that the protagonist is really weak. As you progress through the game, you’ll unlock better weapons and the RPG elements help you improve your equipment, so you do become more powerful, but so are your enemies you encounter. So if you’re careless, you can die really quickly in this game.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Dead Space avoids some of the most frustrating aspects of the genre. For example, you’ll never get the feeling that you’re lost, since you always have a map at your disposal and by pushing a button, a line of light on the floor indicates your next destination. You can always explore your surroundings at your own pace, but should you decide to move on to your next objective, you have a visual aid at your disposal. In fact, the game managed to remove the traditional head-up display, using holographic projections for pretty much everything, including the inventory screen and three-dimensional map. All of the aforementioned elements appear in real-time, so you’re always in danger of being attacked while you’re checking your inventory or the next objective.
There are also some technically impressive elements. The one that caught my attention is the fact that there are barely any loading times. Once you’ve loaded a new chapter, the game doesn’t have to load again until the next chapter which is great because loading times take away from the experience, which ruins the atmosphere in most horror games. To be fair, Dead Space does hide some loading times (in the form of elevator rides, for instance,) but this is so well-integrated into the experience that you need to be paying too much attention to notice them.
In the end, Dead Space combines elements in a masterful way (a haunting atmosphere, engaging combat, zero gravity levels, quick time events and so on) making the experience easy to get into and hard to get away from, even if it terrifies you more often than not.