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Developer: EA Redwood Shores
System: Xbox 360
Release date: Available now
Review by: Ed Humphries
There are no new ideas, just new ways of freshening up the old ones. At least, that’s how the old cliché goes. While it’s a tenet derived from narrative fiction, the same notion can be applied to video games, a medium that continues to push the idea of interactive storytelling with new and exciting ways of involving the player in the narrative, even if the stories never really evolve beyond the same yarns that have been spun in the past. But, as with fiction, old tales can be rendered new when enough care and polish is applied. With the launch of Dead Space, EA presents a new take on a somewhat creaky survival horror genre in desperate need of a fresh voice.
At the outset of the game, your character, Isaac Clarke (a possible homage to Asimov and Arthur C.), is awakened aboard a vessel streaking through the void to rendezvous with the deep-space mining ship USG Ishimura. The crew of this “planet cracker” has made an amazing discovery on the surface below, and as the scientists aboard begin the process of deciphering their archaeological find, all hell breaks loose. Responding to a mysterious distress signal transmitted by Clarke’s girlfriend, Clarke has two main objectives: rescue the girl, and sift through the rubble and decay that has overtaken the Ishimura in an attempt to understand how things have gone so horribly wrong.
Dead Space is a variation of the survival horror classic Resident Evil. You wander through dank, dark corridors hunting down clues and solving environmental puzzles that clear a path deeper into the ship. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way from RE’s key hunts, as a number of the challenges faced by Clarke prove to be realistically complex. In one sequence, Clarke is forced to fix a radar array that has been compromised in a firefight by replacing the damaged dishes with viable replacements. To complicate matters, the equipment is located in a zero-g environment overrun with vicious aliens, prompting you to multitask as you extract the broken equipment, hunt down the replacements, take advantage of the lowered gravity and jump from floor to ceiling while taking time out to battle malicious beasties. Mind-benders like this are abundant throughout the game, mixing up the puzzle solving with the action, and keeping your brain and trigger fingers occupied.
An inspiration on loan from Bioshock is the use of audio and video files to further the narrative without pulling you out of the gameplay. As you search the ship’s crumbled interior, you find these recordings, which begin to play when you pick them up. The audio files are piped over the soundtrack, while the video entries appear as a holographic projection that emanates from Clarke’s RIG suit. While this attention to detail helps to color in the corners of the game world, it also moves the story along without distracting you from the action. As the story progresses and the narrative clips grow more chilling and revelatory, these haunting dialogue patches, coupled with the extremely creepy ambient soundscape that constantly surrounds you, conspire to ratchet up the fear factor.
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