Infinite Themes: Dead Space series

Look, I’m a sucker for space. Alien is one of my favorite movies, Mars Curiosity landed on my birthday, and Moon Pies are my favorite snack. Space is dope. When I found out there was a third person action horror game being set in space, I was ecstatic. Enter Visceral Game’s Dead Space. Released in 2008 on the Xbox 360/PS3/PC, Dead Space has you taking control of Isaac Clarke. Isaac is a man of no words, who is a simple engineer sent on a mission to find out what happened on the USG Ishimura. You see, Isaac has a wife on the Ishimura, one who he has not heard from for a while. As Isaac and his team approach the debris-ridden vessel, in classic horror fashion things immediately start going south. After making an emergency landing, Isaac has no other choice but to explore the ship on his own.  Throughout their journey aboard the Ishimura, players slowly start unraveling the mystery of what happened aboard this ship.

Dead Space 2 takes the formula established in DS1, and turns it up to eleven. Not only are the graphics and sound improved, but Isaac is more responsive and quicker too. Dead Space 2 sees Isaac aboard The Sprawl. The Sprawl is basically a city floating in space, which Isaac wakes up upon several years after the events of the Ishimura. What follows is some of the most intense and immersive gameplay experiences that one can partake in this last generation. Here’s why:

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Ammo, Health, and Ability all displayed without breaking immersion

The HUD – One of the big draws to Dead Space is it’s lack of HUD, or Heads Up Display. While most games have art on the screen such as health bars and mini maps, Dead Space does away with this by including all vital information on Isaac. The players health is located on Isaac’s spine, separated by bars. Your Stasis ability, which slows down time, is represented by a small semi-circle also located on Isaac’s back. These small tweaks and removal of clutter on the screen makes the player focus more on what is happening in the physical space around Isaac, not some magic meter that is ever floating on the screen.

The Sound Design- Sound is one of the major breaking points for a game. While most people take good sound design for granted (good sound design rarely gets noticed because it’s doing it’s job so well), it can definitely help make a good game great, and an okay game terrible. The sound design in the Dead Space series is the former; ranging from loud air filters sucking oxygen out of the room, or the barely audible whispers of Isaac’s name ringing in your ears, the sound in Dead Space takes the tension to a whole new level. Sure, necromorphic creatures are scary enough by themselves visually, but hearing them clamber above you in the vents with their gnarly, gnashing tongues makes the hair stand up on your neck quicker than anything you will see in the game. You know your game has good sound when it could be a text adventure with a soundtrack and still be tense as all hell.

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The Art Direction - Artistically, the Dead Space series is nightmare-inducing. The environments are cold and daunting. Necromorphs have multiple limbs and sacs that bulge and ooze. Isaac’s engineering suit is bad ass and practical. Not only did the concept artists do a great job of creating a universe that could eventually been seen as reality, but the programmers and designers did a wonderful job bringing the artists vision to life. Shadows and lighting play a big role in the series, keeping the environments lit just well enough so you can barely tell if that lump on the ground is a human, or something else waiting to pop out at you.

The Story Presentation – While this series does have a forgettable story, the way that it is presented to the player helps keep them from remembering that they are in fact playing a game. Aside from an opening cut scene, control of Isaac is always in players hands. The camera is close and personal throughout, and all the story element are seen from Isaac’s point of view. Whether he is collecting audio logs, reading messages wrote in blood on the wall, or getting thrown out to space by a massive creature, players use these bits and snippets to piece together what exactly went wrong in each setting.

Visceral Games achieved something rather fascinating for a relatively new development company; a successful marriage between setting, graphics, gameplay, and sound. While this trilogy may not have been on anybody’s Game of the Year lists, it is one of those games that every time I go back and play it, I can’t help but let its hooks sink into me and drag me in for another 8 hour binge. With EA announcing is partnership with Disney to bring some Star Wars games, I can only hope that Visceral (or Bioware) is at helm to bring us an immersive, mature Star Wars story which the gaming community desperately deserves.

Dead Space 1 and 2 are available on Steam, and the complete trilogy is available on EA’s Origin store.

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