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The real horror these days seems to be not being able to afford the basics. Basic healthcare, food and shelter. It’s the former I’m going to focus on. Dead Space can throw all the necromorphs, asteroids and hallucinations it wants at me the real horror is in knowing that once I reach a safe room I won’t be able to afford the medical aid I so desperately need. I might be able to find some health packs down the dark, dangerous corridors but not without great difficulty or death. Being at half health and not being able to afford the basic things to power you back up all while knowing there’s rooms full of shambling corpses just waiting to rip you apart is the true horror of Dead Space, jump scares be damned!
In Dead Space you play as Isaac Clarke, a ship systems engineer in the year 2508, on a routine call out to a distressed mining ship. Unbeknownst to you and your fellows – Commander Zach Hammond and computer whiz Kendra Daniels – the planet-cracker mining star-ship USG Ishimura has suffered a cataclysmic fate. After bringing aboard an ancient artifact known as the Red Marker the crew began to go insane. Hallucinations and suicide ran rampant. The Marker brought the dead back to life as twisted horrors known as necromorphs. These creatures swiftly annihilated the rest of the Ishimura’s massive crew. As Isaac it’s up to the players to get off the ship and rescue Isaac’s doctor girlfriend Nicole Brennan while cutting apart any necromorph they see.
When Dead Space was doing the rounds at E3 and various EA press junkets and previews a decade ago the term “strategic dismemberment” was thrown around by the developers at EA Redwood (later Visceral Games, now defunct). As the necromorphs were the reanimated dead they no longer relied on a respiratory, circulatory or nervous system to guide them only the Marker. Head shots then often serve to irritate the monsters rather than kill them outright. Blowing their limbs and other disgusting appendages off was the only way forward but normal guns were never really going to do that. Instead Isaac re-purposes mining tools he finds throughout the Ishimura.
The plasma cutter and line gun function well at severing the legs and claws of necromorphs. A circular saw is outfitted with a small anti-gravity lift so that Isaac can levitate a saw blade in order to cut a necromorph into its component parts. Others like the flamethrower and pulse rifle do exactly what they say on the tin but it’s the above weapons that give the game’s combat system it’s strong backbone. The game needs it considering how horrible the enemies are.
The necromorphs are a world apart from any zombie or ghoul seen in the likes of Resident Evil or Silent Hill. They are all sloughing flesh and sharpened bone. Skin is pulled taut and ripped over flayed muscle and decaying tissue. They bleed little instead expelling a pus-like goop and small dark red tendrils whenever they lose a limb. Some crawl, others walk while others still remain stationary. The most terrifying are the baby necromorphs that crawl on all fours before their backs open and tentacles that shoot bone shards pop out. They are also the most irritating especially considering their agility and the fact that Isaac moves like a steamroller stuck in first gear.
Dead Space moved away from a traditional User Interface by incorporating every aspect of a Heads Up Display (HUD) into Isaac’s Resource Integration Gear (RIG) suit. His health bar is displayed along his spine. A click of the right stick will project a line directing Isaac to his next objective. His inventory, map and objective list are all stored in a hologram projector built into his RIG’s palm. It’s something a lot of sci-fi games never really caught onto although the Mass Effect series tried their best with the Omni-Tool. Still it was one of those little details that made Dead Space feel like the well-thought out science fiction universe that it was.
The Dead Space universe is a dystopian one, no doubt about it. Disregard the zombified space monsters for a second. The game begins on the planet-cracker star-ship USG Ishimura which is on an illegal mining operation to mine the planet Aegis VII. The ship does this by cracking the mantle of the planet before grabbing all the component pieces it can drag down its gullet and smelting the rock down for ore.
This would all be pretty standard for space mining in the 26th Century but for the fact that Aegis VII already had a colony on it. There’s also the fact that the Ishimura’s store hubs are still selling medicine instead of giving it away freely because of the ship-wide crisis. Surely a ship full of miners should have the medicine needed for their incredibly dangerous profession and the energy for their tools given to them for free? I know it helps with the tension but my late capitalism metaphor still stands.
Speaking of capitalism Dead Space sold two million copies. It spawned a franchise with three main games; several spin-offs, novels and comics and two OK animated films. Dead Space, as you can imagine from the size of the franchise, eventually hit a point of diminishing returns rather like Mass Effect another EA sci-fi property with massive sales margins.
Nothing could really compare to the compounding isolation and suspense of the first game. It’s small stories such as the engineer amputating all his own limbs with a plasma cutter so he doesn’t become a necromorph or the mad scientist bent on creating the perfect necromorph only to be killed by it in the late game that really make Dead Space worth investing in (it’s only €15 on Steam).
Dead Space is a flawed horror game. As all horror games should be. The flaws just make the best bits stand out all the clearer. Yes the last boss is disappointing but it makes the feverishly desperate engine room battle against that behemoth and the regenerating monster that needs to be burnt into it’s component atoms stand out all the clearer. Yes the textures on both Isaac and the Ishimura are often a muddle of greys and browns. It has that Gears of War look where it seems as if everything was animated with wet tea bags in mind. But the fleshy areas that have nearly been completely taken over by the encoded alien virus on the Red Marker make up for it in their pulpy wetness. It’s like the Flood ship mission in Halo 3 dialled up to 11.
To put it plainly Dead Space might just be the scariest game of the modern era. Not even the opening of Resident Evil VII can compare with Dead Space’s consistent atmosphere of dread, loneliness and absolute despair. The echoing, whispered auditory hallucinations made sure that no matter how safe you were you never actually felt that way. A rendition of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star‘ makes me never want to listen to that song again. Dead Space has not yet been equaled and I doubt it will ever be bettered.