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    Dead Space - Déjà Tue
    Thursday, 18 December 2008
    Given the riot at the première of Shostakovich's The Rite of Spring - such was the shock of all those new disharmonies, apparently - you can't help imagining the projectile vomiting that would have greeted the likes of Dead Space (or maybe that's just me). Either way, if these days we need visceral horror to jolt us out of our complacency, Dead Space is here to plaster our stunted little gamer brains with lashings of screaming gore.

    Which, needless to add, we get by the bucket-load. Unlike The Rite of Spring, however, it's neither particularly shocking nor the least bit new. Playing an engineer called Isaac Clarke, you crash-land on the mining vessel Ishimura to discover that its crew has turned into - whodathunkit - screaming, homicidal zombie-alien-mutants.

    So far, so what. In the same spirit, here's a potted summary of what you get next:

    First, a hero whom you glimpse only once before he becomes the Man in the Iron Welding Mask, controlled from an over-the-right-shoulder view as he braves flickering lights, clank-skreeaak sound-effects and blood-spattered rooms designed by artists whose screenwriter equivalents get paid Actual Money to type this sort of thing:

    JOHN Q. REDSHIRT
    I got a bad feeling about this...

    Your weapons are a kind of space-age welding kit, which entertainingly enough breaches every imaginable health and safety regulation by shooting knives of light some twenty feet through the air. You also get a time-slowing effect called "stasis" and - despite everything else on the boat being absolutely fubar - a fully-functioning network of guns'n'ammo vending machines.

    Isaac is guided through this Tartarean mess by his surviving crew "mates", who continually yelp things like, "The emergency-security-access-override-systems are offline! Hey, Isaac, would you kindly go down that very dark corridor - the one with all the screaming and the blood - and get the key?" And so on, through level after bloody level, to the point that it's quite satisfying when they start getting shredded. (And if you couldn't see that coming, you don't deserve to have thumbs.)

    Much has been made of Dead Space's source material - Doom 3, Event Horizon, Solaris - and yes, it really is that derivative. But its various knowing winks seem like an attempt at intertextual chic, as if to say: look, because we know it's derivative, that makes it all, like, postmodern. But it's doesn't; unfortunately it's still just unoriginal crap, so devoid of new ideas it could have been a JRPG.

    (And so much, then, for CEO John Riccitiello's remarks last year about how EA were going to - don't laugh - innovate.)

    As for Dead Space, its own much-touted novelty - its USP, perhaps - is what its creators call "strategic dismemberment". In the real world, that sounds like a Beltway euphemism for what the Pentagon does to third-world countries; in the game, this means... wait for it... you shoot off their limbs.

    Wow. God help their share price if that's the best they can come up with.

    To try something more radical with the story, they've thrown in a cultish religion called Unitology - but that's as far as any satire goes; everything else is caricature, even to the extent that one villain has both a Middle-Eastern appearance and accent (why didn't they just make him French?). The narrative itself is by turns amateurish, boring, predictable and ultimately a complete mess; any surprises come from monsters, not the plot.

    But the game's real hollow core is Isaac himself. The various Half Lifes worked in spite of the mute protagonist, not because of him - and even that jolly green gruntosaurus Master Chief had more charisma than this pie-faced dullard. Unresponsive and unreactive, his catatonia even extends to the physical: apparently, if you're clodhopping around in a glorified Victorian diver's suit, space-men can't jump. As if to emphasise this, there's even a mini-game in a basketball court.

    And so Arthur C. Asimov - sorry, Isaac the Terrible - goes stomping on around the Ishimura (which is presumably Japanese for "pastiche"), fetching yet more keys and dismembering yet more zombie-alien-mutants. Bleh.

    But even if it sucks as a piece of art, it can still work as a game, right?

    Well, strangely... it does. For ten whole minutes. Because as you're flung straight into the bowels of hell, it serves up some decent shocks: necromorphs come slashing out of nowhere, the music screams at you, you're all alone(ish), and armed with a puny weapon. Hoorah.

    One of the best things about what follows is not the shock-horror, nor the minimal HUD, nor even the zero-G stuff (which is fine, if unspectacular) - but rather the inventory system, which forces you to make vital tactical decisions about what to carry: an extra air-tank or that stasis pack? The circular saw weapon, or the flame-thrower? Ammo is rare, and hoarding items becomes compulsive. Combined with the weapons upgrade system, this keeps things interesting long after everything else has turned to meh.

    Because, far too soon - around the eleventh minute, in fact - the creatures become just as predictable as the story. Even the most bad-ass monsters eventually hold no fear; body parts bounce around like they're made of rubber, the effect of which is unintentionally comical. In a survival horror, which depends for its effectiveness on making you jump, this is fatal.

    Which is a shame. There's nothing inherently wrong with the levels and puzzles (which are possessed of a certain baroque elegance); it's just that they're old hat, there are too many of them, and they're all the same. Likewise, the story is bonkers, confused and unoriginal, but so is Event Horizon. It goes on too long, but so does Solaris. The otherwise decent score is so unrelenting that you zone it out like a car alarm, the more so when you realise it's all been nicked from Bernard Hermann. The monsters become repetitive and predictable, just like in Doom 3. So... are you seeing a pattern yet?

    With all that and not much replay value too, Dead Space isn't exactly enticing for forty quid. But it's certainly rentable, so if you have a weekend to spare, you like survival horror, and you have no cultural frame of reference whatsoever, go right ahead.

    Just don't expect it to be Doom 4.
    posted by Daft @ 12:30  
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