In space, no one can hear you snore
HIGH The game's final battle is pure spectacle.
LOW Realizing after four fetchquests that it probably wasn't going to get any deeper.
WTF I'm practically alone on a derelict cruiser and I still need to hoard money?!?
For the record, the only reason I bothered to finish Dead Space was so that I could review it without having to hear fans of the game wailing that I didn't play it all the way through. I knew after the first two hours that nothing at the end would redeem its shortcomings, but I had to push forward regardless, if only to deliver my criticisms with impunity.
Before getting to what's wrong, let me say what's right: the graphics. Dead Space is indeed a very attractive-looking game, with lots of detail everywhere and plenty of visual polish to spare. I also give the game points for the way they've integrated traditional HUD information into the character design. First impressions of the game are going to almost universally be good ones, since it's not until a player has spent some time with the title that the warts began to show.
In my opinion, Dead Space's biggest issue is that the gameplay boils down to walking down a series of corridors while killing aliens, flipping a switch or picking up an item, and then walking right back to where you started from, killing more aliens in the corridor you've just come down. The entire adventure is an unbroken string of menial fetch quests, making me feel more like an interstellar errand boy than someone fighting for survival.
Worse, these tasks are so false and banal that it was nearly impossible for me to remember what I was supposed to be doing or where I was supposed to be going without constantly checking my quest log and using the game's direction-finder. And really, it didn't even matter—all I needed to know was which hallway I was supposed to clear in order to progress the story. It's not until past the game's midway point that things start to get mildly interesting, but even then only in fits and starts. Dead Space is packed with boring, repetitive filler from start to finish, and its cumulative twelve hours of gameplay could have been condensed down to six, and been better for it.
Games with lackluster gameplay are nothing new, but they can sometimes be partially redeemed by great characters or an intriguing story. Dead Space has neither.
Failing on nearly every level, anyone who's seen more than three science-fiction films will be able to call out the generic and cliché elements that are the core of the plot, as Dan so ably noted. Exacerbating the cookie-cutter formula, the developers absurdly chose to make main character Isaac Clarke a silent protagonist, completely obliterating any chance of interesting characterization or dialogue. Clarke is (I guess) trying to rescue his loved one throughout the adventure, and multiple characters speak directly to him, but by not uttering a single word it's hard to feel anything or attach any sort of emotional weight to a man completely cloaked in esoteric fetish armor.
Grabbing beyond the sci-fi genre, Dead Space indulges in every survival horror trope as well. From constantly finding conveniently-placed audio and text logs, to ominous growling sounds when nothing's there, to endless monster-in-the-closet placements, to completely predictable "pull the switch, and then get ambushed" moments, everything that's supposed to be scary here has been done better in other games. The future-industrial level design is completely uninspiring as well, feeling not like a spaceship, but like a watered-down version of Doom 3 with a few more windows thrown in.
In addition to its severe lack of freshness, there are several incongruous or nonsensical elements that only serve to undercut the entire experience. For example, who thought it was a good idea to include a money and upgrade system? The main character is supposed to be an engineer on a high-tech ship, and he's got to deal with picking up credits and selling "diamond semiconductors" back to an automated store in order to buy the equipment he needs?
Also out of place are the "kinesis" and "stasis" powers. Feeling like nothing so much as some current-trend keeping up with the Joneses, both of these elements (responsible for moving objects from a distance and slowing time) are Dead Space's only efforts towards including puzzles to break up the combat, and they don't seem to fit thematically with the rest of what's been set up. So, Clarke is an engineer, but can move things with his mind and he can also stop time? That sounds handy, but where I'm from, technicians simply shut down the machines they're working on before they start repairs.
I also found it utterly baffling that the most interesting and appropriate segments of the game, the zero-gravity areas, were entirely too short and too few in number. A pity, since these novel segments could've been a real claim to fame if the game had centered more around them.
Finally, I also feel an obligation to mention EA's transparent effort to wring more dollars out of consumers by releasing a slew of insignificant mods and skins for download shortly after the game launched. I suppose I shouldn't let it bother me since these are completely optional and don't affect my evaluation of the retail release in any way, yet I can't help but feel that we are on the edge of an extremely slippery slope, and this is just one more piece of evidence in support of that. How long before developers start releasing full-priced games with half the content they should be shipping with, only to put "extra" bits that should have been included from the start up for sale on PSN or Xbox Live?
Dan's right when he says that Dead Space is the equivalent of a beach novel or competent summer blockbuster…although I think our levels of appreciation for such a thing are quite different. This has been a fantastic year for games, and as such, I think there is little room for titles who fail to bring something new and worthwhile to the table; should solid shooting mechanics and good looks be all we expect? If all of the fancy, high-gloss graphics were stripped away, what you'd be left with is something that feels a decade old and would be easily mistaken for one of the countless survival horror cash-ins that plagued consoles during the last generation. I suppose players who crave another go-round with this type of minimum requirement content can take Dead Space for what it is, but in my view, it isn't much.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody's looking, and his favorite game of all time is a toss-up between the first Mass Effect and The Witcher 3. You can catch his written work here at GameCritics and you can hear him weekly on the @SoVideogames Podcast. Follow Brad on Twitter and Instagram at @BradGallaway, or contact him via email:
bradgallaway a t gmail dot com