The creatures, meanwhile, are really nasty. Again, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before from iD, Valve or Capcom – and at times Dead Space comes frighteningly close to homage – yet these guys gave me the heebie jeebies like I haven’t had for ages. EA’s one major tweak is to make the vulnerable spots not the usual places, like the head or neck, but the limbs. The fiends advance on your like hell-spawned variants on Mr Tickle, their evil, razor-clawed limbs stretching towards you. Some move fast. Some fling themselves at you. There are little ones that swarm you, medium sized ones that fire projectiles at you from their tentacles, and some genuinely terrifying gits that can’t be killed.
Using a range of cutting and slicing projectile weapons, your engineer hero has to – literally – tear these ugly muthas apart limb by limb. For once we’re out of the familiar realms of pistol, assault rifle, shotgun, rocket launcher and into a scary new world of plasma cutters, line launchers and rippers. Each has an ingenious secondary fire mode, giving you one of the more satisfying arsenals I’ve come across in ages.
There’s more praise coming: the storytelling and pacing are just excellent, each chapter giving you a series of tasks to do that take you up against new threats and into interesting new territories, and each culminating in a satisfying climax, whether it’s a kind of boss battle, a new plot twist or a cool set-piece. Gameplay ideas are rifled from Half-Life 2 (the Gravity Gun), F.E.A.R. (a slow-mo device, though more used in puzzles than combat) and Prey (lots of monkeying around with gravity), but they’re all used with a real panache and there are few stretches of the game that could be described as dull or monotonous.
And like the Half-Life saga and Bioshock, Dead Space knows the value of a strong but basically anonymous hero. Isaac Clarke (spot the nods to sci-fi history) doesn’t say much, but he makes a great point of identification for the player. Sure, there are moments where you can’t help thinking of Doom 3 – Dead Space pulls a lot of the same sudden shock and ambush tricks – but Dead Space is a more consistently thrilling and frightening game. True, it’s not as long or as varied as Resident Evil 4. Still, much as I love Capcom’s bizarre plotlines and eccentric melodrama, Dead Space feels a little more coherent and believable.
EA has also worked in a lot of mechanics that make Dead Space a more streamlined, absorbing and accessible game to boot. One of the game’s cleverest conceits is that Clarke’s suit projects a HUD onto the environment, and the game uses this to control all switches, options, information and inventory management without ever dragging you out of the game. Lost? Unsure where to go or what to do? Just click the right thumbstick down and a blue line appears momentarily on the environment, showing you the route to your next objective without patronising you in the way that Perfect Dark Zero’s infamous markers were so prone to.
Plus I can barely remember a survival horror game where automatic checkpoints and manual save points are so regularly and sensible placed. You will inevitably die and reload in a game like this, particularly once the ammo and health starts getting scarce in later stages, but will you find yourself repeating long sections over and over until you feel like giving up? Thankfully not.
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