Sometime last year in the heart of the sprawling EA campus, a dozen developers entered a dark dimension (read: board room), outside the boundaries of space and lunchtime, before emerging with the beating alien heart of a new project, Dead Space. Glowing with ominous glee, they recently exposed us to their upcoming creation then let us escape, so that we could infect your minds with their terror from the deep. Whoops.
From the playable build we saw, Dead Space will move and look like survival horror--emphasis on horror, survival barely a whisper. The calamity takes place several centuries into the future when humanity has begun a process known as planet cracking. Huge ships enter dead solar systems and tear up entire chunks of terra firma. These ships then smelt that terra firma into precious minerals and resources. It's only a matter of time before one ship bites off more than it can chew--or perhaps bites something that can chew back...
The USG Ishimura is one of the largest ships in the galactic fleet. It was also one of the loudest ships with information coming in and out of multiple different sectors, facilities, and computers until it fell silent. Of course, space is a naturally silent place, so periodic communication blips are never a cause for alarm. A routine inspection crew is sent in to see what might be the matter, including a scientist, engineer, security expert, and a few others. They land on board the giant ship, and then things get weird.
And by weird, we mean hungry. You play Isaac Clarke (a clever combination of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke), the armor-covered engineer who slowly, timidly creeps through the infected bowels of a ship the size of a city. You're trying to learn what went wrong, perhaps to come to grips with your own fate. Of course, the alien infestation factor becomes clear early on when you see a hovering yellow space slug barf white puss into the mouth of a screaming soldier who melts under the corrosive fluid into a deformed, deranged alien beast. Then, when the melted, slimy ex-man shambles toward you, quivering with tentacles and cannibalistic intent, the survival half of the horror kicks into the game. You level your weapon--an energy-based mining tool--and fire at the beast, decapitating it instantly.
Except the beast is still coming, but its head isn't its head anymore. It lunges and wraps itself around you, biting into your neck with a toothy maw protruding from where its heart used to be in its chest. You struggle, your blood spurts into free space, and you beat the beast back. After that, you take aim to slice off an arm, then a leg, causing it to flop onto the ground and drag itself toward you, one claw at a time. You've heard of death by dismemberment, but what about survival?
Your only hope, as you make your way about repairing the ship, is to cut the creatures up before they make you one of them. To that end, dismemberment will take on tactical dimensions. You know from previous experience that a certain variety of alien scum runs really fast, so it's better to cut off its legs. Faced with a fat, bloated alien monstrosity? You'll slice into its belly only to see a couple dozen space leaches slither out across the floor. These leaches then slither up onto your back as the felled mother crawls toward you with chaos in its eyes and puss in its mouth. Shooting the belly probably isn't the way to go with those things. And those are only two manifestations of the space madness at the heart of EA's upcoming journey into the abyss.
They say that in space, no one can hear you scream. But in the conference room at EA, the oohs and aahs (and even a couple AAAHHs!) were clearly audible. Dead Space looks dead gorgeous. Running on a proprietary engine, the textures, frame rates, and crazy, giant ship-gut set pieces already seemed smooth, steady, and scary. And the music was highly reminiscent of the nerve-wracking, cacophonous violins from Jerry Goldsmith's Alien theme. That is, when there was music. In other scenes, particularly one that took place in a quarter with a hull breach, the only sound was your breath as you inhaled and exhaled your quickly diminishing oxygen supply.
There's no word yet on whether Dead Space will feature multiplayer content, but given the game's focus on isolation and terror, we doubt it will feature cooperative play. But when the game hopefully launches in late 2008, it will look to provide single players a scary good excuse to get hopelessly lost in space.