EA's upcoming sci-fi horror game Dead Space drops you into the not-so-lucky space suit of Isaac Clarke, a member of a deep space rescue team. Unfortunately for Clarke, his own rescue team finds itself in need of rescue quicker than Corporal Dwayne Hicks of Aliens can say, "Game over, man!" The game is being developed internally at EA and has been making us jump since we got our first look some months ago. We finally got our hands on a work-in-progress version of the game for the Xbox 360 to see how the various demos we've seen all fit together.
Our version of the game let us start a brand new game, which eased us into the story. If you're a fan of science fiction movies and games, Dead Space's narrative should feel familiar. Like at the start of a lot of hair-raising sci-fi tales, the game has a team of folks going to investigate a ship (in this case, the USS Ishimura) with which contact has been lost. And just like in those sci-fi nail-biters you may be familiar with, things end up going horribly wrong for said team. In fact, your ship will meet an unsightly end early on in the game. And in Dead Space, Isaac's special lady is onboard the derelict ship...which makes things personal.
Your core goal is to find your lady friend and get the heck out of there with your surviving teammates. Of course, because you just know things aren't going to be easy, there's also a mystery to uncover, namely what happened to the Ishimura's crew of 1,000 people. To add some urgency to the proceedings, the Ishimura has seen better days and requires you to do some repair work to get around. This is, of course, all complicated by the fact that there's all manner of unpleasant creatures lurking between you and just about everywhere you need to go.
What happened to everyone? Why couldn't your lady friend have picked a less ill-fated assignment? We don't want to spoil the plot, but we will say this: Clark eventually discovers that many of the deadly threats he finds are actually what's left of the Ishimura's crew. Exactly what happened to them is what you'll have to discover as you explore the ship. As for your girl picking a better assignment, well, you're just that lucky. You'll discover all this and more as you make your way through the massive ship--on foot and by tram--as part of what appears to be a linear story.
Dead Space's approach to gameplay should be familiar to veteran players of third-person action games. You'll run around, explore, solve puzzles, and strategically dismember the creatures you come across. Yep, strategically. Although the enemies you face do seem space zombies of some sort, shooting them in the head just doesn't get you very far. You'll have to take out the arms, legs, and other important appendages before finally taking your enemies down for good. You'll have plenty of options for how to do this as you explore the game and buy yourself more weapons. Yes, in the future, there are vending machine-style shops that sell you stuff. You'll start out with a simple cutter but find tons more if you've got the cash. You'll also be able to upgrade your suit, which is basically the only thing that stands between you and horrible death.
Besides offering functional goods, such as weapons and upgraded suits, the vending machines will also offer health and ammo. You can also increase the types of items available in the machines by finding blueprints of new items. You'll find more money and ammo with careful exploration as well. However, one of the most important items to find are special nodes that you can use at workbenches you come across on the ship. You'll be able to use these nodes to power up different attributes on your weapons or suit; this will be crucial to survival.
While all of the above may sound pretty standard, Dead Space gets a BioShock-like twist thanks to the addition of special powers you can gain, such as slowing time or moving objects. They come in handy when solving puzzles. Other elements in the mix are the space- and zero-gravity sequences, which force you to either get through areas before your suit runs out of air or figure out how to get through rooms that feel like an MC Escher painting. While it may sound like a crazy quilt of mechanics rolled together, it actually works pretty well from what we've played. There's a good amount of variety, and the story elements that are peppered throughout have been keeping the action interesting so far.
Dead Space's control scheme seems to work pretty well, although we're still having trouble getting used to the camera system, which seems to require some hand-holding, using the right analog stick to tweak our view of the game. Otherwise, running around, shooting, and using your special abilities works fairly well most of the time. The controls map out well to the Xbox 360 controller and are easy to pick up.
The visuals in the game continue to impress us with their creepy lighting and high level of detail. The opening cinematic, made using the game engine, shows off the impressive visuals, giving you a good look at the scope and size of the Ishimura. The massive ship is a creepy place chock full of disturbing visuals. If you set aside the abominations that are roaming the hall, the ship itself goes from being a shiny pinnacle of technology to a disturbing labyrinth in which you don't want to be alone. You'll see blood, viscera, and plenty of signs that things have gone really wrong. To add to the creepiness, you'll be able to interact with the debris and corpses to varying degrees, such as stomping boxes or shuffling around the remains of defeated enemies. Speaking of the creatures you'll be facing, Dead Space features an unnerving cast of abominations that range from recognizable humanoids to "What hell is that??" In fact, some of the creature design seems reminiscent of the most unnerving critters in John Carpenter's The Thing. Fortunately, the creatures also blow up nicely, and this happens a lot throughout the course of the game. From a performance standpoint, the work-in-progress version of the game we played seems to run smoothly on the Xbox 360.
Dead Space's audio adds a great deal to the game's presentation. It seems to play a crucial role in setting the game's creepy tone. The ambient audio seems to be coming together very well and is extremely effective at being unsettling. For instance, you'll hear plenty of creeping and skittering of little feet (and other appendages) as you make your way through the ship. Gunfire and the like are equally immersive. However, we have to say it's the little details that seem most impressive, such as the distortion that happens when you're going about your business in the zero-gravity sequences. The combination of all of these factors makes for an immersive experience that fits really well with the graphics. The voice acting we've heard seems a bit inconsistent in some places (some characters sound fine while others are a little on the soap opera side), but hopefully, this will be remedied in the final version.
Based on what we played, Dead Space is shaping up to be a solid debut for an original game. True, the story doesn't appear to be straying too far from the kind of sci-fi horror you might expect from having seen screenshots of the game and read descriptions. And while the same can be said for the gameplay, there are definitely some neat ideas on display. The first few chapters we played seemed solid and began to really get interesting in terms of gameplay and story. We're anxious to see the rest of the game to find out how it all comes together. Dead Space is currently slated to ship next month for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Look for the game on GameSpot's live weekly broadcast show, On the Spot, prior to that, as well as a full review once the game hits store shelves.