E3 2008: Dead Space Updated Hands-On

We tackle the surprises, scares, and alien-splattering fun of the E3 demo of EA's sci-fi survival horror game.

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Trapped aboard a city-sized spaceship that's been overrun by horrific aliens, engineer Isaac Clarke does the only thing a video game character knows how to do: He arms himself to the teeth with badass futuristic weaponry and starts to blast his way through a seemingly never-ending wall of alien flesh in the hopes of finding a way out. That's the setup for EA's new sci-fi survival horror game, Dead Space. Announced back in September of last year, the game has actually been in development for more than two years. At E3 2008, EA is showing off a new level and a grisly boss battle, both of which we got to check out a bit early to see how this surprise-filled game is shaping up.

The E3 level comes from roughly the midway point in the game, as Isaac finds himself on the hydroponic deck, where all of the food for the Ishimura crew members is grown. Half of the level has been infested by a strange substance known as "corruption," which is a nasty-looking substance secreted by the necromorph aliens that have invaded the ship, as well as makes the ship a more hospitable place for the aliens to carry on with all their mindless slaughtering and eviscerating. The corruption substance doesn't have a negative effect on Isaac (other than preventing him from running), so your job is to wade into the muck and face down whatever monstrosities are lurking in the corridors of the ship.

This was once a crew mate of yours. Now he's your worst enemy.
This was once a crew mate of yours. Now he's your worst enemy.

The atmosphere on the hydroponics deck has been corrupted by "poison pods," which are former crew members who have been converted by the necromorphs in to half-dead, poison-spewing husks of humanity. Isaac's first mission on this level is to find all of the poison pods on the deck and eliminate them with extreme prejudice. Sure, it may be Isaac's former crew members he's blasting into oblivion, but that's the way it goes in survival horror.

Before you can guide Isaac on his mission, your first stop will be to gear up and get ready for the fight. First, you'll stop at the store to pick up ammo, health, and stasis packs (the latter of which you can use with your stasis power, which enables a stasis field around objects or enemies, temporarily disabling them). Thanks to the wonders of preview code cheats, we had plenty of cash on hand--when you're playing the final version of the game, you'll have to pick up money off of dead crew members. You'll also find tokens strewn throughout the levels in the game; these tokens will be used to upgrade your weapons at specific locations strewn throughout the game. Weapon power-ups use a grid system, where you must spend tokens to advance to each place on the weapon-specific grid.

The weapon power-up system is reminiscent of the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X; spending tokens on certain grids will give you a boost to that weapon's damage, capacity, or reload speed, but in some cases, you have to spend tokens just to get to the upgrade spaces. In addition, you'll have to choose your weapon's power-up path wisely because there aren't enough tokens in the game to fully max out each of your weapons.

The four weapons we carried included a basic pistol, a flamethrower, a shotgunlike weapon that spewed multiple projectiles at targets, and a single-shot contact beam that had to be charged up first but was incredibly effective. The weapons are tied to the D pad on the Xbox 360 controller, so changing from one to the next was as simple as pushing in any direction. Each weapon has its strengths against different types of enemies. For the guardians (evil-looking mounds of alien flesh that attach themselves to walls and attack you with greasy, ropey arms), the shotgun and the contact beam work well, giving you a chance to stay away from the reach of the necromorph monstrosity while dealing the pain. For smaller, more agile enemies, the flame thrower is a good option.

Then there's the brute, whom you meet fairly early on in the E3 demo of the game. He's a hulking, heavily armored bull-like baddy whose first instinct is to run right at you. While you can damage the brute by shooting him head-on, the better tactic is to make liberal use of Isaac's stasis powers. By tapping the X button as the brute closes in, you can temporarily trap him in a stasis field for a few seconds. You can then move Isaac to the rear of the brute, where his armor is less effective and then unload on him. While it's an extremely effective technique, you can only use stasis so many times before it runs out. Luckily, this isn't the only technique you can use to take the brute down. By carefully aiming your shots at the brute's soft bits, you can dismember him and slow him down. A legless brute is still a dangerous brute, however, and it will still take multiple shots to take him down.

The E3 demo of Dead Space had plenty of surprises--and not just your standard boilerplate "shock" moments that are the staple of every horror game. For example, when entering one hallway, we were immediately accosted by a massive slithering alien appendage that grabbed hold of Isaac's leg and began dragging him down the hallway toward a hole in the wall where certain death awaited. While the scene is scripted, you can free yourself as you're being pulled in by shooting the appendage at the right spot. Should you fail to do so, however, as we did when we played the game, there's an amusing animation that teases you into thinking that Isaac still manages to free himself, inches away from being sucked into the hole. Just when you think he's safe to continue his adventures, however, the arm once again emerges and yanks him into the hole. It's a fun death sequence that had us laughing from start to finish.

The antigravity sequences are another pleasant surprise in the game. Periodically, Isaac will encounter sections of the Ishimura in zero gravity. In these sections, debris will be floating in midair; while Isaac cannot float freely throughout the level, you can easily jump from floor to ceiling or to perpendicular walls by simply aiming and pressing the Y button. The perspective change of walking on walls and ceilings can be a little disorienting, but you'll soon learn that these zero-gravity wall jumps will be a crucial strategy, especially during the boss fight that ends the E3 demo of the game.

You spend most of the level killing the poison pods that are contaminating the atmosphere of the Ishimura; once you've destroyed them all, the formerly locked doors to the food-storage locker opens up. Through those doors, the Leviathan awaits, a massive beast of a boss with (yes, you guessed it) huge tentacles that look to do you nothing but harm. The Leviathan rests at the bottom of what appears to be a huge tank, and thanks to the zero-gravity environment, you can leap from wall to wall. In fact, you'll have to use your zero-gravity leap frequently in this battle because it's the only way to avoid those pesky giant tentacles. You'll need to take out those tentacles first to get to the second stage of the boss battle, where the Leviathan is spitting out huge meteor-like rocks your way. Using Isaac's telekinesis powers (which are enabled by an attachment to his futuristic space suit), you can grab those rocky projectiles then fire them back at the Leviathan's maw, where they'll do him just as much harm as they would to Isaac.

You don't need a flashlight to know this is bad news.
You don't need a flashlight to know this is bad news.

If you blast enough rocks into his mouth, the Leviathan will eventually go down in a hail of gore. With the Leviathan defeated, the E3 demo was over, but the cutscene that ended the fight hinted at where the game heads from there: Isaac will have to make his way to the mining deck to send an SOS signal from the Ishimura in hopes of being rescued from the ship. If the E3 demo is anything to go by, there will be plenty more surprises, scares, and alien-splattering fun as Isaac's adventures continue. Look for more coverage of Dead Space in the coming months.

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