If James Cameron had a dollar for every “Aliens” reference in a videogame over the past 20 years, he could have bought a new Prius. Now, after “Dead Space,” he’ll be able to cover the budget of “Avatar.” Electronic Arts’ new sci-fi/horror/action game mixes huge helpings of the genre-defining 1986 movie with ingredients from games like “Bioshock,” “Half-Life 2” and “Metroid” into a mix that often impresses but rarely surprises. More gory than frightening, more technically adept than substantive, “Dead Space” will find a healthy crossover aud between gamers and horror fans, but won’t leave them with a single new idea to ponder besides the release date of the inevitable sequel.
By the company’s admission, “Dead Space” is part of an initiative at EA to develop fresh intellectual property inhouse. So it’s no surprise the game feels less like a bold creative vision than a carefully planned attempt to start a new franchise, complete with a tie-in direct-to-DVD movie and comicbook series.
From the opening sequence in which a small crew is sent to investigate a mining ship that has mysteriously dropped out of contact, anyone with a basic knowledge of genre conventions will know exactly where “Dead Space” is going. The USG Ishimura is infected by deadly aliens with a taste for human flesh, natch, and there’s a conspiracy involving military and religious forces — the latter amusingly, if not too subtly, called “Unitologists” — in which our hero doesn’t realize he’s caught until after he’s stranded.
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The main difference between “Dead Space” and the “Alien” franchise is that engineer Isaac Clarke, unlike Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, isn’t a character, per se. The designers at EA Redwood Shores never show his face or let him make a noise other than heavy breathing. While this helps to up the scare quotient by immersing players, it makes for a sterile experience, as Isaac remains bizarrely serene at the most emotional and horrifying story beats. It’s also an unfortunate metaphor for a game that is itself lacking in character.
In between the set-up and the dramatic, albeit rushed and somewhat confusing, conclusion, “Dead Space” is essentially a dozen-plus hours of challenging, intense and occasionally awe-inspiring busy work. There’s a seemingly never-ending number of beacons to be activated, satellite dishes to be aligned and keycards to be collected before Isaac and his two crewmates — who stay in contact after separating early on and provide helpful updates to keep the story moving — can escape.
The heart of “Dead Space” consists of completing these missions by defeating the hundreds of infected humans who have turned into H.R. Giger-like monstrosities. The first few encounters with them are truly horrifying, as the music swells over echoing footsteps and a new monstrosity emerges from the darkness.
“Dead Space” doesn’t have too many tricks up its sleeves, though, and it quickly loses its scare appeal as it becomes easy to figure out when and where the creatures will appear and how to kill them — a challenge that EA’s marketing team boldly labels “strategic dismemberment,” but players will probably refer to as “aim for the limbs.”
“Dead Space” changes this paradigm only a few times, most notably in sequences that thrust Isaac into airless or zero-gravity environments where the game becomes less about just killing monsters and more about strategic puzzle solving. The best and only truly original moments combine both features, forcing players to maneuver Isaac around a room with no up or down while the oxygen reserve dwindles and enemies hunt him in an eerie silence that’s infinitely more frightening than any of the Ishimura’s poorly lit corridors.
The game’s audio designers deserve special kudos, as screams, moans and inhuman footsteps are used in a restrained surround mix that often scares more effectively than what’s onscreen. While the graphics details are impressive, there’s not much variety in the settings or the repetitive creature types. Appropriately for its genre, the best examples of “Dead Space’s” visual creativity come when the player fails and Isaac is ripped, mauled or beheaded in a gruesomely eye-popping animation.