Some people want to get scared on Halloween. Others only want to get “scared.”
It’s easy to tell which kind of person you are. Did you pay full price to see Saw V, only to peek through your fingers and giggle your way through the movie? Are you prepared to stand in line for four hours to have a wigged haunted-house volunteer tug on your shirt? Does Tim Curry secretly still give you nightmares? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you should probably steer clear of EA’s Dead Space—a nearly perfect, nerve-devouring scare title that will have even hardened horror junkies checking their underwear.
Cheap scares are simple. SWEET JESUS, THERE’S A WOOLY DICK CHENEY ON YOUR BACK! See? Easy. Sustaining a gut-wrenching feeling of dread, however, is much harder. A handful of truly great horror films have accomplished this—and those scare only for an hour and a half or so. Dead Space, however, crafts a deeply disturbing experience that will make you want to cry for about 10 hours straight. I can honestly say I’m glad it’s over, and I’d rather not play this wonderful game for a long, long time.
The game’s plot, admittedly, is as fresh as worm-riddled zombie brains: You’re part of a futuristic space crew sent to answer a mining ship’s distress beacon. Unfortunately for you, the distress signal is of the “flesh-chewing alien” variety. Shortly thereafter, most of your crew is slaughtered by the Thing’s first cousins, your escape ship blows up and the only key to stopping your quick-moving, spidery attackers is written in blood on the wall: “Cut off their limbs.”
Even with the ship’s high-tech mining tools at your disposal—a sawblade here, a plasma laser there—you can’t simply blast your way out of this mess. Accurate dismemberment is the key to saving your ass; simply unloading rounds won’t save you. Now try holding your aim steady when the game’s intelligent AI skitters toward you in the dark, or ambushes you with the terrifying mentality of zombie Velociraptors. Now try this again, in zero gravity, with your air supply ticking down. And, please, try not to shoot the fat abomination in the belly, or it will burst open with hundreds of face-hungry, impossible-to-shoot parasites.
Dead Space’s gameplay elements are streamlined to perfection. The over-the-shoulder setup (think Gears of War) allows for health and ammo information to be visible on your character’s body, rather than through a cliché Heads Up Display. Inventory information appears in front of you, on a holographic image, rather than on a separate screen. Maps are available, but you’ll never use them—clicking a button illuminates a neon pathway to follow at all times. (For those who wandered around lost in games such as BioShock, this feature is revolutionary.) These details end up being key to the horror experience: You can never hide behind a map or inventory screen when things get hairy. Shopping at a health kiosk? You’re still vulnerable. Saving your game? Look behind you. Unlike the cheesy shopkeeper that would randomly appear in Resident Evil 4, there are no breathers in Dead Space. Well, except when you’re torn limb from limb. Then a Load screen is your reward.
Gory flaws? Yeah, Dead Space has ’em. A frustrating and distracting “shoot the asteroids” mission almost derails things early on, and its subset of clichéd supporting characters—pro-Alien scientist, end-times religious nut, backstabbing government stooge—have been seen in every game since Half Life 2. Dead Space even heartily rips off BioShock when you’re bestowed telekinetic and time-slowing powers. But, chances are, when you’re blabbing endlessly about this game to co-workers, you’ll spend less time thinking about these things and more time trying to explain that new streak of white in your hair.
Dead Space from EA Games for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC, $59.99. ESRB Rating: M (for Mature). Score: 9 (out of 10).