Friday, 14 October 2016

October Nightmares II #14: Dead Space (2008) - Looks Like Mother's Christmas Dinners

You may have noticed that the majority of these reviews are geared towards games released in the mid-nineties and early-noughties. Well, that’s certainly no coincidence. As far as I am concerned the Playstation/N64 and Playstation 2 generations were the golden eras of console horror gaming. Back when games looked like they were made out of Lego and handled like a brick in a bath, horror games had to compensate through atmosphere and good storytelling. In contrast, modern horror games have more bells and whistles than a football match refereed by Morris dancers. This has resulted in a sort of lazy confidence in horror gaming, in which the games have become like one of those walk-through scary mazes you get a theme parks. Instead of a well-paced story and psychological ambiguities, you stumble around in the dark, chased by men dressed like the Elephant Man, and someone touches you on the arse.

Dead Space is certainly a game which believes subtlety is the name of a butter-like spread. Loud, crass, and paced like a Shaun Hutson novel, Dead Space belongs to the new breed of survival horror game. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s always refreshing for a game to be unashamed of being a gross-out piece of shit. Unfortunately Dead Space tries to have it both ways. It’ll tell you that it’s a splatterpunk shooter, but that’s just the game trying to impress you. Once it’s had its way with you, Dead Space will go back to pretending to be an old-school survival horror game. Which is a shame, as when Dead Space’s just trying to be The Thing on a spaceship, with body horror and visceral dismemberment abound, it’s pretty damn excellent.

Set aboard the abandoned starship USG Ishimura in the year 2508, Dead Space follows systems engineer Isaac Clarke as he leads an investigation on the desolate vessel. The set-up is basically Alien if it had been hanging out with bad influences Event Horizon and Virus. It’s the usual Marie Celeste situation of a vessel that’s suddenly less populated than the Pok√©mon Go servers come 2017. As the creaking metal husk of a spaceship makes for the perfect dark sci-fi setting (even the machinery and labs in this game possess a nightmarish quality) you’d think that Dead Space would be interested in spending time to establish atmosphere. But less than five minutes into the game, the car crash victims start come out of the god damn walls to tear you apart. And that sets the tone for Dead Space: it wants to be Alien and The Thing, but it also wants to be Aliens 3. Instead of picking a definitive tone, the game can’t make up its fucking mind and zigs zags all over the place. It’s like my girlfriend when she’s deciding where we should eat.

Under the game that can’t decide whether to be tense survival horror or a brash shooter, lies a decent horror concept. The parasitic alien, that’s extremely difficult to permanently put down, has been done in movies and games countless times before. But Dead Space takes it up a notch, building an elaborate mythos around its Necromorphs which, in turn, allows the game to be more creative as it’s not beholden to any pre-existing concepts. Dead Space takes this to be a licence to add in subplot with a cult worshipping an obelisk, a la 2001. The Necromorphs in Dead Space invoke the rich body horror of The Thing, Splinter, and The Flood from Halo; vaguely resembling something that was once human but which now has legs growing out of its chest. These things are so beyond the usual rules of biology that the player needs to completely eviscerate them before they die. It really adds to the pressure when you’re trying to dismember one of the fuckers and some goon, with a mouth like the entrance to Fingal’s Cave, tries to bite your nadgers off.

Dead Space does its best to pretend it is creaky old Resident Evil style survival horror. You’re an everyman protagonist for a start. Though by ‘everyman’ I mean it’s basically like when an action movie has Arnie playing a mild-mannered shop assistant. As Isaac is an engineer, the game tries to reinvent the weapons as engineering tools. It doesn’t work. The Contact Beam, for example, is basically a lightning gun – which I fail to see an engineer using, unless they’re training for Quake III Arena. Dead Space, is desperate to shoe-horn everything into the survival horror camp while ignoring the fact it works better as a horror shooter. I mean there’s an upgrade system and you can buy healing items and ammo from the vending machines. That’s not survival horror.

My biggest issue with Dead Space is that it’s just not scary enough to be survival horror. The game has precisely one trick – and that’s to have the enemies pop out at you like one of those clowns going around at the moment. A trick it repeats about ninety times throughout the bloody game. No, Dead Space works better as a grotesque shooter. The atmosphere may be creepy at times (that level with the cult chanting Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in the background particularly stands out), and the action intense. But it’s the gross-out potential of the combat and the enemies which makes Dead Space effective. There’s one particular boss encounter, for example, which I remember being particularly disgusting as it resembled how my anus feels when I’ve spent all Saturday night drinking Guinness and eating a Vindaloo.