Article: The History of DEAD SPACE

Andrew Kotwicki breaks down the whole history of Dead Space in this brand new article.

The Dead Space series has earned a unique place in the science fiction horror genre of video gaming.  With its eerie television commercial of a disembodied voice singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” set against a severed hand floating in space beside a derelict spacecraft, Dead Space announced itself as a sincere throwback to the claustrophobic space horrors imagined by Ridley Scott and John Carpenter. 

With any brilliant idea for a series, time and tide can shift one’s expectations and regard for the Dead Space universe as a whole, whether it’s the tonal shift in gameplay, or where its animated counterparts slipped off the rails.  In an attempt to chronicle the journey of Dead Space, let’s begin by tackling the video game which reminded players just what it is about deep space that brings out a primal scream of terror.

"This is my gun. There are many
others like it."
Dead Space (2008 – 7/10)

Imagine the dark, claustrophobic deep space setting of Ridley Scott's Alien with the shape-shifting humanoid creatures from John Carpenter's The Thing, and you have a rough idea of what you're in for.  Utilizing the over-the-shoulder third-person perspective perfected in Resident Evil 4, our avatar Isaac Clarke is thrust into the decaying orbit of the USG Ishimura on the pretense that a damaged communication antenna needs some simple repairs.  It doesn't take long for Hell to break loose as the repair crew is assailed by an army of deadly creatures.  Soon Clarke dons a heavily armored space suit and weaponry to blast every transforming horror he encounters to kingdom come.  Borrowing from some of cinema's most iconic science fiction thrillers, as well as popular franchise games like Doom, it's a scary, ultra-violent bloodbath set where no one can hear you scream. 

In terms of gameplay, Dead Space is a dimly lit, atmospheric exercise in old school terror, mimicking the flickering lights and dark metallic corridors of Alien's Nostromo.  Our hero is loaded with a unique, customizable armada of weapons, power-ups and an evolving space suit where you can increase your armor, and the size of your inventory.  Power nodes allow for either an increase in stats or entrance into secret passageways with ammunition and health kits.  Both the puzzles and monsters intensify in difficulty, sometimes involving a combination of your slow-motion power-up and specified weaponry.  The lack of ammo and precise use of the plasma cutter to remove limbs creates a fight-or-flight sense of anxiety to the gameplay; you’ll occasionally have to run away to save your own skin.  There are moments where gravity and oxygen don't exist, and you're racing against time, solving a puzzle to restore both necessities.

Gore-hounds will have a field day with the extreme violence, either with grisly dismemberment of half-human monsters, or the elaborate slashing our adversaries put Isaac Clarke through.  Dead Space is also fraught with psychological terror as Clarke experiences inexplicable hallucinations.  As a video game steeped in classical science fiction horror, Dead Space comes closer to the promise of Alien than any of the games in the Alien vs. Predator franchise. 
Dead Space 2 (2011 - 8/10)

"Damn it!!! Where's Kurt Russell
when you need him?"
If Dead Space worked within the framework of Ridley Scott's Alien, then Dead Space 2 is the equivalent of James Cameron's Aliens.  Favoring the action thriller genre over brooding, claustrophobic horror, Dead Space 2 ratchets the action and adrenaline level to fever pitch intensity.  From the moment Isaac Clarke awakens in an insane asylum, the nightmare follows close behind with an injured Clarke narrowly escaping an alien outbreak.  He is soon reunited with his contemporary suit of armor and weaponry, and finds himself against human security forces trying to contain the epidemic, as well as Unitologists, a religious group partial to the extraterrestrial killers.  Eventually you are pitted against deformed mutant children, including a particularly disturbing segment involving a nursery full of explosive infants, and a variety of other unspeakable alien/human hybrid horrors.  There’s a newfound sense of urgency here missing from the first Dead Space.  You feel as though, if you were to stop moving for just a moment, the Necromorphs will catch you.

Although the sci-fi horror atmosphere is toned down heavily for this sequel, the adrenaline-laced gameplay more than makes up for the tonal shift.  Closer to the feel of Bioshock and Halo’s interior d├ęcor, this is clearly aiming for more thrills than chills.  The timing of special power-ups like the slow-motion controller are more challenging than before.  The first time you attain the slow-motion power-up, you are only allowed a fraction of a second to use it before a Necromorph bursts in and tries to kill you.  I recall a battle with a mutating beast which crashes through the bridge’s glass windows into zero gravity, and the beast follows close behind you, forcing you to battle while your sense of direction is spinning uncontrollably.  There’s also a particularly uncomfortable puzzle to solve where you surgically implant a device into the pupil of your eyeball, and one false move will simply poke your eyes out.  To say the deaths are gorier and more creative in terms of violent dismemberments than its predecessor is an understatement: This is an unbridled bloodbath the heads of Id Software would drool over. 

Ultimately, Dead Space 2 manages to succeed Dead Space in terms of exciting and challenging gameplay.  It continues the saga of Dead Space in a way that’s interesting, fresh and new without simply repeating the high watermarks of the first game.  If Dead Space 2 were a cinematic venture rather than a video game, it would most certainly be directed by James Cameron, as it is closest to Aliens for enhancing the adrenaline of its predecessor and, much like Ripley, working to elevate its hero Isaac Clarke to the pantheon of the all-time great science fiction heroes. 

"I can taste your eyeballs!"
Dead Space 3 (2013 – 5/10)

What is it about the third time not being the charm?  With most trilogies, fans often point to the third entry as the one where their favorite series went downhill.  Alien 3, The Matrix Revolutions, Superman 3, Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The writing is on the wall.  Somehow, all the creative energies are spent on the sequel with little leftover for a third entry except corporate pressure to produce a trilogy.  The same can be true for games as well, and it grieves me to say Dead Space 3 is a weak entry that overstays its welcome and diminishes the quality of what was, for a while, the perfect video game answer to Ridley Scott and James Cameron, making this the one David Fincher would be ashamed of.

Isaac Clarke returns for a third time to battle the Necromorphs, this time on what appears to be their home planet: A kind of Ice Hoth Planet, a la The Empire Strikes Back, with the idea being the planet holds the key to rid the universe of the Necromorphs once and for all.  The designers added a wealth of new gameplay features including rolling and taking cover to avoid being attacked.  Weapon design is entirely based on what you build this time around, and the game presents more challenges than the previous Dead Space games, including heavier puzzles to solve.  Also new is a co-op mode for those who wish to play Dead Space with friends, and there are several side missions where you can grab additional power-ups.  Power nodes, which were in the prior Dead Space games, have been dropped in favor of simply gathering parts and/or disassembling weapons to make use of parts for suit upgrades. 

Where Dead Space 3 falls short is a less-than-compelling story, fewer scares, and more focus on pure action.  Where the first two games consisted of about 10-11 levels, this one contains almost 20, and many of them could have either been dropped completely or cut in half.  In some instances, when you board an elevator, it takes almost a minute to reach the destination, and for someone who admits to sitting through Andrei Tarkovsky films, it really tested my patience.  Something about Dead Space 3 feels padded, and very little of the game actually takes place in outer space.  For the average gamer, you find yourself growing increasingly bored with it.  Equally weak are the stock characters who interact with Isaac Clarke, who feel phoned in out of a SyFy Channel movie.  I hate to go on like this, because Dead Space 3 is not an overtly bad game; the visual and aural design is still top notch and the new additions to gameplay are welcome.  Still, it goes without saying it’s a disappointment and strictly for die-hard fans of the series only.  If I had to recommend any of the games to a casual gamer, I’d choose Dead Space 2 without the slightest hesitation.  That was without a doubt the peak of the series over this sadly lackluster, half-assed, overlong game. 

Dead Space: Extraction (2009 - 6/10)
"Is this a good time for
 us to make out?"

Initially released on the Nintendo Wii before becoming a downloadable add-on included with Dead Space 2, Dead Space: Extraction is a unique entry in the series in that it utilizes a new form of game play: the first-person on-rails shooter.  Unlike the third-person perspective of the previous games, you see everything first-person but don’t control where the camera takes you, a la House of the Dead.  Functioning as a prequel to the first game and simultaneously taking place during the chain of events occurring during the animated short Dead Space: Downfall, Extraction navigates you through several characters as opposed to just Isaac Clarke.  Often, the perspective changes from character to character every other level.  Although you are captive by wherever the screen takes you, that’s not to say you won’t find yourself pitted against equally difficult challenges than the previous three Dead Space games. 

Because you are constantly moving, and you use your crosshair cursor to fire and collect everything, there are times when you pass by corridors and are only allowed a fraction of a second to grab whatever power-ups and health kits you can while being assailed by an armada of Necromorphs.  Many of the same monsters you are familiar with will show their faces here, as well as the hallucinations plaguing all who come into contact with the Artifact.  One area of gameplay which is very trying—in contrast to the other games—is your weapon holster.  You are only allowed to alternate between a couple weapons at a time before coming across a new one and deciding which ones to drop and keep.  It’s a frustrating change from the prior games, which allowed at least 4 slots and a wealthy inventory to alternate between items.  Oh well, not major enough to kill the game I suppose.

Extraction bore the distinction of being a Dead Space game few players touched, with some detractors dubbing it ‘more of the same’.  The on-rails gameplay takes some getting used to, but then again, so did the third-person perspective of the other entries.  While fun, most newcomers may want to skip this entry in favor of playing the first two games.  For true enthusiasts of the series (I know I qualify as one), it’s a decent entry that doesn’t bore or disappoint.  It also does a decent job tying in to the first film in our next topic, the animated Dead Space short films.

"Why did you have to ruin my
favorite towel? Oh well! Time
to get naked!!"
Dead Space: Downfall (2008 – directed by Chuck Patton) 6/10

In conjunction with the third-person shooter based science fiction survival horror video game Dead Space emerged this animated prequel, Dead Space: Downfall.  A dose of fan service and a surprisingly close interpretation of the game, this straight-to-video short feature finds itself in the extraterrestrial horror universe of Alien with the animation style of Batman: The Animated Series while satisfying the ultra-violent gamer's bloodlust.  Unlike the game, we're thrust into the perspective of a female heroine, a la Ripley from Alien, who sees the big picture and will stop at nothing to stop the aliens from wiping out all of humankind.  Typical humans versus aliens fodder, but still entertaining if you have a soft spot for that sub-genre.  The characterizations are obviously clones of James Cameron's colonial marines from Aliens, but the voice acting is decent overall.  The Jerry Goldsmith-inspired score hits all the watermarks of dread and unease of the genre, and the creatures themselves seem to have walked off the set of John Carpenter's The Thing.   

Dead Space: Downfall is surprisingly above average for most direct-to-video animated fare.  It's refreshing to see actual animation onscreen as opposed to total reliance on computer generated imagery, and some of the gore borders on being cringe-worthy.  It also does a fair job of maintaining continuity with the look of the game, with deep, dark brown corridors and flickering lights just hinting at unseen horrors lurking in the darkness.  For being a loose companion piece to a video game, clearly intended to be watched by fans of the game, Downfall has more replay value than most short movie offerings of this ilk.  It complemented the game, as well as its overt influences, much better than I expected it would. 

"I'm sorry, but I have to ask. Are those real?"

Dead Space: Aftermath (2011 – directed by Mike Disa) 1/10

Released to promote Dead Space 2 and offer more animation to the Dead Space universe, Dead Space: Aftermath presents a disappointingly disengaged and inconsistent multi-director project, much like The Animatrix.  While unique on paper, one approaching Aftermath at face value will be in for a frustrating venture with too many random characters we could care less about, few and far between alien attacks, and some of the worst CGI animation this side of Food Fight.  Honestly, where the games sport some of the slickest animation not in a major feature film, some of what's in Aftermath isn't far away from the Playstation One.  Where Dead Space: Downfall emerged remarkably above average for a straight-to-video animated film, Aftermath nose dives.  Aficionados of the game will no doubt express embarrassment about having this dead battery taking up shelf space.  I wish I could say more about this one, but it literally is that empty-handed.  

-Andrew Kotwicki