Oh boy. I mean, oh boy. I’ve just spent a good couple of hours on chapter 2 of Dead Space. It’s lunchtime on a sunny Saturday in the middle of summer and I’m still tense, every time I click to open a door or a hatch. I still glance into every corner of the room, move hesitantly about, listening for the various groaning, gory sounds of necromorphs.
DS is genuinely frightening. I’ve grown too used to ‘horror’ games where all you get is endless hideous creatures hurled at you, and you just have to keep fighting them. Games where, once you’ve grown used to the jump scares, only offer you more of them, until it’s frankly boring. Dead Space, the original Dead Space, is nothing like that.
Remember when we all watched the first Alien movie? The careful use of noise, the genuine fear on the faces of the characters, moving around a spaceship that was both keeping them alive and harbouring something that would kill them? Playing Dead Space is like that. But now you’ve got to edge through those rooms yourself, expecting any moment to be jumped on by a necromorph and mauled to bits.
I don’t know about you, but hideous monsters by themselves aren’t all that scary. Yes, they look like the living version of what happens if you drink way too much alcohol and eat a very dodgy kebab. But I belong to the generation of people who watched Evil Dead quite young, and we need more than just limbs all over the place and a head with brains showing to be scared. That’s gory, but not scary. It’s what you see in surgery, after all.
Scary is when those creatures pop up behind you while you’re trying to do something else. Really scary is when you edge down a corridor, able to hear the thing somewhere near by, but you can’t see it, or shoot at it. It’s almost a relief when they do descend on you, after you’ve spent so long peering into every shadow, stood by a door and listened to the sounds, wondering where the fucker is. When it comes bawling down on you, limbs waving, you can at least get on with the business of shooting it.
I was struck by how much time you spend not being attacked in Dead Space. If you play games for a while, you know there are certain things you can expect. Very often, opening a door, picking up a thing, finishing a quest, reaching the next stage of a mission, triggers a fight. You get so used to it that it almost feels like a necessary part of the job. You sigh and get on with it, only slightly more inspired than you would be when stuck with the photocopying of a morning.
You can’t get that complacent with DS. For a start, you’re busy doing a lot of other things. Although the basis of the game is “go here, get that”, going there and getting that involves a host of activities, all of which require some combination of skills and thought. I have the feeling that you aren’t just here to shoot at things. That’s a real break from some shooters, where the going there and the getting that are excuses for lots of shooting.
So far, I’ve had to play around in zero gravity, cope with not having much air, make use of kinetic abilities to get across rooms, use stasis skills to slow down bashing doors, all while trying to locate the components of a bomb. There’s relatively little shooting, and not very many necromorphs. This isn’t the “open door, kill things, find stuff, move on” standard I’d come to expect.
You don’t need waves of enemies if you know how to use the elements of fear psychology. Once you know that horrific killing things are out there, you only need to keep implying that they are there, and then ensure you stagger their appearance to be the most surprising, to keep the player on edge.
DS makes incredible use of sound and light. It’s not that every corridor you step into dims the lights automatically. It might happen halfway down the corridor, or it might not happen at all. It doesn’t feel like a triggered event at all. Meanwhile, you can hear the constant banging of a broken door, the hissing of an open vent, all somewhere near you, but out of sight.
It genuinely feels like being trapped on a spaceship where hell has quite literally broken loose. Instead of the missions feeling like an excuse to shoot things, I feel like the shooting things is incidental to the story. That’s why there aren’t all that many necromorphs. They don’t need a lot to make the point. Just enough to stop you getting complacent. You always know there could be another one, or three, at any minute, but you don’t know exactly when or where.
It’s an always-on game. I got Fable II at the same time, and it’s more than possible to switch off a little for some sections of that. Sometimes, it’s what you want. You do a job for a bit to earn some money, and yeah, you’re not exactly paying 100% attention to it. You can even slash your way through a lot of the fights without much effort put in. Dead Space requires all your attention, all the time. You listen, you look around, you creep along, and you start to feel a little like Ellen Ripley. Well, I do, anyway.