Here’s a fun experiment: approach your common or garden gamer, and use the words “on,” “rails” and “shooter” in quick succession. If your test subject immediately runs for the hills, they may have been scarred by Rebel Assault during their childhood. To an extent, it’s an understandable reaction. At their worst, rail shooters are little more than digital carnival games. Blast the badguys that pop-up, then move along. Rinse, repeat, forget.
EA and Visceral Games must surely be aware of this negative perception of the genre, but if it bothers them they don’t let it show. Dead Space Extraction is indeed an on-rails shooter, but one that bears all the hallmarks of being a top quality release. For a start, the graphics are excellent – far exceeding the low standards that blight so many Wii games. But beyond this, there’s also a sense that the developers are trying to do something interesting with the genre. They want this game to be scary, to have an atmosphere that genuinely compares with the grim claustrophobia of the original Dead Space. It’s an admirable goal, but is it one that Visceral can actually pull off?
On the basis of the build I played last week, they’ve certainly got a fighting chance. The demo was culled from the seventh of the game's 10 chapters, a section ominously entitled "Life and Death," with the player taking the role of the terrified Dr Helen Howell - one of four playable characters in the story. Our heroine is notable for two reasons: firstly, she's a woman of Indian ethnicity - a far cry from the stereotypical burly white space marine you tend to find in games like these. Secondly, she's losing her mind. Like Isaac Clarke in the original Dead Space, Dr Howell has been deeply affected by her traumatic experiences; as the player progresses through the ravaged mining colony of Aegis VII, you'll have to deal with the unpleasant visions she's suffering.
The demo begins with Dr Howell recording a video log recounting her adventures thus far - a clever conceit which allows the game to show the character's face. Towards the end of her entry, one of the monitors clearly shows a necromorph entering the room - but when the good doctor turns around, surprise surprise, there's no-one to be seen. The camera slowly prowls around the room, moving with a dread-inducing slowness. Suddenly we hear the sound of freaky chanting and the screen is filled with strange symbols, causing Dr Howell to collapse. When she picks herself up a moment later, the hidden beastie drops from the ceiling and attacks.
We've all seen this kind of device used in horror films a thousand times before, but that doesn't stop the moment from being extremely tense. It was a pleasant surprise to find pockets of fearful stillness cropping up amid the frenzied blasting; all the best survival games know how to mix loud and quiet scenes to good effect, but it's very rare to see such pacing in an on-rails shooter. In the moments between firefights, there were times when the game even recalled the likes of the first Alien film - a thoroughly commendable achievement, by any standards.
Such praise aside, most of the demo comprised of balls-to-the-wall shooting. After the first 'morph makes its appearance (and is summarily despatched) he's swiftly joined by several of his colleagues. Aside from looking wonderfully nasty in all their razor-armed glory, the animation on the mutants is also highly impressive - and the Wii seemed to have no trouble in showing several of the buggers on-screen at once. Most of the enemies in Extraction will be familiar to players of the first game, but apparently there'll be a few threats too. And as any Dead Space veteran will tell you, dismemberment is the key to destroying these nasties: slice or blow off their limbs, and turn them into bleeding beanbags.