Ever fancied curb-stomping an alien baby on board a huge space ship adrift in deep space? No? What's wrong with you? Well the guys at EA'S Redwood Shores studio, or EARS as the team calls it, has. They're putting the shocking act into the super gory Xbox 360, PS3 and PC sci-fi survival horror game Dead Space, set 500 years in the future and due out late 2008. And now, having got our grubby mitts on the game's lengthy third chapter, we can happily report that squishing an alien baby with your boot feels... kinda weird. And worryingly satisfying.
Curb stomping alien babies, in a funny way, explains a lot about what EA is trying to do with Dead Space. Since it's announcement, gamers have been left somewhat in the dark, about what Dead Space is all about. Now that the development team has got the game running well, looking good and scaring the be-jesus out of testers, they've busted it open for us to dive straight in. Allow us to turn the lights on.
You play as Isaac Clarke, an engineer by trade who's sent to investigate the Ishimura, a two kilometre long, 1000-crew strong "planet cracker" which beats the hell out of planets in order to mine them. The Ishimura has been out of contact with Earth for long enough for people to worry. So off trots Isaac, who thinks he's on a simple fix-it job to sort out the Ishimura's communication array. How wrong.
Isaac finds the ship adrift, dead in space. It's crew is no-where to be seen. Blood stains are everywhere, lights are flickering, in-human groans, cries and shrieks reverberate the interior of the ship and large thumps, as if coming from something dreadful overhead, are causing dust shift and metal to creak. Isaac knows something is wrong. Something is very, very wrong indeed.
Right off the bat we can see that Dead Space is dripping with sci-fi cool. It's played from a third-person perspective (some gamers have said the game is simply Resident Evil in space), with Isaac himself taking up a huge amount of the screen. He wears a specially made engineering suit as opposed to a super-powerful multi-faceted combat suit and wields mining tools as weapons instead of great big guns. He isn't combat trained, or battle hardened. He's a smart, fit guy, but he's no Steven Seigal in Under Siege. He's just a normal bloke, with a girlfriend back home, religious parents and a decent job. He's making the most of the situation, doing the best he can. He's not revelling in it this deep space nightmare.
There's no HUD in Dead Space. Well, not in the traditional sense anyway. You're health is shown via a changing neon strip on the back of Isaac's suit. Like 2K Boston's critically acclaimed FPS BioShock, you pick up audio and video docs left behind by the crew as you delve deeper into the Ishimura's depths. And, like in BioShock, these can be played as you move - there are no cut-scenes. They'll be used to reveal what exactly went wrong on the ship, and explain just what the hell is going on with these crazy aliens.
When a vid log displays, or your inventory screen displays, it appears as a hologram just in front of Isaac. When you pan the camera it will move around the image, showing it as a thin line from the side, and in reverse from the back. It's a lovely touch, and one which is sure to please videogaming sci-fi fans.
Speaking of BioShock, Dead Space certainly rekindles memories of how that game feels to play. I'm talking about the isolation, the darkness, the weirdness, the adrenaline-pumping music and the feeling of claustrophobia. From what we've seen of the game, EA's doing a great job of making you feel very alone in space. There's ominous music, alien screeching, blood-splattered corridor and more flickering lights than a Saturday night rave. Picture the scene in Aliens where the marines land on the planet and begin their search of the colony. It's like that, except without the marines.
You won't see any mini-guns, shotguns or pistols in Dead Space either. As we mentioned, Isaac's an engineer, so only has engineering tools to play around with. The game's first weapon, the Plasma Cutter, fires out a slice of bone cleaving plasma along the line of blue lasers which act as a sort of targeting reticule. Each weapon in the game has an alternative fire mode. For the Plasma Cutter, it switches the orientation of the plasma cutter from horizontal to vertical. Why? Good question.
The answer lies in what EA calls Strategic Dismemberment, which is a bit of a mouthful. All the aliens in the game, and Isaac himself, have been designed from the ground up to facilitate the removal of their limbs. So, with the Plasma Cutter set to default, that is, horizontal fire, you'll be aiming for alien legs or their heads for blood splattering decapitation. Switch to vertical, and you'll be able to slice off their arms, with typically gruesome blood sprays ala Kill Bill. Lovely.
At first the Plasma Cutter feels a little unresponsive. You need to aim by holding the left trigger and fire with the right. When aiming Isaac moves incredibly slowly (you can sprint with the left bumber, but not while raising your weapon), so for the most part you'll have it lowered. When you get jumped or rushed by a swarm of aliens it can be hard to quickly fire off accurate plasma pulses. There's no one-hit-kill either - each alien feels like it requires some serious work to kill. We suspect that the more you play the game the better you'll get with the weapon, but, during our play test the combat did feel a tad clunky.
You'll spend lots of time using melee attacks too, since ammo will be scare throughout the game. Here, a simple press of the right trigger will make Isaac swing his currently equipped weapon. As a general rule, the bigger it is, the more damage it will do, but the slower the attack will be. Aim down and melee and you'll trigger the super violent curb stomp move, perfect for dispatching crawling aliens, anything you suspect of playing dead and, ahem, the odd baby zombie. If aliens do get close, in true Resident Evil style they will latch on to Isaac and start sticking their claws into his back and gnaw on his throat. Here, you need to hammer the A button to shake them off and trigger an instant melee attack. This is different depending on what enemy it is. We saw a few, all extremely gory, including one where Isaac tore an alien head right off its body. Lovely.
Other playable weapons include the slow-firing but powerful Line Gun, the quick-fire Pulse Rifle and a weapon which hasn't been named yet (the team did have a name, but thought it was rubbish so scrapped it). It features a spinning blade that can be projected forward along the line of a beam, held there while it cuts up aliens, then brought back to the gun. Sweet.
The weapons, especially the Plasma Cutter, do feel fresh. The ability to change the orientation of the plasma blast so that you can control what limbs you are sawing off (go for the legs so they hit the deck, the arms so they can't cut you) feels cool and looks cool. What doesn't feel fresh is the ability every weapon has to pick up objects and chuck them about, called the TK Gun. Ring any bells?
It's a complete rip-off of Half Life 2's Gravity Gun of course. It won't win any awards for originality, but there are some useful and cool sounding application of it. Say, for example, you're low on ammo and are down to one Plasma Cutter burst. You're jumped by an alien and have some distance between you and it. You switch the Plasma Cutter to vertical orientation, fire and slice it's razor-sharp claw arm right off, use the TK Gun to drag the arm to you, then fire it off at the alien, dismembering it. Sounds nice.
Apart from the strategic dismemberment, EA was keen to push how the development team has achieved super-realistic Zero Gravity in the game. We were able to experience this for ourselves, in a large room with loads of aliens and a simple physics-based puzzle. Once the Zero Gravity kicks in, Isaac was able to float towards any surface in the room, making it the floor beneath his feet and flipping the camera. It's extremely disorienting at first, but once you get used to it, the room does to a certain extent become a playground. As the aliens crawl on the floor, walls and ceilings, you're able to hunt them down wherever they go simply by floating towards them. And, if you manage to relieve an alien of its arm, for example, it will slowly float away, with blood following closely behind.
Once the aliens were cleared, we were able to eject the air in the room and create a vacuum, bringing to mind another classic scene from Aliens where Ripley tries to blast the Queen out of the airlock. Once the vacuum was created, the sound changed completely. You can hear Isaac breathing and grunting as he moves. You can hear his heart pounding as he runs from the aliens. You can here the muffled pulse of your Plasma Cutter and the groaning of metal as a large spinning structure swept the room. You really did feel like it might if, on the off chance, you were stuck in a zero gravity vacuum on board an alien infested space ship.
Isaac also has access to a stasis power, which he can use to paralyse enemies. This uses up a commodity in the game, replenished at stations and from pick-ups, a bit like Eve from BioShock. We found that using stasis regularly was pretty much the only way to tackle multiple aliens rushing you at once, and was hard to aim too, due to the lack of a targeting reticule. But again, practise will no doubt make perfect.
Because of the way the game has been developed, the third chapter is pretty much finished, as are many of the game play mechanics, weapons and puzzles. EA is currently working on bringing up the game's other levels on a par with the third chapter. What this does is give us a good idea of how the third chapter will look when the game is released, despite it being early code. Right now, the game's graphics look brilliant, and every bit the triple A title EA hopes it will be. There are some really cool ideas in there that sci-fi fans will enjoy thoroughly - there isn't really much on offer in the way of sci-fi survival horror at the moment. But there's a lot about Dead Space which is generic too.
Take the aliens themselves. While it's great that the game's physics allows every limb to react realistically when cut off, the aliens look quite generic. The idea behind them is that they have infected the crew, harvested their bodies and turned them all into alien zombies, hence the alien babies and the fact that if you look closely you'll see human faces on the aliens with razor blade's growing out of their arms. One boss, which we weren't allowed to actually fight, looked like an oversized alien dog, something we've seen in countless games before. Another larger alien had a massive stomach which, if you sliced open, spilled out tiny spider-like aliens that crawled on the floor. Another large snake type alien latched on to Isaac's legs and dragged him to a hole in the walls of the ship, which we were frantically trying to shoot it. But it's the humanoid aliens which are most uninspiring - they all look quite similar. If we're going to be killing a lot of these things, fingers crossed EA adds some variation to them.
And we're not, at this stage anyway, massively interested in Isaac either. This is in part because of his suit, which has a helmet, so we can't see what he looks like properly. But it's also the suit itself, which has that Tron-style neon light thing going on which we're seeing a lot of lately. We do know it will be fully upgradeable so it becomes a heavy mining suit of sorts. Thankfully, we hear EA is currently focus-testing Dead Space's main character. We'll be waiting for more info on him with great interest.
In many ways our time with the game was misleading. EA packed plenty of ammo and enemies to kill so that we would get a good idea of how everything works. But the final game will have a much more pondering, subtle, creepy slower-paced feel, with scarce ammo and plenty of puzzles. EA said it isn't going for a constant stream of jump out of your skin moments. Instead, it wants the player to feel a regular and healthy dose of dread as you explore and progress. We're told hardcore gamers, a demographic Dead Space is clearly aimed at, will take between 50 minutes to an hour just to finish the third chapter (it'll end up being a 20 hour game) with extended periods being "shit scared". That remains to be seen. What we can say now is that Dead Space isn't a straight up third-person action game. This is not Gears of War in space. But you can curb stomp alien babies. A sign perhaps that we might be in for a decent new game from EA after all.