PAX 2008

PAX 2008: Dead Space Hands-On Preview

| 31 Aug 2008 03:20
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EA Redwood shores gave us some hands-on time with a private demo of Dead Space, their upcoming science fiction horror title. The game's story is set in the distant future, when humans have tapped all of Earth's resources and now mine the galaxy with giant, planet-destroying spaceships known as "planet crackers." The game's protagonist, a miner named Isaac Clarke, finds himself aboard one such ship, the Ishimura, after responding to a distress beacon.

Things aboard the Ishimura aren't so good. The ship (and the bodies of its doomed inhabitants) have been overrun by a hostile alien species, the Necromorphs. Isaac's fortunate that he's not an accountant, because the tools of his mining trade - including a flame torch, energy cutters, and a remote-control sawblade shooter - just happen to double as effective weapons.

Redwood Shores took pains to emphasize that Dead Space is not a shooter, but a survival horror game. Ammunition is at a premium, and combat, fast-paced though it may be, requires careful strategy. Necromorphs can't usually be defeated by blunt force or projectile weaponry. Instead, they must be carefully dismembered.

Stomping around the dark, creepy Ishimura in Isaac's armorlike mining suit, I ran into few different Necromorph forms, including legless torsos that crept forward with their arms, bulbous creatures filled with skittering things, and partially explosive humanoid monstrosities. Isaac's most versatile weapon seemed to be his cutter, which blasted a slicing line of energy that neatly divided Necormorph appendages provided that my aim was true.

Isaac's abilities extend beyond his toolbox, though. He has some last-resort melee attacks, including a fun, thunderous stomp. He can drastically slow enemies, freezing them to facilitate strategic hacking. His suit has kinesis technology, which allows him to grab, move, and throw objects gravity-gun style. In addition, Isaac's magnetic boots let him negotiate zero-gravity environments.

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EA says they're interspersing Dead Space's monster encounters and horror scenes with occasional puzzles. The demo included a large zero-gravity room in which Isaac had to restore gravity by destroying four meteorite-like objects. I could point Isaac in the direction of the surface I wanted to reach, aim, and send him leaping. When he reached his destination, his boots would grab and the camera would re-orient itself to his perspective. Leaping from wall to ceiling to floor, I captured the meteorites with Isaac's kinesis abilities and tossed them into an energy conduct that ran across the room.

Dead Space employs a number of clever interface tricks that keep its world intact for the player. It shows Isaac from an over-the-shoulder perspective, and his armor and power meters are glowing indicators on the back of his suit. Isaac's inventory and map are projected from his suit as holograms that look and function like traditional interface screens, but occupy three-dimensional in-game space. As the player selects items within the menus, Isaac's head turns and looks in response. Opening the holograms doesn't pause the game, either. It's a very smart, cool effect. Isaac can also briefly project a holographic sort of breadcrumb trail that will point the way to an in-game objective selected by the player.

The demo I played looked and ran like a finished game, and its presentation was easily on par with other high-end console and PC releases. Though some of the controls were a little unorthodox, they worked well and quickly became second nature. Dead Space may be a survival horror title, but its combat controls and movement wouldn't feel out of place in an action game.

Wandering around the bloodied, body-strewn Ishimura, I found some vending-type machines, including a sort of store where it looked like Isaac could stash gear and buy healing items or ammunition. Another intriguing machine provided access to branching upgrade trees that would gradually enhance the attributes of his suit and weapons.

Dead Space will reportedly provide a single-player, story-based experience that will take players somewhere between 12 and 20 hours to complete. The demo didn't offer much insight into how the developers will illuminate the game's story, how the levels and environments will vary, or how linear the player's path will be. Dead Space's sci-fi horror setting is certainly treading familiar (if not overused) ground. Still, given all the creative touches I saw, I think EA may have something very special on their hands. Dead Space is due out late this October for the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.

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