Previews

Dead Space

Hands-On: First great scare of this generation?

Survival Horror press events are as predictable as sunrise. A handful of journalists are huddled into a bus, then taken to a 'secret' location. There after they'll ride a 'spooky' dark elevator down to a shady basement, full of PR execs dressed as spacemen and grating that looks like it's been ripped straight off the GamesMaster set.

With its first foray into the genre, Dead Space, EA has thankfully noticed that survival horror games are getting a bit by-the-numbers.

OK, it's not exactly going to re-write the genre with a spaceman shooting hordes of hideous alien critters, but on actually playing it we were please to discover it's shaking things up in more ways than one.

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Spaceship... of the dead
The premise is familiar to any fan of horror flicks or scary games; you play as Isaac Clarke, your regular circa-year 2500 space engineer who's been called out (with a small security team) to investigate a gigantic mining frigate that's lost contact with Earth.

Predictably, when Isaac's shuttle reaches the frigate he discovers that the problem is more than just a dodgy satellite dish. In its mission to harvest a dead planet of its resources, the frigate stowed aboard a violent alien parasite that's infected the 1000-strong crew, using them as its hideous mutating hosts. It's a bit like Event Horizon meets Red Dwarf. But better than that.

It's not the most original set-up in the world but its obvious right from the off how EA has taken genuine consideration in how the world is presented and feels.

When you first pick up the pad the suited-up main character feels weighty and, surprisingly, very unlike a faceless game character in a suit.

Part of the reason for this is EA's extensive focus testing on how to make Isaac a "human" character. What we're left with is a ballet of decent design and animation work that gives off the impression of a fragile bloke under the helmet (he's NOT Master Chief).

Issac will react to noises in the scenery, batter off and flinch at pursuing monsters and pant as if he's genuinely knackered. The focus testing must've worked, because we quite like him.

At first the immersive set-up can be disorientating. There's no HUD; no aiming cursor and the field of view is so tight you can almost smell the brass polish on the back of Isaac's skid lid.

This makes for a very up-close, in-your-face experience and in the classic survival horror tradition you're not the most manoeuvrable of space engineers either.

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Isaac is sluggish when it comes to moving. It takes a while to turn him around making it easy for enemies to pull a swift one from behind. It's a solid and well-tailored system guaranteed to send chills down your spine - though that might've been the "spooky" smoke machine EA rigged up behind us.

Searching the halls of the abandoned and blood-splattered space frigate is a trouble-less process. Console and door holograms pop-up and are instantly visible so it's easy to see what you're supposed to be up to.

The in-game displays are part of a wider idea to make everything the player does an activity. In Resident Evil when the going gets tough you can simply pull up the inventory menu and have a breather, but not in Dead Space.

Menu-wise, everything is displayed in-game; if you want to have a browse through your inventory to boost your health, you'll have to do it through a hologram projected in front of your face.

This way, if the hordes of screaming monsters get too much for you, the only way you're going to be able to calm down is by finding a quiet room. If you need to boost your health during a fight you'd better do it quick. This system keeps you in the game all the time and looks bloody cool.

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