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Dead Space

Posted by Nick Dinicola on February 6, 2009

When I first started playing Dead Space, I thought it was a really good Resident Evil 4 clone. It had the same run-and-gun style gameplay, and the close, over-the-shoulder camera only invited more comparison. But after playing the demo for Resident Evil 5, and after finally beating Dead Space, I realized just how different Dead Space actually is. There are a lot of similarities between the two franchises, that’s true, but since most of those similarities are immediately obvious, they leave a strong first impression and overshadow the major differences that can only really be understood through play. Dead Space is not a clone, it’s an innovative evolution of the 3rd person shooter, and I don’t think its gotten as much respect for this evolution as it deserves. And no, I’m not talking about the ability to walk and shoot at the same time. I’m talking about the idea of “strategic dismemberment.”

Strategic Dismemberment is all about shooting off the limbs of enemies in order it put them at a disadvantage: Cut of their legs and they can’t walk, cut off their arms and they can’t punch, etc. etc. etc. Most shooter games implement this idea in the form of headshots: One shot to the head, and the enemy is dead. Since headshots are a nearly universal one-hit kill for enemies, we’re encouraged to aim carefully for that tricky shot and are rewarded greatly for pulling it off, but they’re not necessary. The instant kill is just a bonus, we can easily play though most shooters without ever getting a headshot on any enemy. And that is where Dead Space differs from other shooter games: It has made aim an integral part of the gameplay. Waiting for that perfect shot isn’t just a way to quickly take down an enemy, it’s an absolute requirement for survival.

The idea of strategic dismemberment is drilled into us from the beginning. The first few Necromorphs (the zombie aliens that have overrun the ship) we encounter can take an entire clip of ammo to the chest and still charge us, but dismember only a few limbs, with one shot per limb, and they die. Every enemy encounter in Dead Space is not just a test of quick reflexes, but also a gory puzzle. The real artistry behind Dead Space is in its near perfect implementation of strategic dismemberment; it doesn’t just allow us to cut off limbs but that it forces us to do so, constantly and effectively. Every enemy has some weakness that encourages you to aim carefully. Slashers have arms and legs that can be cut off, Lurkers have extending tentacles that can be cut off, Exploders have a yellow sack that will explode if shot, but the best examples are the Pregnants. If we shoot wildly at it, it’s belly will burst and spawn more enemies, but if we aim carefully, taking out each limb, then it will die without birthing any more violent creatures.

Because the idea of careful aim has been made such an important part of the combat in Dead Space, we get a different kind of intensity and excitement while fighting. Most shooters try to make shooting intense and exciting by embracing the chaos of combat. Gears of War is a good example of this in that it takes a lot of bullets to kill a Locust. We’re meant to panic, to be scared, to freak out and hold down the trigger until the enemy dies, and when we do we’re not punished for it but rewarded. Dead Space creates its intensity in an entirely different manner, by asking us to fight that urge to panic and keep our cool under pressure. We know that even if we’re surrounded, simply shooting a Necromorph until it dies it not going to help. If we’re surrounded our best bet is to aim low, take out the legs so they can’t chase us, and retreat. Under pressure we have to strategize.

With the release of the Resident Evil 5 demo a lot has been said of the ability to walk and shoot at the same time; it seems like many people are giving RE5 flack for not evolving its control scheme like Dead Space. This is not what Dead Space should be remembered for; the ability to walk and shoot is really inconsequential to both games. What really matters is not how we control our avatar, but how we control the flow of combat, and in that regard Dead Space has surpassed the Resident Evil series (in my opinion). It legitimized the concept of strategic dismemberment in a 3rd-person shooter, on its first try. A sequel has been announced, but in all honesty I don’t know what they can do to improve its shooting; I dare say the perfect implementation of strategic dismemberment is–yes–artistic.

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