It takes three shots from a Plasma Cutter to kill a Necromorph. In EA‘s sci-fi horror Dead Space, that’s one of the first lessons I was taught – straight after learning never to trust a single piece of machinery on the USG Ishimura to do its job.
My first meeting with a Necromorph wasn’t really a meeting – through plate glass, I saw one of the mutated horrors slip down from a vent and into a docking bay with my infuriatingly useless crew. Within seconds, it was twitching between its victims and eviscerating them with its bladed arms. Dead Space gives you a front-row seat to the carnage, and I spent the entirety of the slaughter like any good horror film – watching through my hands.
After that, the real fear began. Another Necromorph burst into the room I was in, kicking off a terrifying chase sequence that culminated in being backed into an elevator. Whatever sigh of relief I felt at the doors gliding shut choked in my throat, as the Necromorph received a second wind in its pitched fight against heavy industrial doors. Eventually, the Necromorph loses its fight and gets splattered all over your poor player character, Isaac – but when the rickety elevator gets moving, a piece of my heart was left several floors back.
The Necromorphs were unsettling, but time hasn’t been kind to the iconic monsters. 14 years later, they resemble Half-Life 2‘s stocky zombies – and when you’re given a Plasma Cutter energy gun and stasis-inducing gadget, the scares diminish rapidly. To my lack of surprise, things are a lot scarier when you can dunk them into slow-mo and methodically blast their limbs off – why couldn’t Layers Of Fear have let me blow up the ghosts? I even found myself benefitting from the last month of spooky columns – when a Necromorph body lay in front of a too-convenient save point, three pops from my Plasma Cutter saved me a rather unpleasant jump scare.
Yet as I continued further into the USG Ishimura, my confidence wavered when I discovered that Dead Space‘s stasis tool is actually quite difficult to replenish. Suddenly, the Necromorphs that I was picking apart in slow motion were able to charge at me in real-time, with twitchy reflexes that made them difficult to hit. Like I said, it takes three shots – two to the legs, one to the head – to kill a Necromorph, but it felt like EA was taking a spiked bat to my oh-so-careful routine whenever multiple Necromorphs or a less predictable variant appeared to knock me down a peg.
Much to my discomfort, Dead Space‘s audio has held up far better than its looks. From the moment you dock, every inch of the Ishimura seems to scream at you. The ship’s enormous metal hull constantly sounds like it’s fighting to stay in one piece, and in that constant industrial foley, you could almost miss the scuttling of something in the vents. Almost. Even though Dead Space warns you to be wary of ventilation shafts, it’s impossible to keep track of every odd noise – meaning that whenever a rogue Necromorph does decide to spring at you from the ceiling, it’s fucking horrible.
Even worse, Dead Space‘s magnificent score by composer Jason Graves has held up unpleasantly well. As much as I admired the soundtrack – all shrieking strings, rife with tension – I couldn’t help but wish that Graves had phoned the bloody thing in, just to give me a break. There were several times when it would become unpleasantly intense, and I knew – even before I heard the first, muffled footsteps – that a Necromorph had crawled out behind me. Despite feeling dated elsewhere, Graves’ score and the Ishimura’s death throes meant that 14 years later, Dead Space‘s tension could still find a grip on my poor, over-worked heart.
Despite that, for the first time in this column, I felt like I had found a game I could actually play. Even better, I wanted to play it. Part of that may have been the dated graphics acting as a barrier between myself and full immersion, but I adored the Ishimura’s atmosphere, and the gory satisfaction to be found in blasting a Necromorph to bits – with just three shots, let me remind you. We’ll see if that holds true when the much-anticipated remake comes out, but for now, pinch me: did I just enjoy a horror game?
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