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Dead Space: Extraction

(Electronic Arts; US: 29 Sep 2009)

Dring the build up to the release of Dead Space: Extraction, developer Visceral Games never described their game as a “rail shooter,” which is a kind of shooter, typically in first-person, in which the player doesn’t have direct control over their avatar, who instead moves along a set path as if on rails. The term has long been associated with arcade shoot-‘em-ups to differentiate these two different types of games. Dead Space: Extraction, though, had been described as a “guided experience.” Despite how much it sounds like PR speak, “guided experience” is actually an apt description. This is not your typical rail shooter. Yet, even that new descriptor doesn’t do the game justice because Extraction offers an experience like no other.


The biggest difference between this shooter and other rail shooters on the Wii is the way that this game embraces its first-person perspective. Instead of just using first-person as an excuse to not feature a character model on screen, Dead Space: Extraction uses the perspective in ways that make you feel like a genuine part of this world. The camera mimics our character’s head movement, bobbing as he walks and so forth. This is nothing new in games, but it’s the attention to detail that sets Extraction apart: the way the camera jumps from person to person when a group is talking, how it scans each new room for threats before moving in, how it peaks around corners and into open rooms, and looks both ways at a every T-junction. Our character moves like he’s trying to survive like we would if we were in control. Thanks to this intuitive camera direction, there were times I actually forgot I wasn’t in control. It’s these subtle movements that make the game more immersive than most other games, let alone other rail shooters.


It helps that the story compliments the “on rails” movement that it simulates. You’re part of a group of survivors looking for a way off a space ship swarming with monsters.  Each stage follows a very linear path, and even if we had total control, we’d still be following that same path. The lack of control doesn’t translate into a lack of exploration.


Because the game puts us so completely into the shoes of these characters, we stay with them even during the quiet (or at least less action packed) moments of their journey. We watch them as they discuss where to go next, as they put on spacesuits, and as they fight with each other. The game wants you to experience every moment as they do, and as a result, the game is less about shooting than it is pacing. Instead of jumping from monster fight to monster fight, it takes it’s time in using these moments of calm to develop characters and tension. In this way, it feels less like a horror game and more like a horror movie. Dead Space: Extraction blurs the line between game and movie in some surprising ways. Obviously, since we’re not in direct control of the character, we can only watch as he moves about the ship, but the way that the game embraces the first-person perspective makes us feel involved and not at all like a passive voyeur.  And when a necromorph appears, player participation is mandatory, since we’ll die fast if we don’t defend ourselves. The game seamlessly switches between moments of watching and moments of playing; it really is a “guided experience.” The only one of its kind.


But all of this would be pointless if the shooting was bad. This is a shooter after all. Combat is surprisingly tactical. You carry up to four guns at once and switch between them with a flick of the control stick. This means that changing weapons is often faster than reloading, and as you play you’ll discover certain combinations of guns that work well together and fit your style of play. Your stasis ability is more important here than it was in the first game because now you can’t back up or run away if you’re feeling overwhelmed. It’s a necessary tool for controlling the flow of battle. The few seconds of reprieve that it gives you by slowing enemy movement can be just enough time to catch your breath and prevent you from being overrun. But you can only use it three times before it has to recharge, so you must choose your targets carefully and not miss. Reloading takes inspiration from the “active reload” of Gears of War: When you hit the reload button a meter begins to circle around your reticule and if you hit the reload button again while the meter is within a specially colored area, it stops and your gun is full again. If you fail, you must wait until the meter circles all the way around the reticule, and in many cases, those extra seconds of helplessness can be fatal. You’re juggling all these things at once in addition to the actual aiming and shooting mechanisms. To survive, you must remain calm while the game does everything that it can to make you panic. The tension it creates by trying to scare you with atmosphere and pacing, while demanding precision and a steady hand to progress, is unique to Dead Space, and this entry in the franchise pulls it off perfectly. 


Dead Space: Extraction is not without its faults. While the camera shake helps immersion, it also makes hitting things more difficult than it should be. Thankfully, when enemies are around the camera is still, but it shakes the rest of the time when we’re supposed to be picking up ammo, new weapons, and weapon upgrades. The latter item is particularly important because upgrades are persistent throughout the game, so if you miss one early on, you’re stuck without it. However, in an impressive display of foresight, Visceral Games put a “camera shake” meter in the options menu, allowing you to increase or decrease the shake as you see fit.


This minor annoyance is easily overshadowed by some of the ingenious things the game does in combining its first-person perspective, its story, and the core mechanic of the genre (point at screen and shoot stuff). There are a couple moments when these three aspects of the game come together to create an experience that is truly inspired. These are the moments people will remember long after the game has ended, and that future rail shooters will try to mimic. Dead Space: Extraction breathes new creative life into what was one of the most derivative genres in gaming, turning it from a mindless virtual shooting gallery into a valid avenue for storytelling. This game is not to be missed.

Rating:

Nick Dinicola made it through college with a degree in English, and now applies all his critical thinking skills to video games instead of literature. He reviews games and writes a weekly post for the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters, and can be heard on the weekly Moving Pixels podcast. More of his reviews, previews, and general thoughts on gaming can be found at www.gamehounds.net.


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