Review by Suprak the Stud
A Few Key Components Lost During the Extraction
Dead Space was a survival horror game released on the Xbox 360 and PS3 that was a third person shooter with an emphasis on taking your time and slowly dismembering your foes. So, of course, it made complete sense when the next game released in the series was a first person rail shooter for the Wii with emphasis on a light gun arcade like gameplay and waggling the Wii-Mote whenever the monsters got close to you. This was the next expected title in the Dead Space franchise like a Youtube video of a fat man eating a tube of toothpaste would be the expected sequel for The Shining. I would like to tell you why it was decided that the follow-up to Dead Space should completely change genres and fundamental gameplay features, but the person who decided this couldn't explain to me because after suffering the donkey kick to the face that occurred immediately prior to this decision they have been reduced to communicating mostly in screams. The weirdest thing is, despite surely being the red-headed stepchild in the Dead Space series, Dead Space: Extraction works surprisingly well. The game falters at times due to limitations in the genre or the ambitions of the developers, but for the most part Dead Space: Extraction is a fairly enjoyable title, even if it plays a bit like Dead Space for Dummies.
It would seem strange to write a sequel following the events from the first game on the Ishimura, as most of the characters on the ship wound up in multiple pieces in multiple rooms, which sort of limits the directions the story could go unless it was titled Dead Space 2: Has Anyone Seen My Legs Oh Never Mind It's Too Late I'm Dead Anyway. The game gets around this by making it a prequel instead, giving you plenty of new characters to interact with that can do more things than bleed and gurgle for help. The game starts with you playing as a member of the excavation team tasked with moving the artifact known as the Marker from the place it was uncovered to the interior of the colony. Anyone who played the first game realizes that this is a profoundly awful idea; in fact anyone who looks at the back of the box and sees unholy creatures of death with stabbing utensils for hands probably figured out that moving a mysterious alien artifact anywhere near people is probably an awful idea. The main crux of the story is that increasingly awful and violent things are happening after exposure to the Marker while the people in charge cover their eyes and ears and pretend that the fact that the colonists suddenly have all developed new hobbies of never sleeping, mumbling darkly about the marker, mutating into monsters after exposure to the marker, and murdering everyone around them has nothing to do with the marker and everything to do with cabin fever in what has to be the worst misdiagnosis of boredom ever. As the story progresses, you take control of one of a small group of survivors that are desperately trying to get their way to somewhere where the scariest thing that comes out of a vent is a particularly large piece of lint.
While the story is fairly standard videogame fare, it is enjoyable enough and at times surpasses that of the original Dead Space. A couple of the chapters are particularly impressive, including the first one which opens up the game nicely and even has a bit of a mini-twist that really sets off the meatier portions of the story later. The plot never really evolves much beyond "we need to get somewhere safer NOW" but the dialogue isn't terrible and the characters are likable enough for the most part. The game does get fairly predictable at times, especially in later chapters, and you begin to just assume that any no name character that randomly joins your party is about to get killed about a minute later because the game is getting bored and its blood lust must be satiated. The game does a decent job establishing a creepy atmosphere and tension at times, but it seems to be working with the same couple of tricks it uses over and over again so after a while it just gets boring. It would be like if a magician kept pulling out the same rabbit from the same hat, and still expected applause after you had already seen him do it a dozen times. When the game is at its best, it is separating your from your companions and causing you to hear weird murmuring that may or may not even be real, and sections of Dead Space: Extraction really manage to capture the desired tone perfectly. The game does start getting really repetitive about halfway through and the story drags for the last half of the game, but it is still far superior to any other story I've seen in a rail shooter. The main problem is that, as a prequel, the game has a hard time covering anything that wasn't already presented, and typically more impressively done, in the original. Part of the tension of the first was unraveling exactly what was going on and what happened to the ship and the colony, but this time around you already start with this information and you're just sort of waiting for things to happen. It isn't like the story in the game reveals some key aspect that was left unclear in the first game, so the plot ends up feeling too predictable and a little pointless.
The cast of characters is alright, if a little generic. You have your tough, grizzled soldier who is always getting in people's faces and murmuring typical grunt things like "man up, sweetheart" or "I'm boring so you're not going to be able to remember more than one of my lines." Then there is the lead character, Nathan McNeil, who is a cop on the planet that the Marker is found on and is dealing with the fact that everyone is murdering each other surprisingly well. He fits the role nicely, at times expressing worry or fear or other emotions typical or non sociopaths that don't find their way into games very frequently. The female lead, Lexine Murdoch, is perhaps the best character in the game, with a distinct personality and strengths and weaknesses that actually make her seem a bit like a real person instead of generic space grunt 146. Warren Eckhardt rounds up the main cast and the only other character that gets any substantial screen time, and he is a fat old guy that is about as useful to the group as he is interesting. What is nice is how the game portrays many of these characters slowly losing their grip on their sanity, alternately hearing voices that aren't there and seeing things that are figments of their imagination. It ruins a bit of the suspense when you are constantly surrounded by other people, but the larger group helps further the story and gives depth to the plot that would otherwise be absent. While they are a bit generic and a couple could have used more character development, the main cast is actually fairly strong and likable, and I actually preferred this cast to that of the original game.
The controls for the game are very straightforward and responsive, which is primarily due to how simple the control scheme is. You aim the Wii-Mote to aim and you pull the trigger button to pull the trigger. I mean, let's face it: the Wii seems specifically designed to play rail shooters well. If someone described to you how the game controllers for the Wii were set up, you would immediately think the Wii was a console meant to play only rail shooters and lightsaber battles and that anyone trying to use motion controls to do anything else was intentionally trying to make a bad game. Still, the controls work great and aiming and firing are as flawless as anything you will encounter in any rail shooter at an arcade. Despite the fact that this game already uses the Wii-Mote well, the developers didn't apparently meet their annoying Wii based gimmick quota, so every now and then you have to do a waggle to appease the Gods of Unnecessarily Cumbersome Controls and Tennis Elbow, who apparently Nintendo have been worshipping for the past five years or so. If you want to light up an area or get a necromorph off of you, you do it by violently flaying about until the game tells you to stop or you have put your Wii-Mote through the nearest window. The game also allows you to have alternate fire by turning the controller sideways prior to firing, or increase your reload speed by hitting the reload button at the same time, but really these are pretty much the same controls that have been featured in every decent rail shooter from the past two decades plus a couple of annoying required Wii gimmicks.
The rail shooter genre has perhaps been the most stagnant over the years, and as soon as someone perfected the point at screen at shoot mechanic, game developers laid back, passed out in their massive piles of drugs and money, and decided to just keep using that in every rail shooter from there on out. Dead Space: Extraction is one of the first rail shooters I've played that actually tries to do new things with the genre, which is encouraging even if some of the new things they try to do don't work very well. It is experimentation; sure some of these experiments are likely to explode in their face, or grow an extra set of limbs and start stabbing everyone, but at least this game tried to do something kind of new. The first thing that this game has that most rail shooters don't is a coherent story, which I already talked about. Most rail shooters have stories that make as much sense as a random string of letter pulled from an Alpha-Bits cereal box, so the fact the characters communicate in English and not whistles and armpit farts already surpasses the quality of stories in most rail shooters. But beyond just the story, the game implements some new mechanics to the established formula that everyone already knows. There is a bit more exploration allowed, and even though you are on rails you at least have a little bit of leeway as to where the track goes. There are branching paths, something which some of the more recent rail shooters like to delve into, but you also have moments where you can look around your immediate area to find more weapons or ammo. This isn't a substantial amount of freedom, but it is a nice way to incorporate a bit of exploration into a genre that typical has less affinity for exploration than house-bound, elderly xenophobes that are afraid of doorknobs. More impressively, they've actually tried to implement some actual enemy A.I. that doesn't trot up to you the exact same way each time, meaning that if you replay a level you might have a slightly different experience. It isn't anything major as you do fight the same enemies at the same places, but it is at least a little bit of an alteration and certainly improves upon what is typical fare in the genre.
Still, sometimes this sort of ambition can be a dangerous this. It is great if you want to teach your dog to speak, but once he starts picking up swear words and yelling profanities at the neighbors you have no one to blame but yourself. Similarly, Dead Space: Extraction has some problems that result from them trying to go beyond the typical rail shooter mechanics with often results with the game loudly messing itself and then trying to hide around the corner to obscure its embarrassment. The most glaring messes are often a result of the game trying to give different paths to the A.I. baddies. As previously mentioned, this is a great way to eliminate the monotony that a lot of these shooters face, and the levels are at least not exactly the same thing each time. However, this is also a great way to confuse the A.I., and since you are on rails there is no way to get to them to give them a swift kick to the face and try to reboot things. Occasionally what will happen is that when one of the enemies is wandering about, it will find something much more interesting to do then attack you, and you'll be stuck in one spot while the last necromorph in the room is on the other side of a wall reading the latest issue of Home & Gardens & Unspeakable Terror. There were a handful of times in the game where I would have to restart an entire level, losing twenty to thirty minutes of progress, just because a necromorph suddenly got shy and wouldn't show its face until all the acne cleared up. The enemies also have a penchant for getting stuck in a wall, running at you desperately while you just see their arms and head pop out of the middle of a concrete slab every other second or so. While I appreciate the clever new improvements the game makes to the genre, they also display some of the most serious limitations of rail shooters, which is that when you can't move to get around, the enemy A.I. needs to either be really simplistic or really good because you are no longer able to go around and fix things if something buggers up. These aren't huge issues and it wasn't like they popped up every single level, but they did happen too frequently and it is always incredibly annoying to lose all your progress because the necromorph suddenly decided to take a nap and your character refuses to move from the spot his feet are currently glued to.
The free looking aspect of the gameplay also has a few quirks that prevent it from being anything particularly special. It is a fairly clever idea which could add some more complexity to the genre, but the game uses it so sparingly that it when it does jump out at you it's almost as startling as when the necromorphs do it. The game also has this obnoxious habit of pushing you through each of these segments so quickly that you end up missing half of the things you can pick up. This was most likely done to make these segments a bit more challenging, but it just feels like when you finally have a chance to take a look around the game is right behind you shoving your forward because it needs to get to a spot to take a bathroom break. The whole mechanic really ends up being kind of a waste, something that feels like it was put into the game without much thought of how to integrate it. The developers just sort of plopped it in and left it to its own devices, and like a lot of the other aspects in the game they had an idea but didn't know what to do with it. Despite the little changes they tried to make to the genre, too many of them were either poorly implemented or sporadically used, and as a result the game isn't as good as it could have been. The mechanics still put it above that of pretty much any other rail shooter I've played, but that isn't a particularly high bar to aim for. If Dead Space: Extraction is satisfied being the thinnest guy in Green Bay, then kudos, but the groundwork was there for something even better if the execution of the concepts was improved.
The various gameplay changes give the game a slightly different feel than a lot of similar titles in the same genre. Commonly, rail shooters are either throwing hordes of enemies at you, or moving you quickly to the next screen so they can throw more enemies at you. The pacing in Dead Space: Extraction is definitely better, giving time to flesh out the story or build the tension a little bit. While I think it ends up helping the game and prefer it to the alternative, those who pick it up looking for the same style of one of the House of the Dead games will probably end up disappointed. The more methodical pacing might end up alienating some fans of the genre, because part of the reason rail shooters appeal to some people is the constant action and quick shooting that is common in a lot of these games. Refining the gameplay does make it a more thoughtful title, but some of the stupid fun is lost because of it.
The game does attempt to keep the feel of the original Dead Space, and for the most part it does a somewhat decent job. You have both stasis and kinesis available to you, both of which actually have a fairly important role in the gameplay. Like the first game, you can use stasis to slow down enemies so you can dismember them at your leisure. The stasis also comes up in rudimentary puzzles every once in a great while, but these are so infrequent and so brainless that it feels as if they were thrown in as an afterthought. They basically boil down to the game literally telling you that you need to use your stasis on this object in front of you or the enormous whirling fan blades will pulverize your pelvis, which is only one step away from the game just using the stasis itself as part of a cutscene. In game, however, the stasis is a bit more enjoyable and carving up your enemies limb by limb until they are just crawling at you with only one arm, trying to headbutt you to death is still a strange kind of satisfying that I should probably see a therapist about. The kinesis works by pulling things toward you, including ammo and weapon upgrades. As a weapon, it is pretty much as useless as it was in the original, but it was implemented well as a way to pick up various collectibles including new weapons, audiologs, and other stuff scattered throughout the levels. While it isn't much, the inclusion of these little extras do manage to give Dead Space: Extraction a bit more depth than that of most rail shooters as you have other things to look for on the levels beyond enemies to make holes in.
The upgrade system also helps to elevate the game over that of most rail shooters, even if it only provides as much elevation as can be reached via tippy toes. You have various weapon upgrades that you can find that improve the quality of the weapons, giving you reason to make sure you check your surroundings and blow open some of the locked doors if given the opportunity to do so. The game also provides you the capacity to improve other things like health bar or stasis module by doing well in the levels and earning enough stars, sort of like a Super Mario game but with less pasta sauce and more blood. You earn five stars on a level if you take little damage, time your reloads and have high accuracy, three stars if you die a couple of times, miss half of the collectables, and shoot at ghosts, and one star if you play with your feet, desecrate a bunch of corpses, and singlehandedly cause the downfall of society. The standard number of stars earned is usually four, with five being difficult to get only a couple of levels. Still despite the fact that they seem to be giving out stars for effort, providing some upgrades, regardless of how minor they might be, creates a sense of growth that is completely absent in most similar titles.
Something the game did forget to transfer over was the horror. Trying to make a rail shooter scary is a lot like trying to make a funeral funny or a WNBA game exciting, and nobody really tries to do it and the people who have end up failing so spectacularly that they end up being shunned by the rest of society until we find a big enough stick to beat them about the head with. The impressive thing is Dead Space: Extraction does get kind of close at times, but they never quite reach the destination and end up circling the target for a couple of blocks before they get dizzy and swerve off into generic action game territory. Every now and then, the game will play with your perception and start showing you things that may or may not be there or hearing things that are most likely your character's hallucinations. The game gets pretty close to creepy, and every once in a while they have something jump out at you at just the right time as to cause a reaction. Unfortunately, what ended up killing any semblance of terror for me was the arsenal of weapons they have at your disposal that could end up taking out a small army. It's hard to try and instill a feeling of hopelessness or vulnerability that pretty much needs to be there to elicit any real fear when the game pairs you with three other people for most of it and gives you guns that can blow off all of your enemy's limbs in two shots. The game does a good job at establishing the mood from time to time and it certainly has its moments, but large portions of the game were just kind of boring, which typically isn't a good sign when something is trying to scare you. It would be like if a monster jumped out in the middle of a movie only to read the characters copies of their tax reforms, which is only scary if one of them is being audited.
The lack of horror in this survival horror-esque game is due to one of the bigger overarching problems in the game, which is that even on the highest difficulties the game is just too easy. I mean, you start off the game with a rivet gun and a pickax and a nagging sense that you're probably going to die a horrible death. But around halfway through the game you have a flamethrower, a blast-off-every-part-of-the-enemy's-body gun, and a murder frenzy that can only be quenched by necromorph blood. It isn't just that the guns are a little overpowered; towards the end it feels like you are attacking a colony of ants with frag grenades. The flamethrower on its own can get you through almost every level without even getting hit. You start off with a ton of ammo, it only takes a handful of hits to take out any enemy, and if you hold down the attack it blocks projectiles and melee attacks. And both the force gun and line gun, while kind of fun to use, take out entire swaths of enemies with just a couple of well placed shots. Health is plentiful and disposed enemies drop health packs with such frequency it seems like they were hording it to build a second, larger ship using only health packs as building materials. Basically, you are almost invincible and your enemies are not which makes things all kinds of not scary. Some of the guns are fun to use for a little while, but after the novelty wears off some of the later levels just feel kind of boring. It is hard to feel any sense of dread when your enemies just aren't threatening, which is a problem for any game but an especially huge deal for a game aiming at horror.
The game does have some various extras that add a bit of replayability to the game and give you a little extra to do if you are a huge fan of the series or have some sort of obsessive compulsive disorder and now have to reread this sentence five more times otherwise the goblins hiding in your closet will come out and steal your socks. You have the various power-ups and audiologs hidden around parts of the ship, which at least give you something to look for on subsequent playthroughs. The fact that you are stuck on rails sort of limits any sort of real exploration you have, so it basically amounts to if you can grab things on the screen fast enough. So, while it was a nice idea to add these upgrades throughout the game, it is a bit annoying to have to replay an entire level to find one upgrade that you could have picked up the last playthrough if your character would have just turned around when you wanted him to. There is also a challenge mode, which removes the story and sends you out to fight ten waves of necromorphs on different levels that you already visited in the story mode. I suppose this might appeal to someone that was deaf and didn't want to feel like they were missing out on voice acting, but it is basically the same areas with the same sort of enemies you fight in the story mode making the whole thing feel redundant the first time you play it. The best extra, however, is the fully voice acted comic book you unlock along the way that recounts the details of the colony's demise from numerous other perspectives and fleshes out a lot of the minutiae that wasn't fully covered in the story. This was probably my favorite part of the game, and the visual style, voice acting, and even the story surpass any thing that has been featured in the series so far. It probably is a bad sign that my favorite part of the game has nothing to do with the game and is more of a book, but it is still a really nice addition for fans of the series.
For a Wii game, the visuals and sounds are surprisingly good and while things do look a bit blocky at times the game does manage to at least mimic the aesthetic from the first game closely enough. Still, the design begins to look a little bland after a while, and even though your location changes about a third of the way through the game, all the environments could have been mixed up and put anywhere in the game and you wouldn't have noticed a difference. Bland, gray walls with chunks of meat hanging around in random intervals was pretty much the environment from the first game, but it would have been nice if it was improved a little bit. At five or six different junctures in the game, it shuffles you down a small corridor you have to crawl through either because they mistakenly thought this was scarier or because designing big open detailed environments is much harder than repeated sections of identical tunnels. The entire game just feels somewhat lazily designed, like the level editor got fired halfway through and the rest of the team had to paste together the rest of the game from previously designed areas. The sound if much better, and the weird murmurings and singing they have intersperced throughout the game really add to the atmosphere. The voice acting is also fairly strong, and combined with the ambient noises and monster growls, the sound ends up significantly improving the tension, while everything else in the game is trying to ruin it.
Dead Space: Extraction is one of those games that pleasantly surpassed my expectations, but that doesn't really mean much since my expectations were so low to begin with that even the most flexible limbo-er would have had trouble shimmying underneath. Rail shooters have been a dying genre for about a decade now, so I had assumed that this would just be a piece of shovelware that had the Dead Space name attached to it to sell more copies. However, some minor tweaks to the mechanics and a solid (if predictable) story actually makes this one of the more entertaining rail shooters you can find on any console. Unfortunately, the game starts running out of ideas about halfway through and it just sorts of putters to an end without much interesting happening in the later half of the game. Some weapons almost completely break the game to the point that if the necromorphs were smarter they would have started running away once they saw me coming with my flamethrower and force gun, either of which doubles as a necromorph instant death gun. The latter portions of the game are just empty of any challenge and the game starts becoming boring due to this and the repetition of enemies and design. It never really reaches the highs of the first game, and while it comes close to aping the tension and the enjoyment at times, it always ends up falling a little shirt and feels a bit like a kid dressing up in his daddy's clothes; you can see the similarities if you squint a little bit and pretend he's kneeling or something, but even the most nearsighted of individuals can sense something is slightly off even from a distance. Dead Space: Extraction is somewhat fun to play and will hold your attention the couple of days it lasts, but it isn't the kind of game you want to play through again (if you can motivate yourself to finish it a first time).
Extraction (THE GOOD):
+Controls work well; game is straightforward and enjoyable to play
+Fairly interesting story with a couple of memorable chapters
+Decent cast of character that surpasses that in the first game
+Minor tweaks to the typical rail shooter conventions make this one of the better games in the genre
+Various extras and upgrades improve the depth and replayability
+Well voice acted; sound as a whole is well done
Congestion (THE BAD):
-Latter portions of the game get fairly boring due to overpowered weapons and a dragging story
-Too much repetition in design makes a lot of the levels feel too similar
-Lack of any challenge kills any of the suspense the game was trying to create
-Challenge mode isn't even worth playing as it features enemies and environments recycled from the main game
-A.I. is only alright and got stuck multiple times behind a wall, forcing entire levels to be replayed
-Lots of the additions feel somewhat trivial or superficial and don't really add much to the game or genre
Impacted (THE UGLY): While none of the monsters in this game are particularly pretty, the fat turkey looking creature that gouges out its stomach when hit to releases smaller, crawling monstrosities takes the crown of ugliest creature that will haunt your dreams. The monsters are shown early on to be mutations of the corpses of real people, so I can only assume that there must have been a large contingent of people in the colony that subsisted only on cheese doodles, deep fried Twinkies, and their own self hatred.
THE VERDICT: 6.00/10.00
Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Product Release: Dead Space: Extraction (US, 09/29/09)
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