The air is crisp, daylight is scarce and Halloween decorations litter store shelves. The signs point to what has become an annual rite: We're rushing headlong into what videogame makers are counting on to be their blockbuster season. Videogame companies save up their best games for the months of October and November to capitalize on the holiday shopping season.
In an attempt to beat the pack, Electronic Arts' "Dead Space" is the first out the gate. It's also the first title out of the "new" EA. The company is attempting to reinvent its reputation with edgy new intellectual property. It looks like "Dead Space" will kick things off right — analytics firm EEDAR estimates the game could sell 400,000 copies in its first week.
It has certainly caught the spirit of the season — the Halloween season, of course.
1. What is 'Dead Space?'
"Dead Space" is a science fiction horror game for the PlayStation 3, PC and Xbox 360. Think of it as the videogame lovechild of "Alien" and "Solaris." Engineer Isaac Clarke is part of a repair mission sent to restore communications to a mining ship. Naturally, there's a slight mishap. Most of the crew is massacred or insane and playing host to an alien life force that wants nothing more than to kill everyone. It is up to you to survive.
2. A horror game? Come on. Can a game really be scary?
Oh, yes. Horror has had a long videogame tradition. Typically classified as "survival horror," games like "Silent Hill," "Fatal Frame" or "Siren" pit players who have little means of fighting back against horrific creatures. Relying heavily on horror archetypes, these games build tension through prolonged cat-and-mouse scenarios. There's nothing that feels scarier than confronting zombies or ghosts when you don't have the ammo to vaporize them.
3. But is it actually, you know, spooky-scary?
It is genuinely creepy, but "Dead Space" probably won't turn you into a huddled, sobbing ball unable to fall asleep at night. It's more shock and awe than psychological warfare. Most "scares" consist of grotesque creatures leaping out of nowhere and the atmospheric sounds they make as they scuttle through ducts. Try playing it with the lights off and the volume up for the full effect.
4. What's the game play like? What do you do?
Stranded on the USG Ishimura mining ship, Isaac has to battle his way through alien-infected crew members in order to fix the ship and get the hell out of that solar system. There's a lot of shooting. But in between dismembering bad guys, there's some cool puzzle-solving and exploration to do. Isaac's space suit grants him a few special powers. He might have to bypass obstructions or move platforms about with telekinesis, slow down malfunctioning doors with a stasis field or perform a few zero-gravity acrobatic maneuvers to get from point A to point B. All the while, you'll be picking up scraps of ship records, uncovering what happened to the Ishimura's crew, bit by bit.
5. Dismemberment? What, are you some sort of serial killer?
A serial killer of horribly mutated flesh-eating humans? Yes. One of the core mechanics in "Dead Space" is something called "strategic dismemberment." If games like "Halo" have trained you to aim for the head, get ready to relearn combat skills. Just like chickens, beheading enemies will send them into a far more dangerous, frenzied rage. Better bet: Blast off the most deadly appendages. If something with blades for arms rushes you, remove its appendages. That technique renders it no more dangerous than a seal pup.
6. What's the coolest part of the game?
Outside of throwing stuff around with telekinesis powers, slowing down bad guys with stasis fields, or strutting about in zero gravity? It would have to be the game's integration of menus. It might sound pedestrian, but the designers have created a really neat way to keep players immersed in the game. All audio files, video files, maps and menus are holographically projected in front of Isaac. You view them just as he would, as part of his surroundings.
7. Should my kids play this?
Probably not. The game is rated M (Mature) for blood, gore, intense violence and strong language. Your main objective, after all, is to dissect horribly transformed human beings. There are also bloody scrawls on the walls, folks lopping off their own heads and graphic depictions of Isaac's own gory death. That makes it no worse than similarly themed R-rated movies.
8. Is there a multi-player feature?
Sadly, "Dead Space" is a single-player experience. If you're craving more, Electronic Arts will support the game post-launch with downloadable content. Right now, EA has only confirmed additional space suits and weapons but there could be more substantial add-ons in the future.
9. Wow. Electronic Arts made this?
Two years ago, "Dead Space" never would have made it through the green light process, say members of the game's development team. They thank Chief Executive John Riccitiello. Electronic Arts has garnered — not undeservedly —a bad rep for churning out uninspired sequels of established franchises. That's changing. Along with investing in respected development houses like Bioware and Pandemic, Riccitiello wants to improve the overall quality of EA games. To do that, he has supported internal development of original intellectual property.
10. Isn't Electronic Arts trying to turn this into a multimedia brand? How does that work?
Like many videogame companies, Electronic Arts has moved its focus beyond games. It is establishing brands, not just franchises, in the hopes of building more valuable intellectual properties and, of course, selling more games. "Dead Space" launched as a six-part, Image-published prequel comic book detailing the fate of the mining colony in March. EA is also releasing a straight-to-DVD animated film detailing the demise of the Ishimura crew later this month. The hope? Consumers will crave more.