Friday, 12 March 2010

Near-dead genre breathing once more

If you're anything like me, you love a good scare. A jump-out-of-your chair, fill-your-pants, heart-in-your-mouth scare. It reminds you that you're alive. Sometimes it reminds you that you're a big wimp, but mostly it reminds you that you're alive.

I remember these moments vividly from years gone by whilst playing my favourite type of game – survival horror. These games are designed to do exactly what you expect – you have to survive, and it's scary. Hella scary. How about when the dogs leapt through the window in the original Resident Evil, or when you encountered the sharks? Perhaps seeing the Licker run across the window in Resident Evil 2, or the moment you saw the poor cop you couldn't save stumbling towards you as a zombie? Maybe the odd collection of wheelchairs tipped over with wheels still rolling in Silent Hill did it for you, or even when the creepy nurses walking awkwardly with knives in their hands began looking your way.

But let's be honest. Over the last few years, fans of survival horror haven't really had much to cheer about. After a glut of excellent games on the PS1/PS2 (Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Siren and many more) and original Xbox (the incredible Call Of Cthulu: Dark Corners Of The Earth), recent offerings have been sparse and under par..

You aren't from round here, are you boy?

Even the daddies of survival horror began showing signs of fading enthusiasm and confidence in the genre - Resident Evil 4 & 5, whilst both excellent games, favoured fast-paced action in place of the genuine unease and fright in earlier titles, and the Alone In The Dark franchise did itself no favours with an interesting but ultimately highly flawed and bugged next-gen offering.

Taking the aforementioned Alone In The Dark title as an example, it seemed innovation was being favoured over storyline, playability and common sense (don't even get me started on the tree stump section in central park). Sure, a neat inventory system and the ability to create your own ammo using seemingly random items you've collected along your quest is a neat touch, but when that ammo can only be fired using an awkward control scheme with horrendous camera control, the novelty wears off.

Believe it or not, that's an inventory screen

Imagine my delight then, whilst searching for a bargain in my local game shop last year, to discover a game that not only re-invigorated my passion and faith in the genre but that has seemingly coincided with a return to form of survival horror. The game? Dead Space.

Dead Space was released multi-platform in October 2008 with little fanfare. How little fanfare can be best summed up by the price I paid for a new copy, only 7 months after release - £7.

It's premise is simple – the Concordance Extraction Corporation receives a distress call from the USG Ishimura, a deep space mining ship. All attempts to contact the ship have been fruitless, and so the USG Kellion is dispatched on a rescue mission. Enter the hero of the tale, Isaac Clarke, an engineer with a handy array of laser cutters and a mighty impressive space suit. Whilst docking with the Ishimura, your ship crashes in the landing bay, leaving you stranded and with no option left but to explore the deserted ship (oh noes!). On your way you encounter the horrendous Necromorphs and uncover shocking truths about the real reason for the communication blackout.

What follows is 13 or so hours of one of the finest gameplay experiences of my entire life. From the gripping and engaging plot and the graphical beauty of the degraded Ishimura, all the way down to the sound Isaac's feet make whilst clunking around the mining ship, this game is, quite simply, incredible. The developers have balanced action against shit-your-pants scares with aplomb, proving along the way that a strong plot, beautiful graphics and back-to-basics, atmospheric and exciting gameplay are still the most important components when creating a survival horror game. That's not to say the game isn't without it's neat touches – there's no HUD to speak of, instead replaced with real time holograms that appear next to Isaac's suit. The health bar is displayed via a tube that runs down Isaac's back, and there are some real neat features like the Stasis and Kinesis modules that add another dimension of gameplay.

It's worth noting that despite not being a particularly high-selling title, the game has won countless awards and critical acclaim since it's release, and has a direct sequel in the offing (although the prequel Deadspace: Extraction was released on the Wii as a House Of The Dead style FPS). Dead Space 2 is due this year, and I for one can't wait.

And for all you fellow survival horror fans out there, there's a whole host of titles to get excited about – Alan Wake (Remedy Software - multi-platform), Siren: Blood Curse (SCEJ - PS3), Deadly Premonition (Ignition – PS3/Xbox 360), I Am Alive (Ubisoft – multi-platform) and countless more.

Get ready to turn the lights off and frighten yourself silly.

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