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Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
Dead Space has managed to update the survival horror genre by melding together all things zombie-ish and rocketing them into space. Instead of taking down the undead with shotguns and chainsaws, hero Isaac Clarke uses rusty construction equipment to dispatch hordes of reanimated corpses called Necromorphs, controlled by a hive mind that sends them relentlessly after him in all dark corners of space.
Through three canon games, the series has built a detailed mythology around weird alien stones called Markers and the cultish religion that surrounds them. Unitology is like Scientology run by Jim Jones, and the Necromorphs are weird reanimated corpses brought to life from indiscreet futzing with the Markers. Religious zealots, military meddling, and psychic aliens are just a few of the narrative strands of this violent – violent, violent, violent – homage-heavy series, which only grows in scope with each successive title. Luckily, it has never really sacrificed too many its mechanical and narrative strengths for the sake of “story.”
Dead Space: Extraction seems like a weird fit, then. The Nintendo Wii is not a system known for its more “mature” titles, and of all the third person shooters of the last decade, Dead Space brings the blood about as well as any of them. At first announcement, it seemed as though it was an experiment destined to suffocate on its own gimmick.
However, due to great controls, a variety of weapons, and a story that feels true to the series, Extraction turned out to be a wonderful game for the Wii, one that changes plenty but still manages to feel essentially like Dead Space. Moreover, Extraction really shows how more developers could have made interesting games for the Wii without compromising on a game’s narrative or mechanical complexity.
In Dead Space: Extraction you play not as Isaac Clarke but as a number of people trying to escape first the Aegis VII and then the USG Ishimura at the outset of the first game’s events. It’s kind of a prequel, but it seems to be somewhat concurrent with Dead Space. Mostly, though, you play as Nathan Mcneil, a cop aboard the Aegis VII, though player perspective shifts in certain situations and missions.
The game begins with a fairly cinematic reveal of the Marker, one of the mysterious stones that becomes a central, explanatory device for why everything goes to hell for everyone involved. Through a series of spoilery events, things then shift to the Aegis VII, and it is aboard that ship that the survivors of the first Necromorph attack decide that getting as far away from that planet as possible is the only possible solution. Escape becomes the primary objective, and as each path closes up, the group attempts to find other means of survival.
There’s plenty of narrative meat on the game’s bones, and the developers do not waste an opportunity to supply it. Whenever there is a lull in combat, characters reveal backstory, audio and text logs appear, and things happen to drive the story forward. In no way does it feel as though the narrative was crammed between action sequences. No, it totally has a narrative framework, around which the game was built, and that shines through for the most part.
Having a host of characters also helps minimize what can be an overly monotonous rail shooter experience. Each team member has something to contribute, story-wise, and it doesn’t appear to be a collection of simple commands, like “shoot at its head!” It’s as though the designers had a very specific story they wanted to tell through the medium of the Wii, and they squeezed every last bit of the system’s capabilities out in order to communicate said story.
All the while, the game handles perfectly. The aiming reticle is sharply responsive, and the control scheme has been thoughtfully tied to the way a person would actually hold the Wiimote. (The A button is still a problem, but being the main functional button on the controller means this will always be true.) In addition, the game doesn’t pause for you to shoot and then gather everything on-screen. You have to be pretty quick to pick up items and upgrades. You have to be “on” to get them, and looking for items gives you something to do whenever you are listening to dialogue. It benefits the quick-of-hand and eschews the sort of hand-holding that can become easy in games of this sort.
Not only does the game respond well, but the devs found a way to integrate nearly all of the meaningful mechanics from the main games into Extraction. Everything, from Stasis and Kinesis to two standard firing types for each weapon, has made it into the game. The audio logs sometimes play through the small speaker in the Wiimote, a novel way of handling them. Other aspects, like nodes, have been turned into a mini-game that tests hand steadiness. The effect is that it comes off as an earnest attempt to make a Dead Space game for Wii, and even small faults can be forgiven for the scope of the game attempted to be pulled off here.
Being initially equipped with a rivet gun and an unlimited supply of ammo gives players some room to play around with all of the other weapon types. Players can choose which weapons to keep and discard, and each weapon has several upgrades, an alt-fire function, and situationally appropriate strengths. A gun being dropped randomly doesn’t necessarily telegraph its necessity in an upcoming encounter, but I got burned a few times by discarding the newfound weapon. Weapon upgrades themselves are found items, like audio logs and ammo, so players need to be vigilant when traversing the environments.
If you’re not careful, you’ll use a lot of ammo, and since there are several Necromorph types to contend with, you’ll also have to adapt how you use the guns to the kinds of enemies you encounter. Dismemberment is the preferred method for taking out each Necromorph, but some of them birth annoying mini-morphs, which can be annoying. (Shaking the Wiimote in rail shooters has become the bane of my existence.)
Dead Space takes difficulty very seriously, and part of the fun of these games is trying one’s hand at the higher levels, but rest assured: even the normal setting is plenty difficult. However, the game is set-up so that players may feel overwhelmed but not unprepared. You just have to become efficient with gun types, firing styles, and aiming for those limbs.
In addition to the basic story mode, there is also a Challenge Mode, which is basically a timed horde mode. Players get credit for either the length of time they survive or how quickly they make it through the sea of enemies. I waited until after finishing the game to toy around with it, but I think it would make sense for players to practice in the Challenge Modes after each level. It can both give you a chance to practice with the gun types and enhance your aiming skills. The Necromorphs come in (somewhat) manageable waves, so you’ll also get some work in on managing groups of attacking enemies.
Despite a fairly varied collection of enemy types and encounters, Extraction is littered with a few substantial boss battles, However, since they are few and far between, they feel as though they have some actual substantive function within the game. They’re not simply obligatory end-of-sequence events to test your abilities and prove some ineffable point about the difficulty of the game. As a result, the game feels extremely well-paced. Each mission has an internal arc, which is then placed within the context of a whole-story framework, and both work well together. The story is dynamic, with plenty of quiet moments, frantic battles, and epic boss battles. Even where the game is predictable, it is carefully plotted so that it is not repeated often enough to become tiresome.
As the game unfurls, the nature of the original incident is somewhat revealed, filled in by some background of the Marker, the Unitologists, and the Necromorphs, but players familiar with the lore of the series will already know all of this information. It only scratches the surface of the game’s narrative opacity, but it does give some background on the Unitologists. One character in particular provides the audience with some motivational aspects of the mystical religion, filling in some narrative gaps from the first game. Even the most casual fan should recognize some of the allusions to the original Dead Space, though a few more direct connections would have been equally appreciated.
Players of the first entry in the series have been trained to understand that happy ending is a relative term and that even success, as it pertains to survival, is a pyrrhic victory, so to that end, Extraction has about as happy an ending as any of the games, though it keeps a certain style of stinger fans have come to expect.
The Final Word: Dead Space: Extraction is not only a solid rail shooter but is also a solid entry in the Dead Space franchise. It manages to integrate Dead Space mechanics seamlessly, all without coming off as gimmicky and trying-too-hard, which is not how most developers seemed to approach porting their games to the Wii.
Lots of franchise touchstones exist to keep veterans of the series pleased, while still not feeling as though much previous territory is being retread. The many different weapon types, along with fluid controls, make this game worth revisiting even after finishing the main story on the first playthrough. Extraction is a must-play for any Wii owner or fan of the franchise.
Dead Space: Extraction is available on the PlayStation 3 and Wii (reviewed).