March 14th, 2010
Dead Space Extraction is the most progressive of its Wii rail shooter brethren, and probably the most groundbreaking title in the genre in recent memory. The proportioning of gameplay states (which tends to emphasise atmosphere and storytelling) along with a diverse myriad of other mechanics culminate in the realisation of a different breed of rail shooter, one which I think is long over due. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m going to talk about the various points which make Dead Space Extraction unique, however, if you need a refresher, or haven’t yet heard of this title, the video review below lend a hand.
Narrative and Atmosphere
As much as Visceral Games attempts to dissociate their game from the term, Dead Space Extraction is fundamentally a rail shooter. Perhaps a better way to describe it is a rail shooter with lots of narrative and atmosphere. Guesstimating for a second, maybe 40% of the game is purely narrative and atmosphere setting, the 60% is representative of the time you’ll spend shooting at things. That might sound measly, particularly considering the 7 hr length of the main story, but Dead Space Extraction marries the atmosphere, narrative and shooting so well together that each part feels necessary to complete the experience, in turn justifying the excessive amount of passive play time. (And anyways, theres an entirely separate mode which contains nothing but shooting).
Some might interpret this change in agenda as a fundamental change to the genre, but it’s not, structurally there’s just greater padding between the shooting sequences. The re-proportioning does, however, give Dead Space Extraction a unique feel and in fact gives credence to the “guided experience” mantra put forth by EA’s PR folk.
Each of these 3 main gameplay constituents supports and justifies the presence of the others. Since it’s difficult to explain on paper here’s a list of examples to back up my case:
- The proportion of shooting sequences increases as the story, and panic therein, progresses
- The atmosphere draws the player into the environment which makes the shooting more engrossing and meaningful
- The inclusion of a narrative and supporting class of characters add realism and a human element to all the horror and necromorph dismemberment
- The narrative and atmosphere setting allows the action to breathe into phases of warming up and cooling down
- Since the atmosphere supports the shooting, moments of suspense and jack-in-the-box scares don’t feel cheap, they bleed into the gameplay
- Traditional rail shooters are very rigid, every turn of a corner leads to a shoot out, Dead Space Extraction surprises the player with its lack of shooting, shooting therefore becomes more important and suspenseful
Patented Dead Space Elements
Dead Space sported a few nifty mechanics set around the Resident Evil 4-themed framework which splintered the franchise off in its own direction. Fortunately these original elements have been adapted to Dead Space Extraction and work a treat.
A real game changer, I think. In the Dead Space games the most effective way to down Necromorphs (the angry, disfigured space mutants) is to blow off their limbs. “Strategic Dismemberment”, as it’s called, adds a new dimension to the traditional shooting formula, since what was once a single main target (head shot) is now shared amongst the limbs. This change allows the individual design of the space mutants to be more meaningfully characteristic. They’re not all zombies, they have limbs in different places, some short, some large, and that affects the traditional method of play greatly.
Paralysis is a supplementary mechanic which supports the dismemberment. As firing holes into your foes’ head (or body) is no longer suffice–instead players needs to bang off several specific parts of the body–targeting requires greater precision than usual, the action therefore needs to slow to support the required boost in precision. The paralysis technique allows the player to temporarily freeze their enemies so that they can dismember with ease. Surprisingly, this little addition breathes a great deal of strategy into the shooting as it’s a finite, self-charging resource which ought to be used tactically. Also, the other Necromorphs tend to que up and wait their turn while one of their buddies is right in your face, so the paralysis allows the player to take control of the pacing of the alien onslaught, it gives them strategic wiggle room.
Many rail shooters have a grabbing mechanic, however Dead Space Extraction does it a little differently. The grabbing mechanic isn’t technically the same as the shooting (place reticle over and fire to pick up an item), but an actual reach into the screen (via some white light super power) followed by the object floating in front of you, think Elebits instead of, say, Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles. Although a very simple trick it allows for some nifty applications such as dragging debris, scavenging for items and tossing gas cylinders.
Zero gravity sequences are fixed chunks of gameplay which mostly involve no shooting (save for a single boss battle), where the player scans the environment for a predetermined landing area and pushes themselves towards it. Occasionally they’ll need to clear space debris obscuring their path. These sections do a great job at relaxing the pace without withholding the player from interaction.
Alt fire isn’t anything particularly new, but Dead Space Extraction puts an interesting spin on the formula. To initiate alternative fire, you simply tilt the Wii mote 90 degrees. With some weapons, the types of fire correspond to the respective Wiimote orientation, for example with the line gun or plasma cutter holding the Wiimote horizontally will send out a horizontal slice, while holding the Wiimote vertically will send out a vertical slice.
Puzzles on Demand
Inter-spliced between the gunplay are small puzzle sections where the main character has to solder wires on a malfunctioning terminal to open a door, refer to the video for reference. Generally speaking, they’re a neat distraction, however at times you’ll be forced to solder wires and fend off an aggressive hoard of Neromorphs at the same time which creates an invariably tense atmosphere when trying to steady your hand. In co-op, each player is assigned mandatory sections wires to solder which keeps things fresh.
Another minor trick which Dead Space Extraction employs is the occasional opportunity to freely scan the environment for a designated number of seconds. These brief moments act as preparation for you to nab some equipment before an oncoming series of shootouts. As with the branching paths, this is another way that Dead Space Extraction gives players the freedom of control which is otherwise absent in this genre.
The Ripper is a weapon with Turok-like ingenuity, a gun which fires saw blades. Sure. Big deal, right? Well actually, the player can manipulate these saw blades with the Wiimote by reaching into the screen and directing them at alien fodder. I was greatly surprised by this nasty little weapon. Again, please refer to the video to get a clearer impression.
Glow worms too, are quite inspired. Basically the Ishimura lacks torches, so the engineers instead use glow worms (think glo sticks) for light. You light up the little wormy by shaking the nunchuck.
The final few points are rather self-explanatory and perhaps not worth the effort of writing in words, however, these smaller points combined with the atmosphere, narrative and the Dead Space franchise frills give Dead Space Extraction a distinct flavour. It’s one of those games that feels inspired by good ideas which are cleanly implemented and well thought out, a game which stands as both a great Dead Space game, but also a great rail shooter and narrative experience.
I’ve also been playing Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles recently, so please look forward to some writing (possible comparative) on that particular rail shooter. You can also find similar commentaries on Link: Crossbow Training and House of the Dead II and III: Return, if you’re interested. I’m very interested in mapping the current state of the rail shooter, so expect more to come.