Review: Dead Space: Extraction (Wii)

One of the most polished and immersive Wii titles yet.

Hyperbole is not uncommon on the back of video game boxes; claims that the game you hold in your very hands in the store is the “most exciting” or “mind-blowing” tend to be full of crap. For Dead Space: Extraction, EA studio Visceral Games went with “most cinematic action horror experience on Wii,” and for once a game’s bold claim is right on the money.

A prequel to last year’s excellent PS3/360/PC release Dead Space, Extraction takes place around the same time as the animated movie Dead Space: Downfall and immediately before the events of the original game. The fiction of the series is the stuff of campy space horror movies, but in a good way.

Taking place in the 26th century, mining colonists on the planet Aegis VII uncover a Red Marker, which happens to be one of the holiest relics of the large and somewhat powerful Church of Unitology cult. Bad things eventually start happening to the miners as people lose their minds and kill each other and themselves, reanimating into monstrous Necromorphs. A group of survivors of the colony disaster, our four heroes, eventually board the USG Ishimura, the “Planet Cracker” ship assigned to the Aegis VII operation, and predictably those pesky Necromorphs are making a mess of things up there too. It's campy but fun, like a really good B-movie.

Which is probably the best way to describe Dead Space: Extraction. By coupling strong storytelling with a deep understanding of the traditional rail shooter's key elements, Visceral has managed to create what so many developers strive for and fail in one way or another: an interactive movie. Unlike traditional genre fare like Ghost Squad and House of the Dead: Overkill, Extraction is heavily plot-driven; a little less than half of the story mode is character interaction and generally not shooting things, and if you get into the fiction you won’t really care that you spend a significant amount of time witnessing events unfold.

Capcom’s Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles is the closest anyone else has come to this new-school take on the genre, but it didn’t pull off the immersion like Extraction does; quick-time events, a constant HUD and short cutscenes broke the cinematic illusion, as did other game-y things like upgrading weapons outside of the missions. The closest to a QTE that Extraction comes is its melee attack, there’s no constant HUD (and the one that is there fits organically in the world via your RIG) and the camera never leaves the eyes of a character. Control over movement may be extremely limited, but in this case it adds to the storytelling.

There are twists and turns to the deeper-than-it-appears plot, and you’ll bounce between several different characters to see their story play out and, occasionally, end. There’s an underlying sense of dread as to who is going to make it out alive, if anyone, that adds a bit of welcome tension to the story. It’s not a scary experience, really; the rigid structure gives a sense of hand-holding that doesn’t convey the same fear that you can get from the original game, but there are still some spooky parts due to the game’s atmosphere and oft-tense combat.

And even though it’s on rails, Extraction still has points of wiggle room for movement. In zero gravity areas you occasionally have the choice as to where you want to jump, and every so often you’re given free (albeit timed) reign to look around you for ammo, weapons and other collectables.

Players use a Wiimote + nunchuck combo to kill dead things dead again. The only control surprise is the inclusion of active reload; hit (Z) to begin reloading, and another timely tap in the “active” zone will let you reload in about half the time. It’s not difficult to pull off, and each weapon has this zone in a slightly different spot to keep things interesting. The shake-to-see glow worm is only used in certain areas and stays illuminated longer than you’d expect; you’ll still have to give it a good waggle from time to time, but it doesn’t feel forced. You can also hook up a Zapper if you want, but there’s really little point — since you need to shake the nunchuck for melee, all you’d be doing is crippling your trigger and throwing off your aim by holding the large peripheral with one hand.

Steady aim is vital as Necromorphs won’t go down by just shooting them in the torso or head, instead requiring you to also blast off their limbs for the kill. Arms come off fairly easy, legs take a little more firepower, and usually isn’t a problem with one or two enemies coming at you. Increase their numbers, though, and combat gets hectic as you balance what you’re shooting, when and where. It’s a great twist on the usual fire-away combat and yields wonderfully gory results.

There are ten weapons available, each with an actually useful alternate fire mode used by tilting the remote sideways. Kinesis and Stasis abilities are included and remain fun to play around with; Stasis allows you to slow down enemies and environmental objects for some slow-mo blasting, and Kinesis lets you pick up items or grab and fling loose objects. If you could wield it in Dead Space, it’s here and just as fun to play around with. There’s a few new arms but the classics are really where the good stuff is, and you’ll need to learn how to properly wield each weapon if you’re to have any hope of success at the series’ trademark strategic dismemberment.

You have four weapon slots; one is permanently devoted to the basic, unlimited ammo Rivet gun, and other weapons are littered around the chapters. If you find one and all your slots are full, you need to ditch another that you won’t get back until you find it laying around somewhere again. Your RIG (mining suit, armor, what have you) can be upgraded by earning stars based on performance at the end of each chapter and weapon upgrades are also littered about the levels. The node-based upgrade system of the original has unfortunately been nixed here, taking some depth away with it.

Extraction’s atmosphere is wholly engrossing. Gorgeous lighting effects, fairly detailed character models and the rich, biological, rusty ship interior all make for one of the visually strongest third-party efforts on Wii. As in the original game, text, video and audio logs are scattered throughout the levels and fill in the murkier details of the story without breaking immersion. Characters manage to convey emotion in a believable way through their facial expressions and body language, which greatly helps the story’s credibility. There are a few spots where the game slows down, mostly if too much is going on at once, but these occasions aren’t all that common.

Sound, one of the best parts about the original, is put to excellent use here as well; hushed voices, piercing shrieks and haunting music really drives home the “oh $#!?” element Visceral is gunning for. The voice acting is convincing and better than your average game, horror or otherwise. Even the Wii remote's speaker is put to good use via the audio logs; it may not be the best quality, but it gets the job done well enough.

In what seems to have become a hallmark of the horror game genre, the script slips in awkward and occasionally cringe-worthy lines that you can’t help but wonder why someone would ever say such a thing. Language often takes a turn for the foul and can’t be censored; it’s not as over-the-top as House of the Dead: Overkill, but sensitive ears still might want to steer clear. The dialogue’s overall cheese factor is not nearly as bad as the early Resident Evil games, but every so often someone utters a line that makes you unintentionally giggle — just like in a schlocky B-movie.

Most importantly, the look and sound of Extraction make it feel like a real Dead Space game, albeit a lower-res one. Veterans of the HD original will recognize a lot of the areas and get a kick out of learning why, say, there’s a barricade in one of the rooms, or why the Ishimura’s defense cannons are offline. Those new to the series obviously won’t catch all this, but on the other hand you’ll be more knowledgeable going into Dead Space.

Your replay mileage of the main mode may vary, as it really depends on how much the story clicks with you considering you’ll be forced to sit through the same stretches of inactivity every time you want to go through any of the ten chapters. If it doesn’t hook you, your enjoyment of this mode will likely be over and done with by the end of the five-ish hour campaign. There are a total of four difficulties ranging from “normal” to “impossible,” two of which are unlocked once completing the story mode for the first time, but if you don’t want to sit through the story elements then you might not bother with a second go.

Outside of the story mode there are extra score-based challenges where waves of Necromorphs gun for you as you traverse a small stretch of a level. These do a nice job of extending Extraction’s lifespan as they don’t play out exactly the same as in the main chapters, and of course you can always rope in a second player to make things more fun and competitive or try to collect all of the upgrades and logs scattered throughout the chapters. Six motion comics are also included on the disc that lead up to the events of the game, which is a nice touch to round out the package and the story.

Conclusion

There may have been some initial resistance to Visceral’s decision to turn Dead Space into a rail shooter, but the final product is so well-crafted that you can’t help but be impressed by the level of quality it delivers. Extraction manages to come through on its promise of a cinematic experience by embracing the genre’s limitations and bending the expectations of what an on-rails game can and should do, all the while playing to the Wii’s strengths and pushing its technical abilities to new highs. While the main story mode may lack in longevity for some, Extraction is definitely worth experiencing at least once, and it’s a title that horror and shooter fans alike shouldn’t miss.