Dead Space Extraction Review: Frighteningly Good

Surprising in more good ways than bad, Dead Space Extraction is the Wii Sports Tennis of so-called hardcore games on the Wii.

What they'd tell you in a catalog is that Dead Space Extraction is the Wii prequel to last year's PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 sci-fi horror hit Dead Space. They'd write that it is a shooter that runs on rails and is rendered in the first-person, can be played with a light gun and that looks and sounds better than most Wii games.

The catalog wouldn't tell you it's shorter than an honest work day. Nor would it classify it, as I would, as the Wii Sports Tennis of so-called hardcore games. It is a most unusual specimen even among the few spectacular games on the Wii not developed with moms in mind, because it uses the Wii's attributes to do something new, daring — as did Nintendo's famous pack-in game — to give gamers more with less.

Plus it single-handedly justifies the use of the Nintendo nunchuk.

Loved
This Wii Tennis Thing:Like Wii Sports tennis, Dead Space Extraction dares to present a fully satisfying experience in its genre — not tennis this time but sci-fi horror — without giving players control of its characters' legs. We just get to use our hero's arms. Plenty of people, myself included, wanted to classify this game as an on-rails shooter. The game's creators accurately resisted that, because this game feels less like a shooting gallery on wheels and more like players have been given a chance to ride — and shoot — shotgun on board someone's perfect play-through of a Dead Space game.

Just as Wii Sports tennis let us both forget about body movement and focus on the swings of a well-played tennis match, Dead Space Extraction presents a more physically involved adventure than even the one the first Dead Space's protagonist had. The various heroes we can control in Extraction's 10 levels can run, crawl, climb, swim, fall, pilot spaceships, spacewalk, jump through zero-gravity — all under the control of the computer — while the player worries about making those same heroes shoot, chop, saw, hack, heal, illuminate and snatch. And there's no dull downtime, because the computer always knows the next exciting event toward which to drive the player.

The Non-Stop Adventure: The bulk of Dead Space Extraction involves the attempts of four horror-movie-cast survivors — the leading man, the pretty lady, the wry Brit, the suspicious old businessman — to survive the bad things happening on the planet of Aegis VII following the unearthing of a mysterious artifact. Escape is the simple goal. Said "bad things" arrive in the form of monsters who, as in the original Dead Space, are best defeated using the game's arsenal of limb-severing pistols, welding tools, laser rifles and buzzsaws. Our quartet has a hell of a time on Aegis VII, constantly on the run, reaching level-ending cliffhangers involving surprise attacks, crashed shuttles, unexpected encounters with other humans, all of which make it hard to stop playing. And then they get to the spaceship Ishimura where things get even more frantic. Could you film a movie of the first Dead Space? Not without removing a lot of the walking, shooting and exploring that are fun to play but would be dull to watch. Extraction, however, might as well be a movie, as it is paced like a relentless thriller.

The Echoes Of The First Game: Curious business decision that it is, this Wii game was made for people who have played the 360/PS3 original. Though it is a prequel that just barely bumps into the events of the first Dead Space, the game is full of narrative references to the 2008 adventure, overlapping much of the same terrain often in interestingly distinct ways. It manages more than a few winks that expose or twist the facts players of the first game may have thought they knew. The developers even had the guts to pull a Super Metroid and begin this game in the location where its well-known predecessor left off, but with the added challenge of doing that on a weaker system. Which brings me to my next point...

The Fearlessness of the Developers: It's amazing enough to play a Wii for which the developers appear to have been given the time, budget and talent to make the graphics and sound top-flight. It's all the more extraordinary that the creators of Dead Space Extraction had the will and the chops to render many of the same environments on Aegis VII and aboard the spaceship Ishimura that were produced in much higher detail on much more powerful consoles last year. That Extraction's environments look as good as they do — dark, high-tech, detailed, moody — is both a triumph of technical juice-squeezing and a testament to the value of art design over raw processing power. Don't trust the many underwhelming screenshots out there of this game; it's a visual stunner. Many of the set-piece rooms that dropped jaws on the PS3/360 will drop jaws when people encounter them in this game as well.

But why stop at the graphics? The soundscape in Extraction is in the league of the original's, providing ample intercom-voice and gun sounds through the Wii remote's speaker as well as a stirring mix of sound effects, whispers, growls and other frightful sounds from the main audio channels. As good as all that is, however, the best sights and sounds might be the convincing acting of the fellow survivors in the game who emote with voice, facial expressions and body language in believable ways.

Motion Controls Worth Handling :Shooting and circuit-board-soldering is, unsurprisingly, handled with a point of the Wii remote. Twisting the remote to activate a gun's alternate firing modes is inspired. Meleeing with shakes of the nunchuk isn't as good, until late in the game when it is used for an extraordinary use I won't spoil. I was skeptical about needing to shake the Wii remote to illuminate darkened passageways with a glow-stick, but I was won over by the wisdom of mapping that to the Remote in such a way that forced me between having to decide whether to shoot in darkness or stop shooting so I could shake more light onto the scene. (For the record, you can also activate a slowdown power and the much-needed telekinesis grappling beam, both of which are triggered by buttons.)

Hated
The Brevity: The game could have stood to have been a little longer, ending abruptly and offering little reason to go back other than for those who want to get better scores in its levels. I know that light-gun games are short, but since this game feels more like a third-person adventure a la the first Dead Space, it's disappointing to see it done with so swiftly.

Boss Fussiness: Some of the game's few bosses are best beaten with a narrow selection of weapons. Pity the player who encounters them with the wrong load-out and then has to re-play the whole level to make sure they approach the encounter with the right set. Always keep that Pulse Rifle handy!

Lack of Online Leaderboards: One of the few extras contained on the disc is the score-based challenge maps, all unlockable as you play the campaign. These maps require the player to face waves of monsters, racking up kills for high scores. If only the player wasn't going up against just the high scores saved on the disc.

Dead Space Extraction is not just a light-gun shooter. It's not just an on-rails game. It's an adventure as exciting as anything I've played in a while. If players can stand the brevity and don't mind something else controlling their hero's legs, it's well worth playing.

The game presents a model, like tennis in Wii Sports, of how to get a whole lot more out of a simplified user set-up. I can imagine some gamers — and some potential gamers — who wouldn't have the skills to have a fun time in the original Dead Space. They'd have ample skill to get through Extraction and might even have a better experience doing so.

Dead Space Extraction was developed by EA's Visceral Games and Eurocom and published by EA for the Wii on September 29. Retails for $49.99 USD. Played through the campaign on "hard" using Wii Remote and Nunchuk (Zapper mode also available). Tried Remote-only second-player co-op. Played a challenge level.

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