In horror games, as with horror films, sometimes it’s the moments when nothing happens that prove to be the scariest. Take Konami’s vintage PS2 hair-whitener Silent Hill 2, for example. For many, that game’s defining moment was the initial walk down the winding, mist-covered road leading into Silent Hill. Experienced with the curtains drawn, it’s powerfully unsettling, with WHATWASTHAT and OHGODITWASJUSTALEAF moments at every step. Nothing ever happens, of course, but as a signal of intent, it set the scene perfectly.
With this in mind, our first question upon arriving in leafy Derbyshire for our hands-on session with Dead Space: Extraction was an obvious one. Is a game that’s essentially an on-rails shooter capable of delivering the same level of emotional attachment?
“We made the decision to turn Dead Space into what we call a ‘guided first-person experience’ for many reasons,” says Steve Papoutsis, Extraction’s executive producer. “One of the problems we encountered with the original Dead Space was that we had only so much control over the game’s pacing. We couldn’t predict how everyone would react. By turning it into a guided experience, we’ve found that we can make things much scarier, because we now have full control over what the player sees.”
As if to prove that point, we find ourselves in a darkened motion-capturing studio not five minutes later, shakily gripping a handheld camera as a man dressed in lightbulbs and spandex frantically slashes and claws at us. What at first glance appears to be the onset of some elaborate South Park skit suddenly makes sense when we see the footage on the big screen in real time. We’re able to circle around our assailant (who, on-screen, has suddenly transformed from Walking Filament Man into a snarling Necromorph), and snap footage of him from all angles.
Using this technology, Visceral Games can play director, selecting the most unsettling camera angles and forcing them upon the player. These efforts are immediately appreciable when you pick up the Wii controller. Necromorphs pop out from off-screen at all kinds of rakish angles, while murderous bat creatures crawl around on rooftops just inside your peripheral vision. Although at heart it’s just an on-rails shooter, Extraction has been pieced together so intelligently and yet so frantically that it feels like much more than that. It’s like being forced to take that journey to Silent Hill while strapped to a rollercoaster cart.
‘Frantic’ is also a word that could be used to describe the game’s quieter moments. As with all horror games worth their salt, ammunition is in scarce supply, so if you don’t fancy facing the next wave of tentacled tyrants armed with nothing more than your rivet gun (the intergalactic equivalent of a peashooter), then you’d be well advised to use the downtime to search for supplies. During these moments, you can pan around your surroundings using the Nunchuk to hunt out the ammunition and health refills that are scattered around the environment.
Since your character is constantly on the move, you’ve only got the briefest of moments before a weapon scrolls off the side of the screen, never to return. It’s a design choice that helps to keep the adrenaline flowing at all times and on later levels, where supplies are at a premium, you can become so engrossed in your bullet hunt that you’re oblivious to your surroundings. Which is when you suddenly realise that you’ve got a murderous bat creature attached to your skull.