Dead Space's Issac Clarke isn't a space marine. He isn't a special operative or part of a highly trained anti-alien task force. He's just a ship engineer in a bad situation. But Issac does have a trump card: His trusty, powerful plasma cutter.
We recently started a playthrough of Visceral Games' 2008 sci-fi horror game Dead Space on Kotaku US' Twitch channel. The game focuses on an alien infestation aboard a mining ship called the Ishimura. Issac Clarke is an engineer sent in with a small team to investigate the situation and repair the ship. Mere moments after stepping aboard, the team is attacked by shambling, bloody creatures called necromorphs. They are relentless and stand up to even the fiercest attacks from assault rifles and flamethrowers. At first Issac isn't armed with any of these; he's armed with a mining tool called a plasma cutter. While he isn't a master of high-tech weaponry, he does understand tools and it just so happens that the plasma cutter is exactly what he needs.
Necromorphs are strange. Conventional wisdom in an action shooter is to aim for the head, but necromorphs' weak points are their limbs. With precise aim, players can blast legs into chunks, disarm the creatures by dicing off their mandibles, and cut off heads. The underlying rhythm of Dead Space's combat is percussive as a result. Players chose the right weak points and blow them off. Sometimes, you'll aim to slow an enemy down, and in other cases, you'll try to cripple their means of attack.
The plasma cutter complements the combat in a few crucial ways. First, it is incredibly suited to cutting off limbs. Its laser-assisted aiming allows for precise shooting, and it is surprisingly strong for a default weapon. Resident Evil 4, the landmark horror game that Dead Space most emulates, escalates so much that pistols lose their effectiveness. Protagonist Leon Kennedy amasses a huge arsenal of shotguns, sub-machine guns, magnums and grenades. Isaac's plasma cutter never loses effectiveness even as newer necromorphs are introduced.
It also stresses Dead Space's combat through powerful sound design. Its booming report makes every attack feel meaningful. The beam slams into monsters with a great deal of force, and in some cases it will even rip through them to hit whatever is behind them. Multiple limbs can be blown off enemies standing in a line. Every time you fire, the gun roars like a dragon, adding a dramatic exclamation mark to your actions. This isn't a pea shooter; it is a musical instrument, each shot punctuated by a massive and definitive boom.
Shift left, aim down. BOOM. Back up, get the enemies in a line. BOOM. Circle around and hit their weak points. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.
In the first Dead Space, Isaac doesn't really speak or show much character. Instead, players learn about him through combat. The plasma cutter demands concentration and precision. It is an improvised weapon that nevertheless manages to excel at defeating necromorphs. Isaac is similarly misplaced but effective. He succeeds through ingenuity and grit, tackling each new objective with consideration and raw determination. The plasma cutter's secondary fire mode doesn't launch a grenade or place a mine; it simply changes the orientation of the beam from horizontal to vertical. Likewise, Isaac adjusts to each new complication.
Plenty of games have iconic weapons. Half Life 2's gravity gun memorably allows players to shoot toilets at enemies but also stressed Gordan Freeman's role as scientist. Doom's super shotgun tells you everything you need to know about the Doomguy: He tackles things head on, in the bloodiest way possible. Dead Space's plasma cutter isn't just fun and powerful; it helps characterise Isaac. Misplaced but dangerous, focused on doing one thing incredibly well: Cutting off a ton of alien limbs.