Dead Space brims with apprehension and panic — its tight spaceship corridors provide little place to run as monsters challenge the player to adapt quickly or get torn to shreds. The game's final boss, a giant zombie slug, throws all of that out. Dead Space's final boss fight is a loud, bombastic battle that clashes with the rest of the game's claustrophobic mood.
I've been playing Dead Space over the last few months on Kotaku's Twitch channel. The player controls engineer Isaac Clarke as he and a small team respond to a distress call on a derelict ship, the Ishimura. They discover it's full of decaying mutants called necromorphs and soon find themselves in a fight for survival. The game takes the action sensibilities of Resident Evil 4 and adds new complexities to combat and movement that make for exceptionally bloody gunfights.
Unlike many horror protagonists Isaac can move while shooting and dismember enemies' limbs to slow their movement or to remove their dangerous spiked claws. Scurrying exploding zombies and tiny necrotic fetuses that shoot projectiles challenge the player to keep dodging and attacking. At any time in Dead Space, the player must balance which target to choose, which limb to cut off, and when to run out of an enemy's range. This creates a particular cadence of frantic movement punctuated by powerful stands against zombie hordes.
Combat is further complicated by the claustrophobic setting. The Ishimura is a mixture of tight corridors and cluttered rooms that restrict Isaac's movement while funelling enemies into bloody chokepoints. These tense encounters punctuate the game's quiet moments.
The end of the game does away with all of this in a final boss fight that practically feels lifted from a lesser game. After discovering an alien artifact that has attracted the monsters, Isaac descends to a nearby planet to place it back where the Ishimura's crew found it. This causes a disturbance that summons a massive worm-like creature that the player must fight. The creature has multiple flesh sacks on its face that the player has to shoot while dodging powerful slams from its tentacles.
The arena is large and offers a freedom of movement that the Ishimura doesn't. Given this, the monster never poses a threat, because the player has a lot of room to simply strafe from side to side to avoid being hit. The large weak points remove the pinpoint accuracy that smaller enemies demanded. It feels antithetical to so much of what came before it.
Final boss encounters are meant to surprise and challenge, but they often clash with a game's established pace and rhythm. Deus Ex: Human Revolution eschewed its freedom in favour of boss fights that force confrontations. Half-Life botched the ending with an extended battle with the floating alien Nihilanth, a drawn-out battle that shied away from the game's slip-sliding and intense combat.
In Dead Space, Isaac is a working class individual overcoming obstacles with ingenuity and improvisation. Here, he feels more like an action movie star. Dead Space functions best when the player is scrambling to survive — the game's final test is neither interesting or overwhelming.
Dead Space does feature a boss fight that feels more more in line with its focus on tense action and quick-thinking in its encounter with the Hunter. The Hunter is an invincible monster that regenerates if the player cuts off its limbs. It is a monster much like Resident Evil 3's implacable Nemesis, never tiring and extremely deadly.
It chases Isaac for the duration of a mid-game chapter and can only be defeated by freezing it with liquid nitrogen. Later, it manages to return to the Ishimura to hound Isaac a second time before finally being burned to cinders by a jet rocket. Each encounter with the Hunter is a balance between normal combat and environmental puzzle solving. The player must strategically sever limbs to keep the Hunter in a certain position before activating traps.
Success feels like a genuine triumph and not simple a matter of strafing back and forth for five minutes.
Dead Space has great environments and sound design. Gunfights are a mixture of fight and flight that devolve into a whirlwind of dodging and blasting. The final boss is something else entirely — a curious and unwelcome set piece that undercuts an otherwise excellent horror game.