Visceral Games’s Dead Space Extraction is a game so good it single-handedly redeems its entire genre. It’s a rail shooter, a genre in which the player only controls the crosshairs of their weapon while the game yanks you around, making you feel you’re on a roller coaster. It’s a style that’s long been neglected as games worked toward more player autonomy, but DSE leverages the form’s restrictions to produce an experience so involving that it makes you wonder if the whole quest for player agency hasn’t been fundamentally misguided.
DSE has a complex backstory, previously developed in another game, a graphic novel, a series of animated short films, and a host of other media properties of the sort that a giant company like EA can marshal in the building of a franchise. It’s to the game writers’ credit that the layered story of religious cults, corporate callousness, and alien mutant zombies from spaaaaaaace works so smoothly in the background, driving the plot forward and motivating plenty of shocking twists without ever stalling the action.
And the action is glorious, one gore-splattered set piece after another. A rail shooter lives or dies by its intensity, and the aptly monikered Visceral Games have produced an experience that feels like riding through the best carny spook show of all time. By cheerfully flaunting the rail shooter’s control over the player’s view, the developers maintain cinematic control over the essential elements of a thriller—pace and framing—and they use it to shamelessly manipulate the player for maximum scares. The dismemberment mechanic carried over from Dead Space works great in a rail shooter context, forcing you to use your shots calmly and strategically no matter how many necromorphs are trying to drool all over your face.
DSE also makes more and better use of the Wii’s unique properties than any other game on the system, often with canny sadism. For example: This being an alien-infested spaceship, you naturally have to take plenty of leisurely strolls through dark tunnels full of monsters. You power up your charge-leaking flashlight by shaking the Wiimote, which makes a satisfying spray-paint-can noise when shaken and a comforting hum when charged. But of course, the Wiimote controls the crosshairs of your gun, so whenever you need more light, your weapon is out of control, and when you’re flooded with enemies and trying to keep your aim steady, the light you have to shoot by is slowly…going…out.
Equally unique is the game’s canny use of the first-person perspective. Instead of tying you to a single avatar, DSE shifts your point of view between a number of lead and supporting characters, wittily revealing your new identity near the beginning of each level. By creating an ensemble cast, the game can kill off anyone while keeping the story going, and you’re put on notice early that your character might be a goner no matter how well you wield a pistol, imposing a grim pall of existential futility on all the pitched battles. This would be almost impossible within the close identification of a standard first-person shooter, and it’s a terrific way to both expand the narrative’s scope and to impose a slight distance between the player and their avatar, which means the game’s characters can have more specificity than is possible when the developer has to allow for all possible player choices.
A lot of games have lately been moving away from the sandbox model and back toward the game as cinematic experience. Dead Space Extraction’s back-to-the-future genre resurrection suggests that the tools for immersive, narratively-rich, cinematic video gaming have been sitting unused for years, and it only took developers this good to realize gaming’s longstanding goal of creating the best action movie you’ve ever played.
Dead Space Extraction. Publisher: Electronic Arts. Developer: Visceral Games. Release Date: September 29, 2009. Platform: Wii. ESRB: Mature. ESRB Descriptors: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language. To purchase, click here.