Sometimes, freedom of choice in a game world can feel liberating, as it did for me in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. At other times, this “freedom” can be debilitating, making us agonize over whether our choice is the best one possible, pulling our focus from other subtle things — story beats, facial expressions, sound cues, environmental details, and the like. In the end, game designers have to make tough decisions about how much choice they afford, especially when they’re trying to make sure the player is paying attention to the story they’re trying to tell — and, more importantly, having fun in the process.
Dead Space Extraction is an example of a game where huge decisions were made regarding player choice and freedom: While the original game was a largely linear third-person shooter, Extraction is a light-gun title that almost entirely removes the player’s decisions about where they’re heading. It could have easily wound up as a boring, arcade-style affair (ala Area 51), but it’s been carefully crafted into an immersive first-person experience. The fantastic voice-acting, sound design, and technology that made the original Dead Space universe so engaging are brought back in this Wii prequel, combined with a cast of realistically flawed characters (yourself included) who make the narrative itself a compelling reason to play (you know, beyond the fun you get out of dismembering monsters).
Extraction unfolds entirely on rails, guiding you through levels in the way that you might expect a theme park ride to. Where it differs from the standard ride, though, is in its interactivity. Enemies pop up in a series of traditional horror-movie “boo” moments, leaving you to blow them away with any number of guns. It’s a lot of fun, and it stokes the fire in all of us that loves to blast the crap out of things, but I was a little bothered by how hard it was to see enemies in the distance. Sometimes this was due to the game’s use of darkness — which I think is great, and well-done for a horror title — but other times it was simply because the enemies looked muddy against the background, creating some situations where I’d get hit by a ranged attack and have to flat-out guess if my cursor was on top of them or not. It’s an annoying occurrence but is thankfully limited, as most enemies are all about attacking you at melee range.
The firefights are made even more fun by the inclusion of all the tech I loved in the original Dead Space. Several weapons come straight from the original, and they even have an alternate fire mode, engaged by twisting the Wii Remote sideways while aiming. And to deal with fast enemies, Extraction brings back the Stasis power, allowing you to temporarily slow an enemy, which allows for some pretty precise and gory dismemberments. Even when I wasn’t given targets to kill, Extraction still engaged my gamer-sized attention span by giving me a ton of items to grab, including ammo, text logs, and audio logs that reveal more backstory (they play over the Wii Remote’s speaker, making them sound like someone’s last desperate transmission). You grab weapon upgrades and other items in much the same way you did in the original Dead Space: via long-range telekinesis, which made me constantly scan the environment for things to grab in the distance, often to the extent that nabbing objects became a sort of mini-game in itself.
And while shooting monsters arcade-style is the reason a lot of folks will pick up Extraction, I feel pretty safe in assuming they — like me — will stay for the story. Even though you play as multiple characters, Extraction is different from a lot of other light-gun games in that it makes you feel like you’re experiencing the world through the eyes of the person who’s pulling the trigger. When you’re not killing enemies, your character is either interacting with those around them or doing mundane things like opening doors and operating switches (occasionally through a motion-based puzzle that involves you carefully following a line with the pointer). Your character’s bodily sounds and their interactions with the environment serve as reminders that you’re not just guiding some robot through the horrific scenes, rather a clumsy, noisy person who’s rightfully scared to their core. This, combined with the fantastic character interaction — from moments where you lend allies a hand (and vice-versa), to arguments where you and a teammate get in each other’s face — creates an intense moment-to-moment story that’s every bit as gripping as a good TV drama. Extraction really does justice to the universe created in the original Dead Space, even adding depth to it thanks to the way it fleshes out the moments before the original began.
Even after you complete the game’s story — which I recommend you do on your own the first time, as playing co-op makes it less scary, and harder to pay attention to the story — Extraction still has a lot to offer. The regular ol’ campaign is so fun and well-done that I found myself wanting to replay it on harder difficulties. The game’s co-op is a drop-in affair, which means plenty of room for you to play through it (or any of the game’s unlockable Challenge Levels — shooting galleries, basically) with a friend. Even the unlockable series of in-game comics, which play out through a series of cut-scenes, engage the nerd in all of us, and feel like a worthwhile reward for beating levels.
The removal of player choice is anything but bad in Extraction; the minute components of the carefully crafted characters and engaging narrative would be all too easy to miss out on if I was too busy wondering whether to make a left or right turn. And hell, even if you aren’t interested in the story, Extraction is still one of the best-looking and most fun action games on the Wii.