It seemed like a train-wreck of an idea six months ago: Take one of the most creepy and atmospheric survival horror games of this console generation, dial down the graphics to Wii levels and shoehorn the gameplay into a House of the Dead-style light gun game, one of the most mindless genres this side of Whac-A-Mole. Even developer Visceral Games seemed nervous with the new direction, calling it a "guided first-person experience" rather than the more intelligible "rail shooter." But in a rare triumph of marketing speak over common sense, it turns out the developers weren't bluffing. Dead Space Extraction is much more than a rail shooter - it's a worthy addition to both the Wii's library and the Dead Space universe.
Extraction takes place in the days prior to the events of the original Dead Space. Unlike the first entry in the series, Extraction's story isn't tethered to a single character; rather, you'll play as one of four different characters at certain points in the story, sometimes for just a single level. In a similar departure from the original Dead Space's suffocating isolation, you spend the bulk of Extraction in a group of other survivors, and while they aren't much help in the combat department, they're welcome company when things start to get spooky.
These changes to the Dead Space formula point to a more story-driven approach to the series. And while the relentless gloom of the first game is partly diminished by your comrades near constant banter - Extraction apparently boasts five times the dialogue of its predecessor - these exchanges help flesh out the world of the U.S.G. Ishimura. The game has the rare distinction of dovetailing almost perfectly with its predecessor while never feeling like it's treading old ground.
Extraction's light gun-based gameplay strikes a similarly studied balance. Though anyone who's spent any time with Time Crisis will be able to immediately pick up a controller and play, Extraction feels more refined than any of its rail shooter predecessors. It owes much of this to the Dead Space universe itself, which gave us creatures that have to be strategically dismembered to be stopped. Enemies move a bit slower and stay on-screen longer in Extraction than in most light gun games, but that only encourages you to set up your shots rather than play by reflexes alone.
It's not just the enemies that have carried over from one game to the next - your arsenal in Extraction is nearly the same as in Dead Space, but with a couple notable additions. You start out with the rivet gun, which is the only weapon in the game with infinite ammo. What it lacks in stopping power it makes up for in utility: At certain points in the game, you can rivet barricades onto doors to protect yourself from the zombie horde. It's a simple task, but it offers a nice diversion from the limb-liberating gunplay.
In fact, these asides are probably Extraction's biggest departure from more arcady fare. Minutes can pass between firefights while your team treks to its next location; but instead of leaving you bored, these interludes only add to the anticipation of your next encounter. And the mini-games, like constructing barricades or repairing circuits, are so well conceived that it's a little disappointing there aren't more of them - there's an almost tactile pleasure to fluidly tracing a path across your screen that a standard gamepad simply can't replicate.
Not every part of Extraction is an unqualified success, however. In particular, the item collection aspect of the series is completely at odds with this style of gameplay: While you never have to worry about the camera panning away from an incoming enemy, you must be constantly vigilant when searching for ammo drops lest a nearby noise forces your character to turn and rob you of an opportunity to collect a new weapon or item upgrade. For those who broke every crate and sought out every drop in the original Dead Space, the fact that it's practically impossible to collect everything in Extraction will take some getting used to. But it's a small price to pay when the rest of the gameplay is this solid.
Bottom Line: Dead Space: Extraction is proof that the Wii can do hardcore games just as well as its high-def competition - as long as developers take the time to understand the platform.
Recommendation: If you're already a fan of the Dead Space franchise, you'll undoubtedly find Extraction worthy of purchase. Otherwise, consider a rental.