As IGN said in their review, the survival-horror market is extremely crowded these days, and it's populated almost entirely by established series such as Silent Hill and Resident Evil, the undisputed kings of the genre. The Japanese seem to have mastered the art of horror in both their movies and their video games, so they have the market virtually cornered. However, these are all grounded firmly on good old planet Earth. United States-based EA Redwood Shores saw an opportunity with the final frontier, space. And of course, in space, no one can hear you scream. The big challenges for EA were myriad. First, create a survival-horror game in space. Second, don't make it derivative of any existing survival-horror games or even movies like Aliens, which the entire gaming industry draws heavily from. Third, establish a possible series with this new IP. Does EA succeed?
In a word, yes, Dead Space succeeds. Going into more detail, Dead Space is something almost entirely different among the survival-horror genre. Quick, without thinking, what was the scariest movie you ever saw that was aboard a derelict starship? I'm going to guess that 90% of you would have said “Aliens.” While Dead Space does take a lot from Aliens, the creators at EA Redwood Shores said they also took ideas and inspiration from many other horror movies like Event Horizon, Night of the Living Dead, etc. The game has its own identity, and it develops over the course of the game.
Set hundreds of years in the future, all of Earth's natural resources are depleted, but humanity has mastered space travel by this time. Giant starships called “planet crackers” destroy dead planets, extract the planet's natural resources, refine the ore, and send the materials back to Earth for consumption. The flagship of this entire planet-cracking fleet is the USG Ishimura. You play as Isaac Clarke, a space miner who helps refine these materials. At the beginning of the game, Clarke is sent to the Ishimura to investigate a sudden communications failure and repair it. However, it all goes to hell very quickly. The crew that goes onto the ship alongside Isaac is slaughtered by a disturbing race of alien zombies called “Necromorphs,” all former crew members of the Ishimura that were infected. The longer a person has been infected, the more grotesque the creature becomes. It's up to Isaac to find out just what the hell is going on on this ship, get off it, and get himself rescued. Playing the story is very entertaining, and there are a number of unexpected twists and turns, nothing stock or cliched.
Pretty much nothing is stock or cliched in Dead Space because the game develops enough of an identity to keep it from being derivative. The game does a great job of intertwining the story and the bloody, gory action, and boy is there a lot of it. Playing as Isaac may make players think the control is clunky because of his suit, but he actually can move pretty quickly when need be. EA decided to go with the Resident Evil 4 over-the-shoulder camera, but they put in their own twist to the control scheme: there is no quick turn like RE4, which adds to the claustrophobia you get while traversing the decks of the Ishimura, but this decision seems to have been made deliberately.
Keeping you from getting lost is a holographic line that appears on the floor when you press in the right stick, and it tells you where to go. The problem with it is that the game automatically turns you in the right direction, which can get disorienting, and it will sometimes just whip you around in a circle. Another problem comes with the amount of backtracking you have to do in the game. For the most part, Dead Space is pretty linear, and if we're going to talk backtracking, Metroid Prime 2 it's not. That's refreshing because too many games try to be non-linear and end up failing at it. To be honest, the backtracking you have to do makes sense. Here's an example: in Chapter 2 you have to grab some explosives from someplace in the area, which you are directed to by your map and your little holographic line, then you have to come back and use the explosives to blow up some debris so your path will be clear. It makes sense, but it feels a little too much like BioShock where some annoying thing would happen like a door would lock or some debris would fall blocking your path, and you had to spend about an hour just going around to get where you wanted to go in the first place. It's not that bad, but the backtracking takes away from the fact that you're on a massive capital ship, which is a little disappointing, but nothing too bad.
On the other hand, EA made some great aesthetic and gameplay decisions that impact the gameplay. For one, all of the menus are in real-time, which means if you're reaching for that medkit and there are Necromorphs around, then you had better be fast. Secondly, there is no heads-up display (HUD), all of your vital information is displayed to you via holograms. You're probably wondering at this point, “where's my health meter, then?” Well, in a truly ingenious decision, EA decided to put your health bar on your back, and it's always visible to you. This no-HUD idea should be in more games, because it allows you to appreciate the many creepy moments of the game more. There are messages written in blood on the walls, the standard flickering lights, and you even get ambushed my an alien tentacle in what some people might think is a quicktime event, but it's actually not, which is a great twist.
Last, and most importantly, there is a great variety of weapons, and a lot of them are inventive. Most of your weapons in the game are meant for mining and refining space rock, so that means there are a lot of bladed projectile weapons. This fits into the game's calling card, “strategic dismemberment.” In Dead Space, if you just shoot the Necromorphs in the torso, they'll shrug it off and keep on coming at you. The key to killing the baddies quickly and also conserve ammunition is to chop off their extremities. The game's weapons are fun to use, as most of them involve brutal liberation of limbs, but in almost all cases, you'll have to lop off more than one limb to kill your adversaries. It's bloody, gory, and satisfying as all hell. Dead Space gets my early nod for the “Most Brutal and Satisfying Gameplay” Award for 2008.
These weapons (and your engineer's suit, for that matter) can also be upgraded for more carnage. Isaac is an engineer after all, so he's pretty handy with these tools. To upgrade your arsenal, you have to collect power nodes that are lying around the ship, and then find a workbench so you can take your hammer and wrench to them. There are upgrade tracks for all your weapons and your suit, but you're not going to get a damage, capacity, or reload speed upgrade every time, which means finding more power nodes. How do you get more weapons and better armor, you ask? Yup, there's a store on the Ishimura.
This also plays into the New Game+ feature in Dead Space. This game is actually pretty deep for a game that doesn't have any multiplayer. Your stats and weapons carry over, as with many games that have New Game+, but the annoying part is that if you change difficulties, you have to start all over again, which is a load of crap.
When you get right down to it, Dead Space is just a heck of a lot of fun to play. Dismembering vicious alien zombies is always fun, especially with all the blood and gore that comes out in almost gratuitous amounts. It's not just about the brutality, though. Dead Space is one of the most genuinely scary games this side of Silent Hill 2. There are no cheap scares in this game. The Necromorphs are pretty scary-looking, and on more than one occasion you will see helpless survivors of the Ishimura get mowed down in gory fashion by the alien menace. I'm a poker-faced gamer, not much scares me when I'm playing, but there was one moment where I jumped out of my shoes as I was fighting a horde of baddies, then was ambushed from behind and almost killed.
Sepaking of which, the death animations for your character are awesome. You don't just get sliced up until you fall down and die, the aliens can rush you and latch onto you, giving way to a frantic button-mashing event where the alien can either kill you in a pretty gruesome way, or you escape and continue to fight. These can be some of the most tense moments of the game, and also some of the most entertaining. One time there was an alien that ended up killing me, but I wasn't just killed after I failed the button-mashing escape, oh no. This one kept on wailing on me until my head came flying off in a truly brutal display that adds insult to injury, but is also pretty darn funny.
In the end, if you're a survival-horror guy, or if you just want something that is truly brutal, fun to play, and scary all at the same time, then you owe it to yourself to pick up Dead Space. The game lasts you 10-15 hours, depending on your skill level and how quickly you want to run through the game, but the New Game+ feature adds more play time. Also, if you have the Xbox 360 version, then none of the Achievements are difficult enough to frustrate you, which also adds to gameplay, if you want to get them all.
Dead Space scores a 9 out of 10.