From the moment Dead Space begins, you're thrust into a highly stylized and great-looking game. The opening cutscene sees you, Isaac Clarke, and your team respond to a distress call from mining vessel USG Ishimura. As the Ishimura comes into view, the light from a nearby sun bounces off it. The use of color is stunning. This is the first of Dead Space's "wow" moments.
From the get go, my graphical expectations of the game were raised -- and Dead Space doesn't disappoint. The texture work is excellent, lending to the creepy atmosphere with blood stains and wall scribbles. "Cut off their limbs" and "evacuate this area immediately" appear to be scrawled in blood. The Ishimura is well realized thanks to this level of detail. For example, every door has an LCD ticker above it, telling you the next room's name. Character models look good and move well, with impressive animation throughout.
Light and dark are used with great effect in Dead Space. Sudden blackouts or silhouettes are common and only add to the intense atmosphere. Isaac has a flashlight, which he uses whenever he readies his weapon, though its beam is quite narrow. It can make the dark seem a little less imposing, but won't quench your fears completely. The monsters will keep coming and they keep looking grotesque and creepy, thanks to some wonderful character design.
Sound design is also well done. The Ishimura creaks and bangs as monsters scurry around her floating carcass. The music swells when a creature suddenly appears. The ticking of an elevator sounds like a clock counting down as it conveys you between floors. Everything is built to make you feel on edge and, coupled with the visuals, makes for a very scary experience.
Dead Space is a mixture of survival horror and third person shooter. The good bits from each genre have been handpicked here to create something that will scare you but that also plays well. Survival horror mainstays such as scarcity of ammo and health are combined with friendly controls and more RPG-inspired elements, such as weapons upgrading.
Gameplay consists of traversing the Ishimura, trying to find out what happened to the crew ... and how to get the hell off the ship. As you do so, you'll be confronted by an endless barrage of monsters and will need to use your arsenal of engineering-based tools to your advantage. The game doesn't take any chances -- you're told many times that cutting off the monsters' limbs is the right way to go about combat. This "strategic dismemberment" not only means that combat is always fun, but it also allows for some interesting weapon designs. It also means that those with good accuracy will preserve ammo as removing limbs will kill monsters quicker. While the shooting mechanics feel great, melee combat is underpowered and, in the case of the foot stomp, difficult to target.
Though parts of the game feel more like a shooter than others, there are plenty of excellent set pieces which will scare and challenge you. For example, at one point, you are stuck in a pitch black decontamination chamber with creatures climbing in through the roof. There are also some parts which completely change the gameplay style, such as a few turret sections. These do well in breaking up the gameplay, but aren't particularly fun in and of themselves.
Dead Space takes advantage of its space setting by incorporating some zero-gravity sections. While in zero-G you can jump to any surface in the room, thanks to your magnetic gravity boots. The first time this happens can be very disorienting, but you soon get used to it. You're usually tasked with performing some manual labor in these sections by utilizing two of your suit's special abilities: stasis and kinesis. The former will slow down objects (and enemies) while the latter allows you to pick up and throw nearby objects. It's a gravity gun, basically. A combination of these various abilities is usually at the core of many of Dead Space's puzzles.
The game's difficulty ramps up with more grotesque and powerful creatures appearing later on. Not only that, but the number of monsters also ratchets up as the game progresses. You'll also face off against a number of set-piece bosses throughout the game, though these are sadly few and far between. They're great fun, thanks to the way they change up the familiar shooting mechanics, and as a result are some of the game's highlights (despite some "PLEASE SHOOT ME HERE!" glowing weak points). One boss fight is quite memorable, as it takes full advantage of zero-G.
The gameplay is built to be immersive, and you're never meant to feel safe. Originally the game was pegged to have no pause menu, but many felt that was taking the idea a step to far. All other menus, however, keep you in-game, so you're always in danger. Your inventory screen is a projected image that hangs in the air in front of you, as are any video or audio message notifications you receive. Spinning the camera allows you to see the menu from all angles and Isaac's head moves to look at whatever items you're highlighting. It looks brilliant and never gets old.
As you progress through the ship you'll come across stores which allows you to buy new weapons, suits and nodes. They also let you squirrel away some of your items in a safe if your inventory is filling up. You'll find quite a few benches, too. These let you upgrade your weapons and equipment using a system very similar to Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid.
The story is a massive part of Dead Space. While it is enjoyable and well written, it does have its problems. The biggest issue is Isaac. I'm not a fan of silent protagonists and Isaac's refusal to speak in Dead Space is a huge detriment to the story as a whole. There are aspects of the story which Isaac has a personal connection to, yet we have no idea what he's thinking or feeling at any given moment. I understand that we're supposed to feel like we are Isaac, but his silence resulted in me feeling less connected with the character, not more.
Despite that, the game's narrative is incredibly well told through holographic video and audio chats that occur in real time. Your other team members are elsewhere on the ship and constantly contact you to tell you what to do next, or to discuss some new information. As a result everything's easy to follow and, thanks to some excellent voice acting, characters are easy to connect to. Except for Isaac.
Compared to the game narrative, the backstory is a little more hazy, but still reasonably well told. Much like BioShock, you'll come across audio and video logs which give some indication of what happened before you arrived. Overall the story is slightly derivative and if you're a fan of space-horror movies, you've seen it all before. There's a feeling that EA played it safe here. The universe is interesting, however, and has potential for further expansion. Dead Space Downfall is already available and details the backstory of the Ishimura before Isaac and co arrived. There are already plans for a sequel and a potential movie to bridge the two games. This would definitely be something I'd be interested in.
Despite a lack of multiplayer Dead Space has plenty of longevity. After beating the game a first time (roughly 10 - 12 hours) you will unlock a new difficulty level, some new equipment and money and keep all your current items and weapons for your second playthrough. Unfortunately this bounty can only be used in the same difficulty setting that you beat the game in. I'm in two minds about this. On the one hand it'd be nice to carry over your equipment to Impossible Mode in order to get the Tier 3 Engineer Trophy. On the other hand, Impossible Mode is designed to test you, which means starting from scratch.
Overall, Dead Space rocks. As a package, it's definitely more than the sum of its parts. A well told, if derivative, story mixed with some excellent third-person shooter meets survival horror gameplay. If you're interested in scary, space based monster combat, Dead Space is definitely for you. Even if you're not, it's worth a rent. You could be missing out on one of the best games of the year.
PS3 Fanboy Score: 9.0
Second Opinion - Andrew:
I just started my third playthrough of Dead Space, an impressive feat considering the huge stack of games that sits atop my desk. Not many other games have compelled me to go through the adventure more than once, nay thrice. This puts Dead Space in an elite group comprising of BioShock, Uncharted and Half-Life 2 -- that's quite good company to keep.
As Jem so perfectly notes, Dead Space is more than the sum of its parts. And that's saying a lot, considering its individual parts are so good. The graphics are spectacular, and the use of color and lighting is particularly inspired. Who said horror games had to be brown and gray? While the gameplay may not be truly innovative, the atmosphere is unmatched. All the zero-G and vaccuum sections are very memorable, and stand out as the most original moments of Dead Space. I hope to see more of them in a sequel.