Dead Space is the unofficial Alien game we always wanted! The horrific plight of starship engineer Issac Clark aboard the U.S.G Ishimura perfectly replicates the feeling of isolation and suspense of Ridley Scott’s classic, while also innovating and branching out on its own right to create an impeccable homage to sci-fi horror which continually surprises and rewards with each astoundingly well thought out design decision.
Immersion is everything to Dead Space. The complete lack of a standard HUD or in level load screens, inventory and menus screens that don’t pause the game and the fact you are never taken away from Issac’s perspective whether during gameplay or in menus, all combines to ensure you are never taken out of the experience. I have to commend the developer for what they have done with the HUD, placing standards like health and ammo counts not on a floating display but physically on the character and weapon at hand. It is one of the most original ideas I’ve seen in any game for years that takes something simple and makes it elegant, and taken as a whole this is one of the most atmospheric games ever released.
Gameplay is equally ingenious in that it takes something we know, in this case the shooting mechanics of a game like Resident Evil 4, and turns it on its head. Disregarding the tried-and-true “aim for the head” mantra, you are required to dismember the tentacle like arms and legs of your enemies piece by piece, chopping them up into limbless husks in a concise and diligent manner conserving as much ammo as you can in the process. It’s as gruesome as it sounds, but more than just an all out gore fest it lends a more strategic and thoughtful approach to combat that asks you to hold still and be precise with your shots in the midst of extreme peril, which gives it a feel all its own and playing other games afterwards starkly outlines how traditional many of them are in comparison.
Of course none of this impromptu surgery would be possible without one of the best weapons in video game history: the plasma cutter. A tool of Issac’s trade, it shoots a beam razor-sharp plasma perfect for severing the many appendages of your foes, and can be rotated for an even more exact cut. It’s so good in fact that it actually forms one of my few complaints, as the other more rudimentary tools of destruction are far less interesting and practical to use, to the point I actively tried to avoid having to take them out. Thankfully after a few upgrades that became a very rare occasion, and the plasma cutter certainly is enough to make up for the lack of other useful weapons.
Despite going on more than a half decade at the time of this review, this is still an exceptionally good-looking game which stands testament to how impressive it was to begin with. The environments are vivid and cohesive without growing sterile, and the expert use of shadows is still unmatched by many more recent games. Reference quality sound design sells the experience, almost demanding a high quality sound system or pair of headphones to fully appreciate. The plot never intrigued me in any great amount, but like Bioshock before it much of the exposition is left in the form of audio diaries and notes which provided a great deal of back story on the events before your arrival, and help compensate for the otherwise lackluster narrative that only barely covers the typical video game chicanery of sending you to every corner of the ship in a rather contrived manner.
One final note isn’t so much a con as simply something that should be stated. Despite its horror trappings Dead Space is still an action game first and foremost. After the first hour or so enemy patterns and scare tactics become easy to spot and predict, which while not detracting from the experience may disappoint some hoping to be frightened out of their wits. That said it is still very apt at getting your pulse up through the ever constant gloom and tenseness of its atmosphere, which even if it doesn’t scare you should be more than enough to excite and increase your heart rate.
For anyone not turned off by the extremely graphic violence, Dead Space is a must play. It excels at pulling you into its world and keeping you absorbed in it through an incredible atmosphere that goes almost unmatched. With every step forward developer EA Redwood Shore (now renamed to the more fitting Visceral Games) show an acute knowledge of game design, never content to reiterate something already done without making it their own, and is does more for the horror action genre than probably any game since RE4. I was blown away with every passing moment, and cannot wait to dive into what horrors the future games hold. If you haven’t already taken a trip aboard the Ishimura, there’s no better time than now to do so, as I can assure you its a journey you won’t soon forget.