Yes, I know, I'm a bit behind the ball talking about this game, but I started it when it first came out and for any number of reasons finished it only recently. Believe me, many of the games that I'm likely to talk about will be considerably FURTHER behind the curve. So, about the game:
Dead Space is one of a bevy of recent survival horror games that depend on stereotypically thrusting the player into some threatening environment to generate suspense, and rapid unexpected action to startle the player. What differentiates Dead Space from the rest of the pack is that it does this right.
Dead Space is a survival horror/thriller/third person shooter published by EA, with the intention of becoming a big new intellectual property for them. The game world is sci-fi / future where space travel and planetary mining are the norm, but humans are (to their knowledge) alone in the universe. As the game begins the player character (perpetually silent engineer Isaac Clarke) and two cohorts are approaching the mining vessel Ishimura, which has lost radio contact during a mission. As is frequently the case in any survival/horror medium, within two minutes everything goes horribly, horribly wrong. The player's vessel crash lands in the Ishimura's docking bay (rendering the ship inoperable) and the small team discovers the huge vessel seemingly abandoned, heavily damaged, and infected with a mysterious biological contaminant. The team members are quickly separated and Isaac finds himself in the thick of it fighting horrific nightmare creatures that emerge from every orifice of the Ishimura with whatever equipment he can find at hand, beginning with a simple plasma cutter.
As the game progresses Isaac is guided by his team members over the radio in slowly restoring essential systems to the Ishimura initially in an attempt to complete their mission, and eventually simply to facilitate an escape. During the course of these repair missions Isaac slowly finds evidence in various forms that pieces together the identity of the biological contamination, the origins of the nightmare creatures infesting the ship, and the chain of events that led to the Ishimura's infection. There are several well executed plot twists, culminating in an epic scale climactic final scene.
Overall the story is very well executed. The game does an excellent job of presenting the real story as a mystery that is pieced together as the player performs more mundane mission objectives rather than shoving it down the player's throat, which adds a sense of realism. In a genre that isn't traditionally driven by plot depth, Dead Space's immersive storyline is a huge plus.
Part of the reason that the story works so well is the game's atmosphere. This is easily one of the game's strongest selling points. The main character is almost completely disconnected from the player, never speaking, rarely reacting to stimuli that would shock a crazed sociopath's undead corpse into a white haired gibbering mass, but it still WORKS because the atmosphere itself draws the player in COMPLETELY. The huge derelict ship with its dark, flickering, flesh encrusted corridors, the occasional terminally insane crew member gibbering into the emptiness, the randomly strewn debris cast about by unknown horrors, the subtle but ominous background music, and many other atmospheric devices will all have the player leaning on the edge of their seat with their heart in their throat. And of course in this state the inevitable monster springing from a ceiling grate will take a year or two off of the players lifespan and possibly enrich the vocabulary of any nearby children. As a personal example of just how effective the atmosphere is in this game I generally yawn my way through today's horror films and I wouldn't let myself play Dead Space too close to bedtime.
Another reason that the environment in Dead Space is so quick to draw you in is the game's innovative user interface. There is no on screen display of any kind. All of the information that you need at a moments notice is displayed on the character himself. His health, oxygen, and stasis meter (more on this later) are all displayed on the back of Isaac's armor, and his ammunition count is displayed on the currently equipped weapon. In situations when a menu would normally be warranted the game makes use of an image holographically projected by Isaac's suit in real time in front of the character. This means that while digging through the inventory or perusing the map it is entirely possible and often quite likely that a spiny appendage will be embedding itself in the player's skull. This unique approach to interface creates an incredible continued sense of intensity so vital for success in this genre.
Technically speaking Dead Space fares very well against modern competition. Graphics are very solid and appropriate to the material. Enemy design is suitably horrifying. Environment design is occasionally monotonous but usually appropriately so for a sprawling government vessel, and always dripping with ambiance. Sound quality is excellent, voice acting is spot on, and the music is particularly effective, adding substantially to the air of intensity and spiking beautifully at the appropriate moments.
It is in the actual gameplay that Dead Space hits some of its very few snags. Control of the main character feels a little clunky and hard to maneuver. His positioning on the left hand side of the screen makes for a clearer view of the action, but it also means that turning right and left feel very different and can be disorienting in the thick of battle. Combat itself is wonderfully intense, making excellent use of the targeted damage system that is another of the games major selling points. As the opposing creatures are effectively undead, simply unloading into them has little effect. Instead the player is heavily encouraged to surgically remove the limbs and heads of the monsters using a variety of weapons designed to suit the task, rendering the beasties harmless. This is an extremely visceral mode of combat and the necessity for precision under stress adds even MORE to the intensity of the game. All that being said, however, this same system makes combat extremely frustrating in close quarters when it is nigh on impossible to make surgical shots.
The weapons themselves offer a creative spread of options, each with an interesting secondary fire mode, but I find it perhaps too viable an option to simply use all available upgrades on the basic plasma cutter found in the first ten minutes of the game and never require the use of any other weapon. Aside from that minor issue the weapon acquisition and upgrade system is intuitive and fun. In addition to the actual weapons, Isaac is equipped with two technological 'superpowers,' stasis and telekenisis. Stasis is a refillable resource that Isaac can use to slow the targeted object for obstacle avoidance or combat advantage. Telekinesis is, predictably, the ability to lift and move loose objects for puzzle solving or use as launched projectiles. While not necessarily MAJOR elements of gameplay, these abilities do add some variety and strategic depth that are a welcome edition.
Enemies in dead space don't offer particularly impressive AI, but as they range from the traditional slow-moving dogged zombies to the more recent hyper-fast rush-to-the-kill zombies in basic archetype, they aren't really SUPPOSED to be tactical geniuses and the lack of intelligence detracts in no way from the feel of menace they provide. Boss fights, though few and far between, are varied, interesting, and EXTREMELY satisfying when complete.
Overall I would say that Dead Space, while not for the squeamish, is a wonderfully executed horror / thriller whose many strong points completely overwhelm its few minor flaws.