“In space, no one can hear you scream.” That's the infamous marketing slogan from the Ridley Scott film Alien, one of my all time favorite movies. Dead Space was obviously influenced heavily by sci fi horror movies like Alien and The Thing. And like those classics, Dead Space scared the hell out of me. Seriously, I got this game on release day, rushed home, turned off all the lights and popped it in. An hour later, all the lights were on. Seriously, I only lasted an hour...
The game begins with our silent protagonist Issac Clarke warping into the system in search of the USG Ishiumra which has stopped transmitting. The massive mining ship is known as a 'planet cracker;' it cracks open the planet and removes a massive chunk for processing. Clarke is a simple engineer, part of a repair crew aboard the Kellion, there to check out what's wrong. But Clarke has another motivation... his girlfriend Nicole works as a medical officer on board the Ishimura, and her last message sounded frantic. After a bumpy landing you quickly learn than things are more than just wrong, they are in fact royally buggered on board the doomed vessel.
Shortly after arriving, you are attacked by a hideously mutated, yet vaguely human, monster. It tears apart most of the team in short order. Only two others manage to escape: Zach Hammond, a security officer, and Kendra Daniels, another member of the repair team. Naturally you are separated, and with their help you have to get the ship in something resembling working order... and find out just what the hell is going on and what that thing was!
It becomes quickly apparent that the ship is failing, you know, cuz everyone are now horribly mutated monsters and all! Under Hammond's direction Issac must get it going with a quickness or none of the rest matters. But as you go about fixing the vital system, you soon learn of a bigger plot. Finding audio and text logs reminiscent of Bioshock, you discover that when the Ishimura cracked the planet, they made a monumental discovery... a Marker. As the plot unravels, you learn more about the horror that the Marker brings: mass hallucinations and extreme, unexplainable violence. I don't want to spoil the plot, so I'll leave it there. While it starts a little slowly, it certainly builds momentum to a harrowing and unexpected conclusion.
The wicked monsters are called Necromorphs, and they make brilliant enemies. By their nature they can take any number of forms, each more twisted and disgusting than the last. I was thinking I'd try to describe some of them, but in the end I decided against it simply because they are so shocking. Every time you encounter a new version you'll hear yourself mutter "What the hell is THAT?" They're disturbing to say the least, I mean someone thought this sh*t up! I'm a bit worried about the nice people at EA who came up with this stuff...
The gameplay in Dead Space is brilliant. Once you escape the initial onslaught you'll find a plasma cutter, which is really no more than a simply mining tool. Scrawled in blood over a ravaged corpse is the phrase "Cut off their limbs..." Turns out that's good advice. Taking out the Necromorphs requires you to take careful aim and... dismember them. Headshots don't always kill the monsters... but take off their legs so they can't charge, then whittle them down. It's ingenious gameplay design... and phenomenally gory!
To battle these nightmare hordes on board the doomed Ishimura, Issac must utilize jury-rigged mining equipment for his arsenal. In a pinch they can be used to dismember the monstrosities that roam the ship. Your main weapon, the aforementioned plasma cutter, is your 'pistol.' It has 3 beams of light that are projected when you aim, giving you a 'line' of fire. What's clever though is has the ability to shift 90 degrees for more strategic shots. There are quite a few different weapon types; some of them are good ideas, others fall short. A good one is the Ripper, essentially an industrial saw on a leash. You can imagine the possibilities. Then there is the Force Gun. It releases a rapidly expanding bubble of energy that is devastating, but only effective at short range. There are other weapons, like the Line Gun (my favorite) that work better. It's definitely worth experimenting with them all, and seeing what works in different situations. But I have to say, they have really been quite clever about their weapon design. I thought the fact that you can't use the flamethrower in a vacuum because there is no oxygen for the fire is, while obvious, very cool.
Also, I'll mention that you need to keep an eye on your ammo, you can run out if you're not careful! Ammo can be purchased in stores, but you'll mainly get it as drops from fallen enemies. Every shot counts, and as the game progresses the Necromorphs become faster and more powerful, so you'll need careful, yet quick, aiming! Indiscriminate, trigger-happy players will not survive...
Dead Space has bloody good graphics (sorry, I couldn't resist;^). This game is easily one of the goriest on the market, keep that in mind... it ain't for the faint of heart. I can't tell you the number of times my girlfriend said "That's so gross... THAT'S so gross." But it's fairly realistic, or as realistic as one might expect. In zero gravity, droplets of blood float by, past their formerly dismembered limbs, rotating lazily. But the incredible amount of gore aside, the graphics really are quite good, if occasionally a little pixelated. Issac's animations are excellent, as are that of the monstrous Necromorphs. Sure, they may get a bit repetitive, but are no less scary for it. Oh, and it’s worth letting yourself die just to see the death animations. Ouch...
The dark corridors and environments are reminiscent of the Nostromo, another infamous mining ship from Alien (again, the similarities are pretty blatant, but I don't think anyone really minds;^). The lighting also reminds me of that movie, with strobes constantly flashing. Another thing I really liked are the holographic menus... it's a very cool effect. But be wary, bringing up the menu doesn't pause the action so make sure there aren't any Necros in the area!
But what really gets me, and what makes the Ishimura rival Bioshock's Rapture as my favorite environment in video games, is the brilliant sound work. While the screams of the Necromorphs are terrifying in their own right, what sets Dead Space apart is it's phenomenal use of silence. In concert with the terrifying monstrosities and the scary, gory graphics, it creates an unbelievable atmosphere. Something is always falling down or clattering about or scuttling around in the background. The tension this creates is astonishing, you'll find yourself whirling around, gun drawn, to confront... nothing. And then you turn back around and a Necro is almost on top of you!
Another interesting design choice is that when you click down the right analog stick Issac will activate a beacon that shows him where he needs to go, leading him to the next objective. While I appreciate this, it almost makes it a bit too easy. I think it would have been even scarier if you could get lost. Of course, it's up to the player to make of use of this or not, so it's really up to you.
One thing I want to mention is that you can't do everything and upgrade all of your weaponry in one playthough. There is even an extra armor level if you play the New Game +. That said, it's kind of a fail. I found it very odd that if you want to play it through again with all the stuff you had left over, you can't change the difficulty. As a result, that second go on the Ishimura is pretty easy compared to the first... but the terror remains.
I'm actually surprised there isn't a notice on the Dead Space box that reads "WARNING: People with heart conditions or epilepsy, or women who may be pregnant should not play this game." Seriously, my palms got sweaty. My heart was racing at some points, and during others I jumped clean out of my seat. I love horror movies, but Dead Space elicited a more visceral reaction than anything since I first saw Alien at the tender age of ten. My parents were out of town and it was on TV. I didn't sleep for days after that. While I'm older and maybe a bit wiser these days, I'll be the first to admit that Dead Space kept me up at night. I can't stress enough how utterly nerve-wracking Dead Space can be. It will stay with you... especially when the lights go out!
Score = 9.6 / 10