The survival horror genre has come a long way from the original Doom and Resident Evil days, with the action frequently moving into space, Hell (Hellgate London, Painkiller) and even under the sea (BioShock). Usually the cause of the problem is infection, a disastrous scientific experiment (e.g. Half Life 2, F.E.A.R.) or alien contamination and the challenge for new designers is to keep the elements that fans of the genre like while still being able to inject some innovations to whet their jaded appetites.
Dead Space is just such an answer to their prayers. The opening sequence is strongly reminiscent of the Alien and Event Horizon movies, with a rescue mission approaching the seemingly lifeless starship USG Ishimura following a distress signal. You play space engineer Isaac Clarke who’s come to repair the communications network and find his girlfriend, who left a separate cryptic message about trouble on board.
The mission starts badly when the USG Kellion crash lands on the Ishimura and Isaac is almost immediately separated from the two other survivors – a computer technician and military hard man – after an attack by some hideous creature. It rapidly becomes clear that the ship is crawling with Neomorphs who are alien mutations of the dead crew and your role is to complete all the necessary repairs to make the Ishimura functional while avoiding a bloody and painful death.
There are several areas in which this differs from the current crop of scary shooters and the most noticeable is the way you kill the monsters. Head and body shots are fairly useless as they can only be truly incapacitated by blowing off their limbs. In addition you have two useful force powers: Kinesis, which acts like the gravity gun in Half Life 2 that picks up and throws objects, and Stasis, which slows time and gives you a breather when several creatures attack at once.
Your weapons and your Stasis can be upgraded at work benches spread around the ship and additional supplies can be bought at automated stores or put into storage when your inventory is full. As ammo can be limited when you most need it, it’s sometimes best to conserve most of it until you reach the main bosses.
You’ll also notice the absence of a conventional HUD, replaced by holographic pop-ups that appear whenever an object has to be picked up, doors opened, video or audio logs activated and actions performed. Health is indicated by the glowing sections on the spine of Isaac’s suit and ammo quantity is flashed whenever a weapon is raised. This keeps all the tension building without breaking away from the action.
Visually the game is stunning, whether in the flickering electrical light of the ship’s lower levels or in the battles in zero gravity with asteroids falling in the background. Dead Space also has probably the creepiest special effects soundtrack ever, always suggesting more horror around every corner. Play with the lights off and the surround sound cranked to the max and you should manage to scare yourself rigid.