Awesome combat with lots of thrills. A tad too repetitive
Dead Space was EA's entry into the survival horror genre and their return to the decidedly "M" rated game, after a long hiatus since System Shock 2 and Clive Barker's Undying. It is a game that takes few risks, opting mostly to lift its design and storytelling from other games such as Doom 3, System Shock 2, and Resident Evil 4. There are worse games to emulate, and to its credit, Dead Space is a highly polished amalgamation of the best elements from those titles. It adds some positive features too, especially in combat. It is far from a perfect game, but the thrills and excellent combat make up for the problems like boring level design and some horror game clichés.
Dead Space feels, in every way, like a game that was extensively play tested before it was released. It excels at minor details that are frequently overlooked by other games, and that is why it is so good in spite of how much it borrows from others. It is, therefore, difficult to describe what makes it work so well. One example of this level of polish is in the ammunition and other power-ups that you find. On the default difficulty level, you always need health packs and ammunition enough to scavenge for them, but the game is never so stingy that you are frequently running on empty. The inventory is perfectly sized, so that you will occasionally need to drop or throw away something, but not very much or very often. The save points are generous and the game auto saves before every tough battle. The difficulty is well calibrated, so that you may find yourself low on health often, but not dying repeatedly. The weapons (except for maybe the flamethrower) are very well balanced. If you are carrying four of them, you will make use of all four.
Speaking of weapons, the game has the best mix of weapons to show up in an action game in a long time. Theoretically, they are engineer's tools like a plasma torch, but they are usually rebranded weapons from other games. Regardless, they feel incredibly powerful and they are all loud, brutal, and fun to use during the game's intense combat. The best weapon in the game might be the Ripper, an apparatus that holds a saw blade a few feet away from you. It is essentially the Doom chainsaw on steroids. If you pick up this weapon, you are sure to enjoy the frequent hacking off of enemy limbs in noisy, bloody fashion.
Dead Space gives you some other tools for getting through the game. Your suit comes equipped with a Stasis module, which allows you to temporarily freeze objects or enemies. It also comes with a Kinesis module, which is the game's Gravity Gun. You will use these tools to solve some simple (and not very interesting) puzzles. You can also use Stasis to get you out of tight spots in combat. Kinesis isn't very useful there. In addition, you find money here and there, which allows you to upgrade your suit and buy items. You also find power nodes, which you can use to upgrade your weapons or your suit. The shops and the upgrading system are simple, but well implemented and the options are well balanced.
Combat is the best part of Dead Space, despite how clearly the game was not designed for the mouse and keyboard. It is similar to Resident Evil with its over-the-shoulder view and laser-sighted weapons, but with some twists. The highly touted "strategic dismemberment" feature is a major success. Instead of "pray and spray" shooting or going for head shots, you immobilize and kill the game's grotesque enemies by shooting them in their legs, arms, or tentacles. It adds a layer of challenge and tactics to the game that other survival horror games do not have. The game typically throws you into combat with small groups (four or less) of enemies in some small areas. There are also a few tougher and more memorable encounters against bigger groups. Surviving requires prioritizing, quick thinking, precise aiming, and occasionally running away to gain some space. If necessary, you can knock back enemies with a strong melee attack or squash them with a devastating curb stomp. There aren't a huge number of enemies, but the game throws in just enough variety and mixes up their combinations to always keep killing enemies fresh. Each kill rewards you with a satisfying shower of blood from severed limbs. Dead Space is a gory game that wears its "M" rating on its sleeve.
The developers for Dead Space clearly understood the importance of audio in the survival horror experience, as the game has some of the best in the genre. When you are exploring the ship, there always seems to be some noise present – a creak, a whisper, or maybe the distant sound of a malfunctioning door. Thanks to the creepy atmosphere that all of the noises creates, Dead Space is a scary game that will have you scared of little noises or startled when your cat jumps onto your computer desk. The richness in sound suddenly becomes an eerie silence during the occasional areas that take place in a vacuum. The weapons all sound excellent and they combine with the screeches of your enemies and your energetic grunts to make combat noisy and tense.
Dead Space has very fine-tuned gameplay, but it could have been a lot better if more care had been put into the level design and mission objectives. There is a disappointing lack of inspiration in the design of the ship and what you do in each chapter. Almost every part of the ship looks exactly the same. After about ten minutes, you have seen almost every texture and every object that there is to see. Dead Space looks a lot like a next-gen Doom 3 or Quake IV. It features a lot of the same style, the same color palette, the brightly colored screens, futuristic equipment making loud noises and spewing bright lights, and so on. To its credit though, what you do see is spectacular, at times. The textures and lighting are top-notch, and the main character's mining suit is detailed and very convincing. One nice touch is the way that your health and stasis meters are both contained on the back of your suit, which negates the need for a HUD.
The mission objectives are stereotypical, mundane action game fare. The missions are generally excuses to get you into combat. Go through this level to fill up the engines with fuel. Then backtrack through the level to start the engines. Go through this level to get the keycard off the dead captain. Then backtrack through the level to access a door. Dead Space pads its 10-hour length with a lot of backtracking and errand-running. The lone example of inspiration in the level design lies in the game's occasional zero-gravity areas.
Dead Space also misses a key trait that made System Shock 2 and Bioshock so special. The ship doesn't feel organic. It feels like a bunch of interconnected video game levels. Where are the living quarters? The recreation areas? The kitchens? System Shock 2 had all sorts of little details like this. It even had a movie theater and sex shops. You really got the feeling that people used to live on the ship. Dead Space lacks this feeling.
Speaking of System Shock 2, it seems to be the biggest inspiration for the game (rumor has it, this game started off as System Shock 3). The story borrows so heavily from System Shock 2 that you can hardly tell the difference at times. It also borrows the storytelling style i.e. piecing together a recent disaster by finding audio logs randomly scattered in each area. The audio logs were a great idea nine years ago, and they worked well in Bioshock, but the convention feels stale here. System Shock 2 had a better story because it had more than a few key characters whose stories you followed throughout the game. Dead Space simply doesn't pull it off as well. The story doesn't add much to the game.
For the most part, Dead Space is a competent port, but it does have a couple of minor control issues with the mouse. The menus have some kind of mouse acceleration that causes the pointer to rubberband across the screen constantly. Mouse aiming in-game is very slow and insensitive. Wheeling 180 degrees to face an enemy immediately behind you is impossible without taking some punishment. Most enemies spawn in front of you or far behind you and then move slowly, so it's not much of an issue. Dead Space was clearly designed for consoles though, and it's one of the few games that I have played on the PC that I think might be better on a console. If you do play it on the PC, you will at least get some very sharp graphics.
The fact that Dead Space is so recommendable in spite of its flaws is a testament to how well almost everything works. The weapons, the monsters, the combat, the atmosphere – they all combine to make a top-notch entry into the survival horror genre. If you are a fan of this rare type of game, then you owe it to yourself to play the game, or at least check it out.