You are Isaac Clarke, a lovable, opinionless mute (OK, I don't think he is really a mute, he just never says a word in the whole game, so I choose to call him one), and an engineer. He is part of the team going to investigate a distress call from the USG Ishimora, an enormous planet-cracking space station. Upon arrival it is clear that things aren't quite right. Not only does everyone seem to be dead, but their corpses have been deformed into mutilated death machines. So it is therefore up to you to figure out what has happened - and try to get out alive.
The story in Dead Space is one of its strong points. It tells a great cinematic sci-fi action horror tale. You can definitely see the inspiration from films such as Event Horizon, Aliens and The Thing. Some of the twists you can see coming, but others are genuinely surprising. Most of the story is told via video, audio and text diaries you find scattered around the ship. This is very similar to BioShock and the System Shock games. In fact a lot of Dead Space reminded me of BioShock. It has huge atmosphere, and sucks you into its world.
A lot of this atmosphere is due to the brilliant sound effects. The voice acting is good, but it's the background noise that really gets to you. Hearing monsters crawling around the air vents, or the growling of something possibly watching you, all adds to the level of tension and fear - especially during the quieter moments in the game, or outside the ship in the emptiness of space. The graphics help, too - this is a very impressive looking game with excellent lighting.
Albeit, you will often feel like you are going through the same corridors over and over again, but this shouldn't prove too great a detraction as most of the backtracking makes sense within the story and doesn't feel forced. It is a shame there aren't a larger variety of different environments, but then again, how different can different parts of a giant mining ship really be?
The character designs are also very good. The artists made some truly horrific monsters, and yet you can still see how these things used to be human at some point. This makes them all the more terrifying and disturbing. On top of this they have some very cool animations, especially when they get up close and grab onto Isaac and you have to mash the button to get them off. Also I should point out this is the first game where I was quite happy every time I died, because it has some of the best (not to mention goriest) death animations I've ever seen! Body parts will be ripped off… often. Nice!
Another thing that adds to the ambience is the distinct lack of a HUD. Instead of the usual health bar and ammo count overlayed on the screen, this information is presented within the game world. Your health is a blue tube along your spine (you're wearing an engineering suit after all) and all the in-game menus are presented as holographic screens that come out from your suit. While this means you do not get to pause the game whilst looking for a specific item, it definitely makes it all feel more real and less "gamey".
The action in Dead Space holds strong. It is a solid shooter, almost a little like Resident Evil 4, except you don't always use regular guns. Since this is a mining vessel most of your weapons are mining tools used for cutting. This turns out to be a good thing, as the best way to kill enemies and save some ammo (which is important as there are times where you will be short on it) is to dismember things. Instead of always going for the head shot (which with some enemies can make things worse) you're better to shoot off their limbs.
Surprisingly, as a horror game it just isn't that scary; at least not after that first few hours. In the beginning you struggle to find ammo, your weapons, armour and health isn't that strong and it's all pretty frightening. After a few hours however, as you upgrade your equipment, you eventually stop being the "every man" that EA was aiming for and you become more of an ass-kicking, bubblegum-chewing action hero. When you have been looking at the same monsters for so long, and you now don't have to stress too much about killing them, it stops it all from being scary. You still feel that claustrophobic feeling because most of the corridors are very tight and you don't have much room to move around during a fight, but that fear, panic and anxiety (basically the point of scary games) is gone.
Another thing that starts to kill the scare factor is the few times when you run into other people still alive (usually not for long) on the ship. These are always scripted sequences where you find someone and almost at that exact moment they either kill themselves (they've clearly gone nuts) or get killed by something else. This is fine a few times, but after a while, it's just a bit much and starts feeling too convenient and a little bit fake.
What does not feel fake however is when you move into the zero-gravity areas. There are far too few of these in the game. Or rather, they are not used as well as they could have been. Mostly they are puzzle rooms and are fun distractions. Other puzzle devices used are the now typical gravity gun and time slowing units. Both are used well, and besides solving puzzles can also be effective in combat. It is genuinely satisfying to cut off a monster's razor-sharp blade arms, slow him down in a time bubble, and then pick up that blade arm and throw it at the monster, cutting it in half. Fun times!
Dead Space was definitely a risk for EA and it's great to see they were willing to run with it, because it is a fantastic game. It looks and sounds great, is a lot of fun to play and oozes atmosphere. During this very busy gaming season with so many great games coming out, there is a chance that this may be skipped over for other games with better-known names coming out in the coming month. This would be a frightful shame, as Dead Space is a game fans of action horror games should not miss! Its presentation is right up there with some of the best games of the last few years. So go forth and dismember!