Meet Isaac Clarke: engineer, marine, Necromorph killer, and hapless dogsbody to anyone with a communicator. That last part may seem a little harsh given all that Isaac goes through across the course of Dead Space, but it’s the one thing stopping this space-based survival horror from being a truly great game — and it’s something the upcoming remake sorely needs to fix.
Granted, the game still does plenty well. Dead Space isn’t particularly pretty by today’s standards, but it’s still harrowing to see an undead Necromorph wrench your character’s head off, crawl down their neck hole, and take their decapitated corpse for a spin; witnessing that in 4K will no doubt beget many a sleepless night. In fact, when Dead Space gets things right, it’s absolutely sublime. Body-jacking is just the tip of the gore-smeared iceberg. There are so many glorious, gruesome notes of horror.
For example, forcing you to sever the Necromorphs’ limbs is a stroke of genius, not just because it shakes combat up but because you don’t have the luxury of being able to shoot “sleeping” corpses in the head. Coming down from a particularly bloody encounter, I spent the next five minutes stomping on every dead body I found, just so the Necromorphs couldn’t reanimate them. I still feel a twinge of guilt for all those closed-casket funerals I was responsible for.
But when the viscera settles, you remember that you’re locked into an apparently unending series of fetch quests. The rush you feel at slaughtering your way to an objective and destroying or retrieving the MacGuffin is diminished by the knowledge that, any minute now, you’re going to get another call from whichever of your two surviving shipmates happens to be bleating at you from behind closed doors.
They’ll inform you that, yes, you’ve spent an hour gathering the components to poison the alien biomass, so well done for that. But in order to pump it into the ventilation system, you’re going to have to kill six poison-spewing Necromorphs, all of which are scattered over a copiously large area. Do I sound bitter? Spending 10 hours discovering problem after massively inconvenient problem will do that. Yes, you’re the ship’s engineer, but the tasks you’re force-fed could be completed by a vodka-addled chimpanzee.
“Hang on,” you might be thinking, “aren’t fetch quests a common fixture of many games?” You’d be right, too. The problem with Dead Space is that it does an exceptionally poor job of disguising that fact compared to most other titles, and it doesn’t do much for your motivation as a player or to enrich the narrative.
Take Resident Evil 2 — as Leon, your orders are initially doled out by Lieutenant Marvin Branagh, but he’s a hugely sympathetic character compared to your Dead Space compatriots. This is a man who, despite being grievously wounded, puts his life on the line to save yours. You want him to survive, and that’s what drives you to gather up all those elaborately shaped keys, that and getting to shoot zombies in the face.
Claire, too, has Sherry Birkin to protect, and in both cases, you’re the one to discover the obstacles you need to overcome. Despite Marvin’s initial briefing, he’s never barking in your ear. The further you push onwards, the more taxing Resident Evil 2’s obstacles become, but from a narrative standpoint, it makes perfect sense. As willfully incompetent as the Umbrella Corporation is, it doesn’t want just anyone poking around.
You can’t complete Resident Evil 2 unless you tackle its problems, but letting you stumble across them helps maintain the illusion that you’re in the driver’s seat. On a couple of occasions Dead Space tries to get away with its incessant habit of throwing obstacles in your path by acknowledging, in a near fourth-wall breaking moment, that nothing’s going right. It doesn’t work, and if anything, it’s just embarrassing.
But a solution is within Dead Space’s grasp, and it’s a deceptively simple one: let the player piss people off. Because Dead Space provides an antagonist around the halfway mark, and the opportunities the game provides to annoy the hell out of them are a real joy. Pressing your bare arse cheeks against a laboratory window might not enrage a Necromorph, but there’s nothing as satisfying as hearing an arch-enemy seethe.
Even if you’re still undertaking thoughtlessly menial tasks, your reward is listening to this true believer’s temperature rise, their cool exterior giving way to frustration. As I exited the mining bay, having launched a distress beacon into space, I wasn’t wondering whether I’d get a response, nor was I grumbling at the prospect of being given yet another tedious task. Instead, I was grinning in anticipation of how poorly my newly acquired nemesis was going to react. The game would do well to provide more of these opportunities and sooner in the narrative.
The new Dead Space is set to be a true remake, not a remaster, so there’s every chance it’ll dispense with or at least disguise all its menial tasks. There’s a lot to love about Dead Space, from its horrifying lore, which goes beyond just skewering Scientology, to the sheer nightmare fuel of the Necromorphs themselves. It just deserves a take where you’re not the galaxy’s biggest gofer.