When you first fire up Dead Space (and I do mean “when,” not “if”), you’ll be struck by a nagging feeling that you’ve played this game before. That feeling doesn’t go away. It fades, mind you, but never completely.
It’s like that nagging feeling, after you’ve left the house for a vacation in the Caribbean, that you’ve left the toaster plugged in. By the time you get to the airport, after obsessing over the phantom toaster for however many miles, you get distracted tracking down the appropriate gate, looking innocent in front of the TSA guys and trying to find a potty before they cram you in the tin can. Then come the free sodas and snack mixes and you maybe start to relax and think about the beach, wondering if you shouldn’t have taken a later flight to ease your fears of burning down the house.
By the time you get to the beach, you realize it doesn’t matter and start to hope the house burns. You hope someone robs the joint, then burns it down, planting fake bodies inside so you can pretend you’re dead and never leave the beach ever. Dead Space is just like that.
At the start of the game you’re treated to an in-game cinema sequence explaining the premise: You’re aboard an interstellar tow truck sent by a major corporation to find and repair one of their faulty mining ships, the oldest and largest “planet cracker” in service, the Ishimura. Naturally, when you arrive on the scene things are not as they seem, and by the time you make for a landing all hell has broken loose. Spare, unenergetic SF writing at its finest. The fact your protagonist is named Isaac isn’t just a limp-wristed nod to the master. These folks actually seem to get it.
After five minutes of playing you’ll deduce that Dead Space is BioShock meets Doom 3, and you’re not wrong. Dead Space‘s moody visuals and wet-your-pants scare tactics borrow heavily from id’s failed experiment in horror gaming, but that’s only because Doom 3 itself borrowed heavily from horror films, and just because it failed to capitalize doesn’t mean you should condemn the source material.
In fact, let’s pretend Doom 3 never existed, that id never tried to make monsters jump out of closets and that it didn’t create one or two truly thrilling game moments and then repeat them over and over until the experience became as half-heartedly exciting as watching your granny strip naked.
Let’s instead pretend that Dead Space is the first game to ever attempt to bridge the gap between sci-fi horror films and sci-fi horror games. That’s a happier way of looking at things, because in Dead Space, it’s done right. Imagine yourself stranded on a gigantic, decaying, broken space vessel full of the various noises, sights and equipment you’d expect to find on such a fantasy craft. Now imagine that all of it – the ship, the equipment and things you cannot see – is trying to kill you. Dead Space does what only the truly best fantasy manages: It makes the fantastical seem real.
Walking through the dimly-lit, abandoned corridors of the Ishimura, you know you’ve never set foot on a space vessel of this kind, that one, in fact, doesn’t and can’t exist, but you know down deep in your bones that when it exists it will look like this.
Dead Space‘s similarity to BioShock is less accidental, but you can hardly blame it. There are only so many models in existence for futuristic sci-fi shooters with weapon upgrade and customization components. And the basic fact is Ken Levine and Co. pulled a hat trick in terms of innovative, yet non-intrusive story design. Anyone who’s not trying to copy BioShock in that regard deserves to have their head examined.
As in BioShock, a good percentage of Dead Space‘s story is told through found audio and text logs, detailing the adventures of the ship’s crew as they begin to realize something has gone horribly awry, and fight for their lives against it. Some, as in the case of one crew member whose log you’ll come across in a later level, fail to escape with their lives and their last moments, as recorded on audio, are chilling.
If you don’t care for story, you don’t need to. Dead Space will stay out of your way as you roam the corridors of the Ishimura and dispatch bad guys with a host of improvised and fantastical future weapons, all of which you can upgrade to make them more lethal.
There are also, in what seem to be becoming standard, the “magic” options: a telekinetic booster pack that allows you to grab far away objects and hurl them across the room (not the only slice of Half-Life cribbed by Dead Space) and a “stasis” mechanism that lets you to dramatically slow down the actions of various monsters and machinery, sticking open malfunctioning doors, or freezing in place that bad guy with the weak spot on his back. The game could easily have done without these cash-in mechanics, but they’re implemented flawlessly and don’t detract.
Dead Space‘s copying act doesn’t stop with games. If you’ve seen a science fiction film in the past 30 years, particularly a sci-fi horror film, you’ll be struck between the eyes with a stab of déjà vu playing Dead Space, but again, by the time you’re a level or two in you’ll be sitting on the beach, wrapped in the warm fuzziness of an homage to the genre done right.
It’s as if, at this point in the history of modern culture, science fiction is so firmly rooted in the subconscious that there’s very little need for interpretation. Dead Space‘s Ishimura may have dropped out of warp from any number of film or TV universes, but in spite of that familiarity, it still manages to feel like a completely new, original experience.
As you feel your way through the darkened ship, unraveling its mysteries and eradicating the baddies lurking around corners, you’ll be struck more than once by the sheer scope of the game. Flipping a switch can cause machinery to come alive several stories above your head, in the gloom you assumed was simply a tall ceiling. As lights come on hundreds of feet above you, and the groan of long-unused equipment echoes through the cavernous room, you realize you’re standing in a compartment the size of a football stadium, and then you instinctively look for a corner to wedge yourself in, because in Dead Space the monsters can come from anywhere, and you’re sure to have awakened them.
There no other word for it – the graphics and sound in Dead Space are phenomenal. This is one of the most truly immersive titles I’ve played all year, and an homage not only to the genre of sci-fi horror, but to the kind of well-conceived, painstakingly crafted videogames that this reviewer once believed was forgotten.
Bottom Line: Dead Space is a game you’ll wish you had the stones to play until all hours of the night, and even when you’re not playing it, you’ll be thinking about it.
Recommendation: It’s worth at least a rent, but I suspect this is one you’ll want to pull off the shelf again a few times even after you’ve finished it.
Russ Pitts tries very hard not to scream like a little girl when playing this game. He occasionally fails.