I've been waiting for sometime for the video game industry to come out with something that would match or exceed the scare factor of what I would consider to be the reference standards for survival horror video games; speaking of the now classic Resident Evil and Silent Hill. And it looks like Dead Space, the 2008 offering by EA, has finally risen to the challenge.
This over-the-shoulder third person shooter developed by Visceral Games has creep-crawly up the wazoo and is, in my humble opinion, a polished production that is well worth the money and should adorn the shelves of any serious PC game collector. I've heard Dead Space referred to as Bioshock in space and I can definitely see the similarities. But whereas Bioshock leans heavily towards an off-the-wall weird and scary thing, Dead Space tends to follow a more traditional sci-fi horror story line, e.g., abandoned spaceship issues a distress signal, when answered there is no response, the ship is boarded and discovered to be inhabited by —wait for it— aliens (*gasp*... who'da thunk it?)..
Gameplay in Dead Space revolves around playing as Isaac Clarke (Arthur C. Asimov anyone?), an engineer from the USG Kellion who, with two other crew members, Kendra Daniels and Zach Hammond, finds himself stranded aboard the USG Ishimura, a dark and deserted planet cracking mining ship mysteriously overrun with alien life forms. Isaac quickly gets separated from Kendra and Zach and becomes the go-to guy who must complete a series of objectives which oblige him to run around the Ishimura's passageways battling the aliens while fetching items that will either help fix the ship and/or help get to the bottom of the alien infestation.
To deal with the bad guys, Isaac acquires various 'weapons' throughout the game although apparently, all save but one are not really weapons (even though they look like weapons) but rather are mining tools that Isaac has refitted into makeshift firearms. The weapons are a whole lot of fun to use, especially the Ripper which is the only weapon which I think actually looks like a mining tool. But it's not the weapons themselves which make Dead Space unique but rather the way they must be used on the enemy in order to be effective.
Merely blasting away willy-nilly at an enemy's midrift will do some damage but is not nearly as effective (or fun) as the recommended approach which is to methodically dismember the aliens so that they are at first crippled and then eventually, uhh, immobilized. This makes for some frequent and spectacularly chaotic entanglements where you'll find yourself trapped in a room full of semi-slaughtered creepy-crawly monstrosities, many of which are still dragging themselves along the ground towards you ever hellbent on turning you into fast food while others flail about blindly because they've lost their heads (literally).
What is beautiful about this amputate-the-aliens system is that it forces you to aim carefully in order to strategically disarm your adversaries (pun intended). This in turn tends to set the needle on the panic meter wavering into the red as you desperately try not to miss because you learn quickly that missing often means having the tables turned and watching the aliens sloppily butcher Isaac into little itty bits. I felt that having to cut off alien limbs was a very intelligent progression of the old blow-the-head-off-the-zombies routine in classic survival horror.
Each of the weapons in Dead Space seems suited to a specific task unlike that of any other shooters. In other shooters, you'll typically have a shotgun for close range blasting or a trusty pistol with plenty of available ammo or a sniper rifle for long range kills or some reasonable facsimile therein.
Dead Space, on the other hand, offers you weapons suited to some rather unusual undertakings such as quick-and-easy two-way chopping or double leg dismemberment or launch-and-pray timed blast amputation. I've heard about how this Dead Space weapon is the game's shotgun or that Dead Space weapon is the game's sniper rifle and even I have begun to refer to them as such but this is probably for want of better comparisons. Dead Space weapons are truly unique and using them offers a grisly thrill that surpasses the usual just-shoot-em-dead stuff of other games.
All totalled, there are only seven weapons in Dead Space but I didn't feel particularly limited largely because all the weapons can be incrementally upgraded at so-called benches located at various points around the game. Upgrades are accomplished by using the benches to insert special power nodes into a kind of upgrade tree. Power nodes can either be found around the game's environment or purchased at the Store.