It’s not that Dead Space‘s strength is narrative originality so much as it is that the game is finely honed. Clearly, attention has been paid to the best aspects of various survival horror games and space themed horror movies, and many of these elements have been taken on to create the Dead Space universe and experience. While it could be argued that Dead Space doesn’t take a ton of chances, it conversely makes very few mistakes, and it may well prove to be the most successful new action property released this year. Given that many similar games clock in at around 20 hours, the roughly 12- to 15-hour trip through Dead Space might seem comparatively short. But the game is relentlessly grim, taut and tense throughout, with very little fluff.
Survival horror, as a genre, is a matter of precision and balance. For example, while control should be streamlined to a point, a tiny bit of clunkiness in order to increase the level of panic and tension is not unwelcome. Another example is inventory management. It adds significantly to the sense of dread and despair if ammunition and supplies are continuously low, yet with even moderate conservation it should be difficult to completely run out of them. Jump scares and deeper psychological creepiness should both ideally be present. While the actual storyline of Dead Space is arguably unoriginal, and the transparent jabs at Scientology are a bit heavy-handed, these other gameplay elements are handled exceptionally well.
The “strategic dismemberment” mechanic, via which it is either more efficient or entirely necessary to lop off enemy limbs as opposed to taking them head on serves the dual purpose of making enemy encounters longer and more tense, and of increasing the level of overall gore. It helps that a number of the available weapons are repurposed engineering cutting tools. The most basic, the plasma cutter, actually has the most interesting alternate firing mode. Invoking it simply turns the line of fire 90 degrees, allowing you to specifically shoot with an either horizontal or vertical focus, the better to attack particular limbs from a particular angle.
Although Dead Space looks technically sharp, it’s the audio production that deserves the most praise. From the deadening of sound when you are in a vacuum (with the decreased alert to enemy presence that implies) to the whine of the mining saw getting deeper and lower pitched as it begins to cleave flesh, the level of attention paid to sound design is clear. Although a full surround sound setup is ideal, there is something to be said for the intimacy of playing on a pair of good headphones.
All this is not to say that even the mechanics of Dead Space are entirely without fault. The sections where you must sit behind a cannon and fire into space control frustratingly loosely, and some of the zero gravity sections, though certainly original, can be disorienting since you have to jump from surface to surface instead of crawling. The map can be confusing when there are multiple levels, but this may very well be because it, like all interfaces not presented at a physical station, are projected holographically from your suit.
As previously mentioned, a religion that is a thinly veiled substitute for Scientology plays a major role in the plot, and indeed in the universe of Dead Space as a whole. Even for a game content to execute pitch perfect gameplay at the expense of true experimentation, this seems strikingly safe. A few key omissions or modifications to this element would have made for a more vague religious component, and the narrative might have been more impactful for it.
The marketing push behind Dead Space has been significant, with the animated film Dead Space: Downfall being released to the home market, and a comic book series being published by Image. A good deal of effort has clearly gone into these projects (the comic is illustrated by Ben Templesmith of 30 Days of Night fame, an excellent horror franchise in its own right), and clearly an attempt is being made to paint and establish the world of Dead Space both as quickly and cohesively as possible. This can only mean that EA hopes that this will be the start of a successful and long running franchise, and given the acclaim that has already met the title, such a goal certainly seems attainable.
While Dead Space‘s influences are easy to spot, it is extraordinarily smart about cohesively assembling key elements from these influences into a compelling experience. The originality at play here has less to do with brand new gameplay or narrative innovations than it does with refinement and sharp execution itself. Only time will tell if its inevitable continuation as a series begins to wear thin its welcome, falling prey to sequelitis. But as a individual title, Dead Space demonstrates a deep and satisfying commitment to tense horror gaming.