One problem I come across when I sit down to write a review is the age old "How do I start?" question. I don't want to type "Dead Space is..." and then leave it for two weeks. So here goes nothing.
Dead Space is good. Really, really good. The EA I complained about years ago is.... just gone, apparently. The EA under John Riticello is publishing new IPs left and right, making solid, interesting games that people are genuinely excited about. It's unheard of!
Dead Space is one of the first of these. They've really gone all out here, too. A comic book, a DVD, a game, interactive websites; the creators are truly committed to presenting a nice, vivid world to enjoy.
From the moment you step onto the Ishimura until the credits roll, the quality of the craftsmanship is obvious.
The first thing you learn about any game is always visual. Dead Space makes a decision early on: This is a big, ugly, industrial mining ship, and we're going to make it big, ugly, and industrial from end to end.
At the risk of sounding like I think it's repetitive, not much changes as you tromp around the massive vessel. You never forget you're in the Ishimura; it's all very cohesive. It wouldn't make much sense to have a "lava level" and a "jungle level," though things do mix up enough that you don't feel like you're doing much backtracking.
The monsters and your chararcter, too, are excellent. Isaac Clarke is one of the coolest silent-but-deadly working-men since Gordon Freeman. His animation set is small but effective. The necromorphs are solid as well. I would've liked a bit more variety but the ones you fight are so well-done that it doesn't ever feel repetitive. Maybe I was just too busy keeping my head attached to my neck that I didn't notice!
One complaint I do have is that the human characters, both the few you meet face-to-face and the ones you see in the holograms, could've used a bit more detail. Compared the the world they live in, they feel a bit fake.
Speaking of holograms, the heads-up display is worth mentioning here. That's to say, there is no formal hud. It's all integrated into your suit and it's really, really cool. It's a really well-executed idea. Your life, stasis, and oxygen are integrated into the back of your suit. I'm not sure how this benefits Isaac but it looks cool and works really well to increase the immersiveness of the world. You'll be watching a recorded video or messing around in your inventory, only to hear the tell-tale sound of a necromorph busting out of a vent. Oh man, stuck in your inventory when a monster attacks? Crap! No - just do what you'd always do. Raise your plasma cutter and get ready to shoot. The menu disappears, allowing you to take care of the matter at hand.
The audio also works to increase the immersive feeling of Dead Space. The sound design is on-par with classics like Silent Hill 2. Strange mutterings, clanking and thunking metal, and other ambient sounds lay a good canvas down to get that feeling of unease just right.
The coolest aspect of the sound design is definitely the vacuum of space. Instead of hearing space, you feel it. The only things that make noise outside are the things big enough to send a vibration up into your suit - so when that guy pops out of the vent and sneaks up behind you without any indication, it's awesome instead of irritating. It makes being outside that much more unnerving than the rest of the ship, coupled with the frantic feeling of suffocation. I found myself holding my breath whenever the oxygen was sucked out of the room.
More than any technical aspect, what keeps the game from getting repetitive or uninteresting is just how damn fun it is to lop of those necromorphs' limbs. As an engineer instead of a warrior, you're presented with a number of mining tools. The main weapon is a plasma cutter. You could play through the whole game with this, but some of the other weapons are just too much fun to ignore. The Ripper, a space-aged circular saw, is some of the most gory fun you'll have all year. Hit the trigger and you launch a spinning saw blade in front of you to wave around as you wish, slicing off arms, legs, and heads and sending blood spraying everywhere.
To make these tools even more entertaining, the game is littered with Power Nodes that you can collect and use to power up your rig and your arsenal, sometimes leading to impressive visual effects and always to more mayhem.
In addition to running around severing limbs, you're also tasked with repairing the ship both to figure out what the heck is going on and to get home. These manage to stay pretty well-varied. From replacing the communications array to sending a distress beacon into outer space, these sections tend to make the best use of the zero gravity littered throughout the game. The Zero-G is a bit under-used, but it doesn't feel like an afterthought either.
One complaint I DO have, in all this warm adulation, is that the game is just too dang easy. I played through on normal and rarely felt a challenge. Yeah, I made a few mistakes that made it more difficult, but we're going to ignore those and pretend I'm more observant. There is a save point, almost literally every two minutes. I found myself skipping save points because there were so many and I never felt I was punished for it. Of course as I begin playing through Impossible difficulty, I'll say that those save points seem a lot more important now.
The other big sticking point is the asteroid shooting sequence midway through. The sequence is overly difficult and doesn't use anything you've learned up to this point. It takes me two or three tries to make it through and others many more. The sequence DOES prepare you for a more interesting use of the same weapon later on, but I think it could've been executed more gracefully. A slight tweak could've made it easy enough that it felt like it was adding variety instead of unnecessarily using skills you've never developed.
My favorite thing about Dead Space has to be that nothing felt tedious. I never felt like I was being made to do busywork, or that the waves of enemies were unnecessary, or anything like that. As I work on my third playthrough, the ONLY thing I dread (in the boredom sense, not the "can't sleep, necromorphs will eat me" sense) is that asteroid sequence. Even then, that doesn't take too long to get through.
Finally, Dead Space will appeal most to fans of games like Resident Evil 4 and movies like The Thing, Aliens, and Event Horizon. DS owes a lot to them and it never feels like it's hiding it. Snuggling up with those movies and those games would be the perfect weekend of science-fiction-horror bliss. If you're a fan of ANY of those, you'll find Dead Space very worth your time.