Because the enemies are actually tough to kill, and because the game is littered with jump-out-of-your-seat moments, and because it's really, really dark, with the only light provided by your weapon, Dead Space is perhaps the scariest game I've played in years. It's not going to weird anyone out on a psychological level, despite its best efforts to do so. One Ishimura resident who calmly headbutts himself to death is funny rather than disturbing, but the pleas for help from Isaac's girlfriend, Nicole, that whisper in the artificial Ishimura air as he delves deeper into its overrun bowels, do start to creep you out. Overall, though, it's got more scary shocks up its sleeve than a Texas executioner.
Where the game is less good is in the zero gravity sections. Here Isaac can jump from floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with the perspective shifting each time his magnetic boots land on metal. Some of the game's more elaborate puzzles play out in zero gravity, and require you to combine stasis and telekinesis to complete. But the controls don't quite facilitate the quick-moving jumping that's often required. This, coupled with the fact that you can only jump onto certain surfaces, leads to some frustrating, and unnecessary deaths.
What will divide some players, and indeed has divided us here in the office, is what Neon coined the 'Donny Darko button' - a thin blue line triggered with a click of the right thumb stick that shows you where to go from wherever you are in the ship. For me, this was a God send, and saved hours spent wandering around trying to find out where to go - Dead Space being such a dark game, it's often hard to know where paths lead to and branch out. But for others we can see the 'Donnie Darko button' making the game feel like it's holding your hand too tightly. You don't have to use it, of course, but you will, because you can, and because it's there. It can often result in 'follow the yellow brick road' syndrome, which takes a lot of the thought out of your play, and makes it feel more linear than it probably is.
What there won't be any discussion over is the quality of the game's graphics, and presentation overall. Some of the lighting is the best I've ever seen in a video game. Light will bounce off walls, cast ominous shadows and flicker when you least want it to. While aliens creeping about vents and flashing across the screen will occupy most of your eyeballs' attention, there are moments of graphical brilliance where you can't help but stop, pan the camera and absorb. One large, zero gravity room, where an asteroid is being held in place by spinning rings, is a wonder to behold. Brilliantly, when Isaac dies it often provides some of the game's graphical highlights. One death, from a human head with spindly tentacles creeping out of its neck (you read that right), will tear off Isaac's head, insert its feelers into his neck then take control of his beheaded corpse. That the frame rate holds up (for the most part) even when multiple enemies are on screen, and there's zero tearing across all versions of the game, makes the graphical quality even more impressive.
Dead Space is one of the best survival horror games of recent years, and totally deserving of your cash.
The sound, too, is some of the best we've heard. Terrifying screeching will boom out of your speakers when enemies jump out of nowhere. When you enter a room with a story to tell the audio will let you know you should be paying attention. The screams of dying human beings, the howls of dying Necromorphs, and the panting of Isaac himself is hugely impressive. And the voice acting, a mixture of shouting and panic, is wonderfully executed. Whatever your opinion of the game, the effort and attention to detail can't be faulted.
At first I thought Dead Space deserved a 9/10. But the more I played it the more I saw that it falls just short of the score. Why? Because, despite the quality of the game's central hook - creep around darkened corridors waiting for something to jump out at you - it can feel repetitive, especially towards the end of the game. That there's some backtracking in the latter third exacerbates this problem. It's not a fatal flaw, but a flaw nonetheless.
When you think about it, there's nothing new about Dead Space in terms of its plot or premise. Sci-fi horror flick Event Horizon has been a direct influence. If you were coming at the game fresh you might even think it was the game of the film, so similar are some of the set-pieces, room design and general plot. Then there's Aliens, and The Thing, and a load of other well-known sci-fi horror movies that are felt strongly. There's also more than a passing resemblance to Irrational Games' (now 2K Boston) System Shock 2, in that it's a sci-fi survival horror set on a giant space ship, and that the story is told through old audio and video logs, and that much of the back story and flavour of what went down is seen, rather than spoken, via brilliantly detailed rooms with delicately placed corpses and words scrawled in blood.
And, without spoiling anything for you, the boss fights are distinctly underwhelming - presenting yet another great big thing to kill when you might have hoped for something more subtle, intelligent, and perhaps disturbing, to tackle. The final boss fight won't ruin the game, but I was hoping for something less Devil May Cry and more, well, Dead Space.
On the whole though, Dead Space is a superb survival horror romp that's guaranteed to scare. If you like Resident Evil 4, you should definitely go out and buy this game right now. It's clearly set up for a sequel, and we can't wait. For now though, we'll leave you with the obligatory 'best played alone and with the lights off' advice. Go on. You're not chicken are you?