There aren't many games that make you scared. I mean real scared - the kind of scared that makes you fear the turning of a corridor, or the opening of a door, or the press of a switch. Dead Space, EA Redwood Shores' sci-fi survival horror, is without a doubt one of those games.
Its greatest achievement is presenting a game world, the city-sized planet cracker USG Ishimura, that never, ever, feels safe to explore. Even when you've played the game for hours, and have mastered the lumbering controls, and have upgraded both your mining weapons, suit, stasis and kinesis abilities as much as a single playthrough will allow, you'll still be pooing your pants at the flicker of a light, or the quick-moving flash of alien flesh.
What was that? You doubt whether a game can ever be scary? You're too hard to jump out of your seat, I hear you say? Forget it. You're horribly wrong. And I'm confident Dead Space's first 20 minutes, a wonderfully atmospheric and dramatic affair that sees petty engineer Isaac Clarke thrust into the darkened corridors of the Ishimura and charged with fixing everything that's gone wrong with the troubled vessel, while surviving an alien infestation, will eradicate any lingering posturing you have left and leave you dribbling for mercy.
The game begins with the crew of the USG Kellion making their way to the Ishimura oblivious to the horrors it contains. From their point of view they're on a simple repair mission, triggered after communications with the giant mining ship are lost. But something goes wrong, and the Kellion crashes, rather than lands, on the ship. Inside, the crew find the 1000 or so inhabitants of the Ishimura strangely disappeared. It's seconds, rather than minutes, before the first Necromorph appears - horribly twisted ex-humans who have claws for arms and a savage distaste for Isaac and his chums. In the panic you run for your life into the bowels of the ship. Separated from your buddies - helpful computer technician Kendra Daniels and Sgt. Zach 'I'm not sure if you knew about this all along' Hammond - you only have voice and video communication to keep you company in the dark.
From there, and throughout the game's lengthy, 12 chapter campaign (which should take you around 15 hours to complete, depending on difficulty level played) you'll be mostly concerned with repairing bits of the Ishimura in a desperate bid to escape. This fits, given that Isaac is an engineer, rather than a huge, hulking space marine. And, as such, he plays like an engineer, too. There's no jumping, strafing or rocket launchers here. Instead, Isaac makes use of mining tools to sort out the Necromorphs. For shotguns, or assault rifles, or sniper rifles, see Plasma Cutters, the wonderfully gruesome Ripper (a spinning blade suspended a couple of metres from your gun) and the pulsing heavy damage Contact Beam.
These weapons tie into how Dead Space plays more like Resident Evil than Doom. You won't be able to down Necromorphs by shooting them in the head, or in the chest. You have to dismember them in order to kill them, or they'll keep on coming, and coming, and coming. Your basic fight with a Necromorph is an exercise in efficient limb-removal. With the Plasma Cutter you might use a horizontal spread to slice off the legs, forcing it to the ground and slowing its approach, then switch to the alternate vertical fire and take off its claws. Exposed, run up to the limbless bag of mutated bones and foot stomp it into gory oblivion. Nice.
Dismemberment works wonderfully well in Dead Space, and you'll at times find yourself playing with it just to see what you can do. Eventually Isaac gains access to a time-slowing stasis ability, as well as a Gravity Gun-style kinesis ability. By combining these abilities you're able to control the crowds (which, by the way, can get very crowded) and often conserve fire by turning the Necromorph's weapons against them: Stasis one Necromorph, tear off it's claw, use kinesis to drag it towards you, then remove the rest of its limbs with its own arm.
The controls do pose their own problems, however. While intuitive, you'll find yourself not able to do things as quickly as you'd like, especially when the Necromorphs come calling in droves. In classic Resident Evil 4 style, you can't reload unless you aim. Nor can you run while aiming either, although you can walk. It all ties in with the feeling that you're playing as a normal guy, rather than a space marine, but there are times when the controls feel restricting.
The camera is both a strength and a problem. The third-person, over the shoulder perspective is again reminiscent of Resident Evil 4, and helps add to the claustrophobic feel EA is shooting for. But there are times when you wish you could see more of what's surrounding Isaac. For me, the camera feels as if it's just as scared of what's going on as you are, peering over Isaac's shoulder like a child peering over a sofa when he should really be in bed. Sometimes you just wish he'd grow some balls and take a good look around.