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.
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.
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?