The back of the box doesn’t really spell out what kind of game Dead Space is, although “shooting horror adventure” is a decent three word summary. While the game doesn’t really set the standard for any of those three words, it does a good job of coming close on every account.
The general story line has you as Isaac Clarke, space engineer, good with a gun, on a rescue mission to a planetary mining station, where a thousand people have apparently disappeared. The choice of character name, taking parts of classic science fiction authors Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke, is appropriate, as Dead Space itself borrows extensively from such classics in the genre. One might recall Half-Life, where your lead character was a scientist who just happened to be handy with a gun, or perhaps Doom… granted, there you’re a space marine, but you do go to a Mars mining base. System Shock is probably the closest pick, as vending machines on the base allow you to enhance your character, and much of the story of Dead Space is likewise told via audio recordings left behind by the victims. Heck, there’s even a recording of Isaac’s love interest. In all cases of these older games, the former crew are now monsters to be destroyed, and so it is in Dead Space.
Perhaps the major departure from the classics is the shooting aspect of this game. Turns out this mining station has a pleasing array of weaponry (makeshift or otherwise), and, of course, plenty of targets. Unlike most games where head shots are key, here the player is better advised to blow off limbs (heck, this advice is even written in blood above the first weapon the player finds), with “aim mode” making this easy enough to do, even in close combat. For the most part, combat is a quick and bloody affair, and the massive battles of Doom are absent here, which at least allows the developers to focus on reasonably gruesome deaths for the player, specialized based on the monster involved. The third person view of Dead Space makes it difficult to get into the game as opposed to the classics, even as it makes it easier to appreciate the graphics. So, while combat isn’t quite as pulse-pounding as in other games, it works well enough.
The horror theme is primarily addressed through quantities of gore (it’s rather difficult to get through consecutive rooms without at least ONE severed something-or-other flopping about). Additionally, creepy whispering sounds follow the player about, interfering with the player’s ability to track the shambling monsters. Ammo is somewhat in short supply, accenting both the combat and the horror aspects – there will be many times where the stress of the battle is magnified by being forced to use sub-optimal weaponry, to conserve ammunition against a possibly worse threat later. Vending machines, operated with relatively easy to find currency, can offset this, although often such machines are nowhere near. Subtracting somewhat from the horror theme is the fact that the game usually has save points right before tough battles, although anyone who can view the sound of the hard drive rattling as the same as creepy music in horror films will probably find this an enhancement. The fights are generally tough “the first time around,” but once you know where the monster is coming from and can formulate a plan for blasting it, there seldom is a problem. Thus, the game generally won’t have you jumping out of your seat in surprise, but still manages the shock value of a decent haunted house.
The adventure aspect of the game is likewise somewhat ambivalently handled. Yes, Isaac is an engineer, and he does make repairs, although usually it’s nothing complicated. The scene early on where he repairs a locked door by using his mining laser as a club to bash the controlling wires had me a bit skeptical of his skill, but the game recovers from such a weak start. The puzzle solving never gets difficult, as the designers wisely programmed a “show objective” button, letting Isaac always know exactly where he needs to go next, and what to find. This keeps the frustration level low, even if using that button seems like cheating at times.
Overall, Dead Space is a fine and very playable horror game, and while the relatively linear story line and straightforwardness of the battles don’t combine to offer much replay value, it’s still worth the price of admission.
+ Extensive autosaves and save points.