Dead Space is an EA horror game set on a lost mining vessel, the Ishimura, infested with alien life that converts dead tissue into monsters. Isaac Clarke is an engineer who's part of a investigation effort on the ship and is looking for his girlriend. The player is put in control of him and tasked to repair, blast and run through the ship looking for Nicole whilst trying not to die gruesomely.
Dead Space is an adherent of Alien's school of ship design. The Ishimura is such an awesome machine, end of story. The whole thing is dark, steamy and feels rather hostile, aliens notwithstanding. And with the lights going out, it's the perfect place for this kind of horror story.
It can get samey-looking, but I think there's been a good effort made to provide the levels with unique set dressing. You probably can't walk through it in your head from memory, but it's good in the moment.
This is also helped by the space mechanics. You can jump from wall to wall in Zero G as well as go on spacewalks. They made the silence of space an integral part of these walks, as you can only hear nearby vibrations. Like say, a Necromorph munching on your face. It's great!
Dead Space is a strange beast. EA made a futile attempt to turn it into a multimedia franchise, something not common for horror. Looking at the franchise as a whole, it's a rather impressive construction. I'm convinced it's written properly, but I do take issue with the presentation, especially in the first game.
Isaac is mute in Dead Space, only gaining a voice in the second game. This is probably for immersion, something that usually doesn't do much for me. I like properly defined main characters, unless we're talking about an RPG with an open story. And even then, I still like them to have a few established characteristics.
As the sequels prove, Isaac makes for a great protagonist. He emotes, doesn't act stupid and leaves most of the screaming to the player. But when he isn't able to react to plot points, it just flows by awfully fast.
The opening hour establishes a great deal of stuff. So much so, that I can't digest it properly. It's mostly a whole lot of crap that needs to be repaired mixed in with the actual plot, plus some sidestories. Had Isaac reacted to parts of it like in the latter games, I think more of the plot would have stuck with me and make the twist more impactful.
The big draw of shooting things in Dead Space is the limb system. Necromorphs care little for headshots, so the best way to bring them down is dismember them. It's an unique approach and really fun.
Depending on which limb you cut, it'll change the enemy's behaviour to something different. Many of them are designed to reward you for cutting properly and some even punish you directly for choosing poorly.
It makes for some great moment-to-moment choices and incentivizes you not to go for a body shot when you have your screen full of Necromorph.
As part of the aesthetic, Isaac is a space engineer, with all the boons that entails. The most obvious thing is his sexy space suit. It's absurdly metal without going into 40K territory and only gets better. The extra armor and inventory slots it provides with upgrades is nice, but the best part is the cutscene you get when you buy an upgrade.
It's so empowering to step into the store, see Isaac clank into place, have the laser pass over him and then have him look over his new duds with renewed bravery. Never before have I been so attached to armor upgrades.
His occupation also has some importance to the plot. It explains why he has to repair two dozen things throughout the game and why he uses tools as weapons. In a nice touch, the rifle is awfully ineffective unupgraded, thus explaining why so many people die and why Isaac prevails.
Many games have followed in the footsteps of Resident Evil 4 and none, not even it's sequels are as successful as Dead Space. It's not as good, having missed some key parts of RE4's design, but it manages to not feel like a copycat.
The atmosphere, setting and mechanics are quite different, but the two games are similar enough that they invoke a similar sense of progression and mastery. This, is how you make a proper clone. Keep the genre and have similar mechanics, whilst exploring new things.
The way your combat options are designed in Dead Space is interesting. You have two melée attacks, a slowmotion module, telekinesis and a decent selection of weapons to make use of.
The weapons are the only thing that can dismember foes, so they take precedence while the other things act as support. I'm ok with stasis and TK being limited in use, but I'm saddened over the melée options.
As meme-tastic as the stomp is, it's not that useful. With enemies being so slippery and prone to stab you in the shins, it's not smart to try and get a quick hit in to save ammo. It's a shame, since it works so well in RE4.
That leaves the space gizmos. The stasis is great, as it's limited and very strong, best saved for bad times. The TK is mostly used for puzzles and is only good for the odd throwable explosive. The second game expanded on it and made it better, perhaps even too strong.
The guns are in a strange place. You can easily get by with only the Plasma Cutter, as the enemies and the situations you face them in are so similar. There are a few that give you more tactical options, but it's barely worth it, with the flamethrower being the worst offender.
It's not a complete failure of design, since they provide different playstyles, but the game doesn't really demand them. I would have liked to see 4 guns of similar worth that you'd need to make use of in order to succeed.
Dead Space is many things, but I don't think it's particularly effective as a horror game. Beyond the first 1-2 hours, where everything feels new and dangerous, it keeps a solid and samey thrilling feel. It doesn't fill me with any dread about future encounters like an effective horror game does. You are simply too powerful and tense for that to happen.
Many of the pieces are there, but they get lost in the static of the constant jumpscares and screams. I don't mind the thrills, but you get used to them. This is even worsened by playing the sequels, which consist of much of the same material.
There are some nice touches, like some subtle scares with the body bags and enemies laying down to play dead when you shoot them on higher difficulties. But once you get in the mindset of pissed off exterminator, it's all a cakewalk.
I don't mind it, since good action-horror is also a bit rare, but encounters could've been given more weight. Sometimes less is more and sometimes you need a bit more enemy variety.