I’m a big fan of the horror genre, from the psychological horror of Silent Hill to the action packed horror of Resident Evil. Dead Space in many ways felt like a successor to Resident Evil 4. It’s an over the shoulder shooter that has resource management and a heavy emphasis on survival horror. Dead Space was arguably one of the best horror games 10 years ago, but how does it hold up today?
Set in the year 2508, Dead Space portrays a very dark and depressing future where earth is dying and its only hope for survival is to send out huge planet-crackers to harvest resources. You play as engineer Isaac Clarke who is answering a distress call from one of these ships, the USG Ishimura. To make matters worse, Isaac’s girlfriend, Nicole, is trapped on-board. What should have been a simple repair job becomes a battle for survival.
I was hooked immediately with the strong opening level that builds up to the reveal of the Necromorphs perfectly. The story was always serviceable, it pushed the action along nicely and has a few good twists sprinkled throughout. It wasn’t super mind-blowing, but it didn’t need to be. It helps that the world Visceral had crafted is genuinely interesting and something I wanted to learn more about.
Set almost entirely on the Ishimura, the ship feels like a character of its own with a surprisingly wide variety of locations on board, each with their own unique look and feel. From the bridge, to the engine room, to the medical deck, and everything in-between. The secrets that the Ishimura holds, its true purpose, and what the Necromorphs actually are, provide greater motivation to dive deeper into the lore. I’ll go as far as saying it’s one of the best locations ever designed in a game. It’s fairly linear, but it’s open enough to make it feel huge.
Necromorphs are mutated twisted humans that are barely even recognizable anymore. Their disturbing visual design gives a real sense of dread as they charge at you full speed and slashing at you with their own limbs that can pierce through heavy armour. The halls of the USG Ishimura are littered with dead bodies and the walls are painted red with blood. It’s a very gory game that does a wonderful job of getting the point across that something really bad has happened. One of the biggest mechanics of the game is actually cutting off the limbs of the Necromorphs to actually kill them.
Popping the head off a Necromorph will put them in a frenzy, which might actually be the worst thing to do. Whereas hitting them in the arms and legs will severely reduce their ability to attack you. The shooting still feels really solid and taking off limbs is as satisfying as ever. It helps that there was a good variety of weapons, each with their own secondary fire mode. The iconic Plasma Cutter can rotate for greater precision taking out limbs, whilst the assault rifle-style Plasma Rifle can shoot 360 degrees, perfect for when you are surrounded.
As you progress through the game you will face bigger and deadlier Necromorphs that will test everything that you have learned. The Brutes are fast and heavily armoured at the front, requiring you to use stasis and strafe around the beast, or if you are a good shot, shoot through small gaps in its armour. Then you’ve got the Regenerators pulled straight from RE4 that you can’t actually kill directly, instead you slow them down to escape. This is just a couple of examples, there’s a wide variety of Necromorphs so it never gets stale.
A lot of horror games fail to keep the tension throughout. For example, The Evil Within whilst a great action game, had only a few scary moments, namely in the boss encounters (though the DLC did fix this issue). Outlast makes the mistake of relying almost entirely on jump scares that get old after the first half, giving you no weapons to defend yourself with, but you can easily outrun everything anyway.
Even today this game keeps me on edge, the fear of what’s behind every door and around every corner. Necromorphs run at you around corners, smash through vents, and climb over railings. You never know when you are going to be attacked and where from. This applies whether you are exploring the map or fighting waves of Necromorphs, they will attack from anywhere at anytime and it does a superb job keeping that sense of dread. Dead Space gives you an arsenal weapon, but doesn’t make you feel overpowered. Its scripted jump scares aren’t relentless and the game actually gives you time to breathe. The lighting and sound design work together to keep the tension even though there isn’t much going on.
The game gives you more than enough resources to get through the story, but you can’t just carry everything. Isaac has limited space in his inventory that you will quickly fill up with ammo, health supplies, and other resources. At stores located throughout the Ishimura you can drop resources off. Take too much with you and you will miss a whole lot of resources and blueprints, take too little and you will have a bad time.
Perhaps its best feature was the lack of HUD, instead everything you need is displayed on your characters “RIG”. Your health and stasis bars displayed on his back; ammo is projected off his gun and everything else from the map to the inventory system projects a large display off the character in real-time. It goes a long way to making the experience much more immersive.
A few things don’t really hold up today. Prepare to do a fair amount of backtracking through zones you’ve already cleared. Zero-G sections are very clunky; you move around by aiming at a platform and pressing Y to jump there. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The free form flying of later games feels much better in my opinion. There’s also the case of bodies jumping at you. When playing through some of the sections it’s painfully obvious which “dead” body will jump at you without even paying much attention.
10 years ago I played Dead Space on the Xbox 360, so I booted it up on the Xbox One via backwards compatiblity and there is no anti-aliasing whatsoever, giving the game a really rough look. Playing on PC with AA turned on is one solution, but the port was not the greatest and needs some manual fixes. Even with the ugly aliasing and some textures that don’t hold up, the game still doesn’t look too bad. The art direction is exceptional and there’s quite a lot of detail held up with phenomenal lighting.
Dead Space then went on to spawn two full sequels that made drastic changes to the core. Dead Space 2 was a perfect blend of action and horror, mastering both genres and making a host of other improvements along the way. The third entry however, drops the horror aspect almost entirely in favour of more action set pieces and co-operative play. It wasn’t a bad game by any means, but a huge departure that left me wanting a return to the roots.
So, 10 years later Dead Space is still one of the best horror games ever made. It has stood the test of time and is well worth checking out today. It’s a shame that we may never see another entry.