In Dead Space, set 500 years in the future, you'll fill the shoes of Isaac Clarke, an engineer sent as part of a support team to investigate the lack of communications from the USG Ishimura--a city-sized "planet cracker" ship used to strip entire planets of their resources.
Glen Schofield, Dead Space's executive producer, talked us through a number of playable levels in the eerie vessel of death. The first action we saw was part of the third level, which Schofield says will take around 80 minutes to complete. Some of Isaac's weapons will be mining tools, such as a plasma cutter, a "gk" gun--Dead Space's answer to Half-Life 2's gravity gun--and a dangerous-looking buzz saw that is fired and retracted along an invisible axis, but there will also be traditional weapons, such as a pulse rifle. You'll be able to easily access only four weapons at a time (with the D pad), but you'll be able to store more in your inventory, which is accessed via the menu system.
The over-the-shoulder, third-person view follows what's happening with Isaac and his bodysuit. While you start with a suit called RIG, you'll acquire new suits and other upgrades as you progress. Vital information is presented onscreen around the bodysuit and weapons. Isaac's "stasis" meter (more on this later) and health bar appear on his spine. The story progresses through video, audio, and text messages shown on virtual video displays that appear in front of Isaac, so there are no cutscenes to interrupt the creepy atmosphere.
After an introduction to the game and a short firefight, we were shown a zero-gravity environment complete with debris and floating aliens. Previously acquired canisters provide a small amount of oxygen to allow you to survive in the vacuum of space, but you'll have to move fast while activating some equipment and taking out several angry scorpion-like aliens complete with tailwhips. In this zero-gravity area, there is no down or up--Isaac can attach to surfaces with his magnetic boots at will.
The sound effects in the zero-gravity environment are what you might expect to hear in a vacuum, such as hollow, muffled blasts from the weapons, and raspy, shallow breathing. This is a departure from the loud, screeching, intense environments in other parts of the game, which, for the most part, looked suitably dark and seedy.
In Dead Space, you'll acquire and use "stasis," which, when fired directly at enemies or machinery, briefly slows their movements and gives them a handy blue tinge. These valuable few seconds can mean the difference between survival and death. This is useful in some of the more puzzlelike areas; for example, in one section we saw, you need to shoot a spinning shaft to slow it down and then use the gravity gun to drag it along a cylinder and connect it with some cogs to activate a room-sized centrifuge.
The action in Dead Space relies in part on "strategic dismemberment"--taking down aliens, one appendage at a time. For instance, severing the head from an enemy with slashing arms does little. If you cap his legs, however, he'll still approach you, but much more slowly.
According to Schofield, at times you'll be low on ammo and will need to use your gk gun creatively to survive. In one instance, if you use a regular weapon to dismember an enemy's sharp clawlike arm, it's possible to then grab the severed limb with the gk gun and use it to finish the creature off. As well as using your weapons and enemies' limbs, you'll be able to stomp on and kick enemies and will have to use some rapid button mashing to get smaller creatures off your back.
From what we could see of Dead Space's often dark, atmospheric, and eerie setting, the game looks promising, with subtle, detailed environments. Lighting effects, smoke, and other touches further the sense of isolation. While the parts we saw were mostly action-focused, EA has promised plenty of horror, but not necessarily much survival. Schofield said that you might go 20 minutes without bumping into anything actively trying to kill you, but those 20 minutes could make you "scared sh**less."
EA says that Dead Space, which is being developed at its Redwood Shores studio, is progressing well. The game is expected sometime this year, and EA hopes to be able to narrow down the launch window soon.