Horror fans will find a lot to like in Dead Space but great core gameplay isn't enough to make up for its flaws.
It is important to point out that there are many excellent features about Dead Space; the game is certainly atmospheric, and the gameplay is solid. The technical proficiency of the graphics can be rather astounding, and although the visual design suffers from a lack of variety, it is still rather excellent. Dead Space puts you in the reinforced metal boots of deep space miner Isaac Clarke and drops you onto the USG Ishimura after receiving an SOS from the troubled space ship. It doesn't take long for Isaac, and the player, to realise that something is very wrong on the Ishimura. The ship's crew appear to all dead, bar a few lucky survivors, and many limbed alien beasts now roam its many corridors. Your job, as an engineer, is to survive long enough to escape the Ishimura; which is of course far more difficult than it sounds. The enemies you face throughout the game are the Necromorphs, hideous many limbed mutants of unknown origin who are not scared of a shot to the head. These relentless attackers cannot be easily dispatched in such a simple manner and here lies the core idea of Dead Space, EAs Visceral Games studio (the studio behind Dead Space) call it strategic dismemberment, the basic idea being shoot the limbs off your enemies. The strategy comes into play by the effect each limb removal has on the enemy. Your basic necromorph has scythe like hands, so to disarm him it is best to literally take off his arms with carefully aimed shots, thus rendering him less of a threat. When confronted with a large crowd of enemies the best thing to do is slice off a few legs to slow them down, giving you more time to sort out the situation. This style of gameplay is quite exciting; it's a dramatic shift from the usual third person shooter, and helps Dead Space to stand out as a different game. The weapons on offer are mostly futuristic mining tools and all have alternate fire modes (some more useful than others). The guns are therefore not like your usual assault rifles or pistols and are better suited to chopping of limbs than conventional weaponry would be, thus meaning your aiming still has to be precise but not stupidly so.
The core combat mechanics in Dead Space are very inventive but the ways they are utilised fail to live up to this. As well as the ability to shoot your gun you also have limited telekinesis and stasis, the first lets you pick up objects without using your hands and lets you propel them as weapons if you so wish and the latter can freeze enemies for a short period, and many other objects. The primary use of both powers is basic puzzle solving and both derive from your mining suit. Isaac is no super soldier, he is just an engineer and engineers need telekinesis and stasis in the future. Even with these powers, combat still becomes more of a chore towards the end and certain uninventive or cheap enemies just end up in frustration. The game just ends up as a series of drawn out corridor crawls and overlong combat sections that, after a while, just stop being fun. Dead Space is supposed to be a horror game, and some may find it terrifying, but it really isn't that scary. There are many predictable jump scares but little else, a necromorph feigning death only to jump up and try and kill you will give you a shock the first time but later on it is a mere annoyance. This is the game's main problem, as far as gameplay goes, the game makes a good job of making ammo scarce enough for each enemy encounter to be tense but really the sense of dread you feel before every corner is not fear, but the knowledge that a potentially frustrating and probably drawn out combat segment could be round the next bend. There are also far too many corridors, the isolated feeling of the ship is executed perfectly, and the artistic design is really rather good, but constant corridor crawling seems like a waste of the lovely graphics engine. There are of course some jaw dropping visual moments, some large rooms look excellent and even some corridors look amazing; like one or two that have giant holes that you can see the eternity of space through. Moments like this are genuinely fantastic to look at and the attention to detail in the game is just brilliant, that coupled with great textures makes for one of the best looking games of 2008.
Dead Space's visual presentation is its greatest strength, the most interesting part of this being the complete lack of heads up display (or HUD). A gauge on the back of your suit represents your health and a small pop up on your gun tells you how much ammo you have, other touches like mission objectives popping up on a futuristic holographic screen (the kind you would see in Star Wars) from your suit, a suit that can also provide you with a glowing line leading the way to your next objective; a very useful addition. This minimal look and your silent and faceless protagonist make for an immersive experience; the loss of certain gamey elements is a good thing, and makes the game more tense. You feel in the action and you can't pause the action to look at a map or your objective, it all happens in real time. This makes for an arguably better system than not being able to move while aiming; the tension in Dead Space is created just as well as in games like Resident Evil, but in a more player friendly manner. The novel gameplay and lack of HUD make Dead Space a rather flashy and interesting game on the surface, but beneath this shiny exterior lay several flaws.
Visceral Games were clearly inspired by certain other games when developing Dead Space, most noticeably Bioshock. The game borrows many elements from Bioshock, and is in some ways better for it, but it just opens up comparisons and makes Dead Space look like a weaker game for it. The more noticeable comparisons include a constant guiding disembodied voice, a story told through audio logs, upgrading weapons at stations, an eerily similar atmosphere and some repetitive mission objectives. In Bioshock however these all feel like they are there for a reason whereas in Dead Space they feel like they are there because the people making the game really liked Bioshock. Dead Space does have a really great atmosphere but it feels ripped straight from 2Ks deep sea shooter, there are even some slight moments that are almost too reminiscent. The issue here is that it seems in emulating the fantastic Bioshock the people at Visceral games didn't quite grasp what made the game so good. Instead of concentrating on a well crafted story with a great amount of depth they focused on improving the gameplay. Admittedly the gameplay of Bioshock, where pure shooting is involved, was its weakest part, but in improving this, the developers of Dead Space have neglected the other areas of the game. The sense of grandeur of Bioshock, where every location carried its own identity, is lost in Dead Space. Rather than continuing to dazzle you, Dead Space plays its best cards early on. In all honesty, the most imagination is present in the first level where everything feels new.
The story in Dead Space is a prominent feature, it is told like in Bioshock, from the narration of others. Disembodied voices, chance appearances of other survivors and audio logs supply the narrative and hint towards greater depth to the tale. This is certainly true of Bioshock anyway, which has a very profound and philosophical story, unfortunately the same cannot be said of Dead Space. The story is certainly interesting, and you will want to know what is going on, but it is not that deep. The game seems happy enough to give you little teases of possible depth but never really fulfilling its promise; the first half of the game is also rather story light and the whole thing just whiffs of missed potential. People expecting a narrative as intelligent as the one in Bioshock will be sadly disappointed, there is a clever (and possibly mind bending) story to be found in Dead Space but only if you don't think about it too hard and just go with it. All in all the story is really rather disappointing, brief glimpses into a greater- and far more interesting- universe of fiction beyond the core story just aren't enough to keep the more intellectually inclined gamer involved for long.
It would be a definite wrong to say Dead Space is a bad game, in fact it is far from it; Dead Space is a technically excellent game. However it is just too derivative at its heart, its unique features are interesting for a while but when they wear out they expose a shallow imitation of greater games. If Dead Space had the courage to be its own game it would benefit greatly for it, but as it stands Dead Space is a really great game that doesn't quite reach excellence. There is a lot of fun to be had in this horror shooter but anybody wanting a deeper experience outside of the core gameplay should either pick up Bioshock or put their copy back in the PS3.