I love the original Dead Space so much. It's my favorite survival-horror game. Nabbing every Xbox Achievement in that game happened more on accident than anything else. I just played the game enough times that one day I powered on the Xbox 360 and happened to notice I was one Achievement short (and before you ask, yes it was "Don't get cocky, kid"--that Achievement is such utter bulls**t). I can call out all the jump scares and pretty much every spoken line in that game beat-for-beat with embarrassing accuracy, and unfortunately can tell you the location of practically every audio file and power node from memory.
So it was wild to play the opening three chapters of the upcoming Dead Space remake and get genuinely spooked or surprised playing Dead Space again. Despite appearances, this remake is more than a facelift of Visceral Games' 2008 survival horror game (though it does enhance the original's visuals by a significant margin). Motive Studio has redesigned parts of the game's setting, the USG Ishimura, to create a more interconnected environment with more narrative details to discover, allowing Dead Space to better fit into the overall lore of the franchise it spawned, which now includes sequels, spin-off games, movies, and comics. This remake is still Dead Space, but it's a Dead Space where parts of it feel brand-new again, even to a long-time fan like me.
Dead Space is a game that puts you into the heavy boots of Isaac Clarke, an engineer assigned to check out a distress beacon issued by the USG Ishimura alongside chief security officer Zach Hammond and computer technician Kendra Daniels. Isaac has a personal stake in the mission's success, as his long-time girlfriend, Nicole Brennan, is aboard the Ishimura, serving as the massive spaceship's senior medical officer. Upon reaching the Ishimura, the team discovers it's been overrun by monstrous undead abominations of the ship's crew, dubbed necromorphs, and the trio works together to escape before they too are claimed as victims.
As an engineer, Isaac is not an experienced fighter. Instead, he combats the hordes of necromorphs with engineering and maintenance equipment that have been customized into makeshift weapons. The necromorphs are heavily mutated creatures and don't respond to damage in the same way humans would--in fact, attacking major organs in the torso and head generally only makes them stronger. Instead, Isaac has to systematically defeat his foes, using precision to cut off their arms and legs to ultimately defeat them.
This remake doesn't seem to make many changes to how combat works in Dead Space. Instead, Motive Studio has looked to Dead Space 2, using a lot of the narrative and quality of life improvements Visceral Games designed in the sequel to improve upon some of the confusing or more frustrating aspects of the original game's story and exploration.
Allowing Isaac the agency to speak is a huge improvement right off the bat. I know that's controversial and there's going to be a lot of folks who disagree with me, but it will never not make sense to me that Isaac, the engineer--aka, the only one actually qualified to come up with ideas to fix the Ishimura--never speaks his mind in the original Dead Space. It's so weird that he's never suggesting solutions or theorizing possible avenues forward; he only takes orders without complaint.
It's a sentiment that Motive Studio agrees with and so the remake fixes this disparity. Many of the ideas for how to fix the Ishimura actually come from Isaac himself now. "When we stopped to think a bit more about the levels and the objectives and stuff, there was one thing that felt a bit off in Dead Space was the sense of no great immersion [in who Isaac] is," Dead Space creative director Roman Campos-Oriola told GameSpot. "You were lacking a little bit of agency. You're supposed to be the engineer, Isaac's supposed to know what he's doing. He's not a rookie, but you're constantly being told what to do, how to do it."
As a result, Isaac needed a voice to convey his knowledge and so existing conversations have been slightly reworded so that ideas that pertain to fixing the ship or figuring out what tech is needed to continue forward usually come from Isaac, as opposed to the likes of Hammond or Daniels. That said, Isaac hasn't become as talkative as he is in Dead Space 2.
"One important element of the world of Dead Space is the feeling of isolation and doing things when you're scared like you've got to go to the base when it's all dark--like what the f**k is this?" Campos-Oriola said. As such, Isaac doesn't quip save for two established moments. He really only speaks when spoken to, so he'll respond to others but rarely initiate the conversation. So, thankfully, the remake won't try to undercut Dead Space's tension with unnecessary dialogue. According to Motive--and based on what I've seen of the first three chapters--Isaac's voice is just there to further sell his expertise as an engineer, nothing more.
The remake also reworks how the zero-gravity sections of Dead Space work so that they more closely resemble how they feel in the sequels. So instead of leaping from one spot to another, Isaac takes off into the air and has full control over his movement. This has drastically shifted how certain puzzles in Dead Space work--reactivating the Centrifuge in Chapter 3 is now a far less frustrating challenge for example. You don't have to slowly move around the room or awkwardly leap around to grab and shift the two generators into place. You can just jet from one side of the room to the other.
The biggest takeaway from Dead Space 2, however, is remaking Dead Space so that the entire experience is one, continuous shot. Dead Space does this by adding brand-new sections between each chapter. Isaac no longer rides the tram from one part of the ship to the other, he has to physically get there on his own. Once there, he can reactivate that section's tram system and then use the tram to return to previously unlocked tram stations whenever he wants. But on your first time to each part of the Ishimura, you're walking.
That can mean you're traversing through brand-new corridors that didn't exist in the original game (which is the case now between Chapters 1 and 2) or taking spacewalks outside the Ishimura's hull to get around (which is now required between Chapters 2 and 3). This change allows the Ishimura to be completely traversable over time, allowing you to backtrack to previously visited areas to further explore.
"[Dead Space] is still a linear experience," Campos-Oriola clarified. "But there are some things we added to build on top of that material. The first thing is actually how you progress through the ship and retrace your steps--and sometimes something like that was already built in that space, like in Chapter 5 when you come back to Medical... And on top of that, we've added some side content that you'll be able to notice to let the player see what's happened for some of the characters on the ship, and the number one thing for me, the number one motivation for Isaac is going to the Ishimura is to be reunited with Nicole."
Campos-Oriola went on to make the point to me that despite Isaac going to the Ishimura to specifically look for Nicole, he does very little of that in the original game. "You're kind of looking for her but not that much," he said, chuckling. And that's true. Because he never speaks in the original game, Isaac never expresses concern for Nicole after learning the Ishimura is overrun by murderous undead creatures, and none of the objectives see him taking the time to look for her throughout the ship, even when he stops by the Medical Bay where she works.
The remake addresses that storytelling shortcoming, including an optional side quest where Isaac can follow Nicole's trail throughout the Ishimura during the days leading up to and during the necromorph outbreak. The quest kicks off in Chapter 2 when you first visit the Medical Bay if you choose to track down Nicole's hidden workstation, where you can find a hologram recording of Nicole theorizing that something is wrong and there's more going on than a few missing people and mysterious deaths, saying she's going to Engineering to confirm her findings. You can find another recording of Nicole there once Isaac makes his way to that deck, and the pattern continues from that point, seeing Isaac leapfrog his way through the ship in a desperate search for his missing girlfriend.
So far, I really like what Motive Studio has done regarding story changes to Dead Space, bringing it more in line with the overall series in a way the original game simply couldn't because it was what kicked off the franchise in the first place. "The changes or adjustments we made to the story and all the lore of the original game were us trying to have more connections to not only Dead Space 2, but the whole franchise. I cannot give you too many examples because it could be a spoiler, but we've tried to add more connections to Dead Space 2 and also to other pieces in the world of the Dead Space universe--the books and [animated movies]. We have some Easter eggs or raw elements that acknowledge the existence of what came before [Dead Space 1's story] and all foreshadow what would come after."
"We're going to have some fun, little surprises for the players, especially the ones that know about the lore, so I encourage them to keep their eyes peeled and look around the environment for some fun stuff," art director Mike Yazijian added.
The Dead Space remake makes a lot of other smart quality-of-life improvements too. For instance, power node-locked doors are gone, meaning you no longer have to use a rare power node to unlock a door and sacrifice a chance to upgrade Isaac's weapons or armor. Instead, certain doors in the environment now have gated clearance access, which Isaac earns throughout the game--unlocking these doors is a reward for progressing in the story, not scouring for an item.
Additionally, the remake has added new complexity to puzzles that rely on using power sources. In some cases, when Isaac inserts a power cell into a waiting slot, he can now mess with a nearby circuit breaker to redirect where that power goes. So maybe you need to use a power cell to open a door, but doing so will take away energy from the room's lights, plunging you into darkness. This adds a surprising amount of replay value to certain sections of the game. For example, there is now a moment in Dead Space where to progress, you have to take away power from either the lights or life support. I chose the former, and thus had to slowly wade through a giant room in the dark, with necromorphs slowly surrounding me. My coworker, senior video producer Jean-Luc Seipke, picked the latter and instead of slowly making his way through the space, he had to dash through it as Isaac's oxygen slowly depleted.
Within the same space, we had largely different experiences. And the coolest thing about this moment is that this room already exists in the original Dead Space. The only difference is that in the original game, all you have to do is flip some switches. There's no darkness or lack of oxygen present in the original experience, but the addition of either one adds tension to the familiar situation. As far as Jean-Luc and I could tell, it's the same number of enemies spawning in the same places, but when you suddenly have to fight in the dark or rush through the encounter in order to not suffocate, it's suddenly a little harrowing and very stressful.
The remake ditches weapon schematics too, which feels like a stronger narrative choice. Isaac isn't finding the plans for weapons and buying what he needs from a shop anymore. Instead, much like the Plasma Cutter, he's foraging his tools and making do with what he finds. The idea that a store is fabricating makeshift weapons for Isaac always seemed a bit off to me, so I like the idea that now he's basically this everyday engineer only managing to get through this experience by using whatever he can find across the Ishimura.
From what I've seen, Isaac finds new weapons just prior to entering an area where said weapon becomes extremely useful, encouraging players to immediately experiment with their evolving arsenal and determine what's worth keeping on hand and what can go into storage. For example, Isaac now retrieves the Pulse Rifle from a dying soldier upon entering the Medical Bay, which is when he starts becoming trapped in merciless combat encounters where he's swarmed by multiple necromorphs at once. The Pulse Rifle's primary automatic fire and motion sensor grenade alt fire are more suited for these scenarios than the powerful but slow shots of the Plasma Cutter. Similarly, Isaac now discovers the Flamethrower in Chapter 3, just prior to encountering Swarmers. Using the Plasma Cutter to shoot each individual wiggling piece of flesh is a terrible waste of ammunition--but the wide flames of the Flamethrower are ideally suited to clearing groups of weak enemies.
In spite of all these changes, nothing is so glaringly different that it feels like the remake is an entirely new experience. It's still Dead Space, just a slightly different Dead Space. And of what I've played so far, I like this version more. Motive Studio has found a way to take my favorite survival-horror game and make it even better.
"When we worked on [the original] Dead Space, there was a lot of things that we wanted to do for the game at that time that we couldn't because of technical limitations of the engine and the tools that we had," Yazijian said. "There's this process that we went through at the beginning of the project and as hardcore fans of Dead Space we wanted to stay true to the original, and we have the utmost respect and love and care towards the original. So, for every single thing that we did, we waited, we thought about it. We had this long process where we go, 'We don't want to mess with it if it's good, and only add something to it to enhance the experience, enhance the visuals.'"
He continued: "When you compare [the two games] side by side, our goal is to make sure that, from a distance, we can play [the Dead Space remake] and it feels like the original game but it's a more realistic, just an overall better working experience... We didn't want to do things to pull you out of it and we followed the same exact [learnings] that we did in Dead Space."
If anything, I'm most curious about the end of the Dead Space remake. The final chapters of Dead Space are the weaker part of the game, featuring a frustrating moment with the Asteroid Defense System cannon where you have to blast asteroids, a disappointingly action-focused final boss fight, and several characters who aren't super memorable. If anything, I'd like to see the remake make far more noticeable changes in the latter half of the story. I don't expect the remake to outright rewrite what happens, but I think those chapters are where Motive Studio can make a storytelling nudge or two to help transform a game as great as Dead Space into something spectacular.
If you want to hear more about the game, I recommend checking out Jean-Luc's video about his time with the Dead Space remake. He's got his own take on what we played and theories on where the remake could go, plus plenty of gameplay that showcases just how creepily beautiful this game looks. Dead Space is scheduled to launch for Xbox Series X|S, PS5, and PC on January 27, 2023.
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