14 years is a long time in the video games industry, yet it still doesn't feel like quite long enough for EA’s Dead Space. The original 2008 game is a modern classic that holds up exceedingly well by today's standards. There's very little that feels dated about its design, and the strategic dismemberment that forms the basis of its combat still offers a unique and gory thrill that's yet to be replicated. The remake's leap in graphical fidelity breathes new life into its stifling horror, but public discourse has centered on whether it really needs to exist in the first place. That might be a cynical viewpoint, but it's no less valid. And after reaching the end credits myself, I'm still not entirely convinced it needs to either, yet I'm extremely happy it does. Remaking Dead Space in 2023 may not feel especially necessary, but EA Motive has crafted a game that manages to improve upon its excellent progenitor in a variety of ways--even if only marginally so.
These improvements begin with its story, which has been expanded via a number of alterations to both its characters and storytelling. The basic beats that make up the original game's narrative remain intact, starting with your fateful arrival on the USG Ishimura. After responding to a distress signal, you find the hulking planet cracker-class ship floating lifelessly above the planet of Aegis VII. Once on board, things take a familiar sharp turn downhill, but now once-silent protagonist Isaac Clarke has been given a voice to react appropriately. I'm generally not a fan of silent protagonists, although there's always a danger of vocal characters being overly chatty, especially in a horror game where atmosphere and tension are so delicate. Thankfully, that's not the case here, and Isaac's newfound agency makes him feel less like a simple tool to be ordered around. Actor Gunner Wright reprises the role after bringing Isaac to life in Dead Space's sequels, so there's a level of continuity here that's also reflected in other aspects of the remake's design.
Much of the script has been rewritten to accommodate Isaac's speech, and the tale it weaves is still engaging. The church of Unitology--a cultish religious sect that plays a significant role in the Dead Space universe--is much more prominent this time around, especially early on. Characters mention the infamous church in a way that feels natural, discussing the sect before they're aware of just how substantial its impact will be on future events. Kendra Daniels--one of Isaac's colleagues and your main point of contact throughout the game--has also been rewritten in a manner that elevates the remake. Previously she was prickly and leaned into some needlessly antagonistic behavior, but she's now been transformed into an empathetic character, which pays off down the line in a more effective way than before.
Structurally, the vast majority of the remake is identical to the original game, from the hectic dash to the elevator that follows the initial reveal of the zombie-like Necromorphs, to the vital task of disabling all of the Wheezers that are poisoning the air on the Hydroponics Deck. There are a few small level design changes sprinkled throughout, however, along with some notable gameplay improvements. For starters, the zero gravity sequences now let you leap from the ground and use your suit's thrusters to freely move around each area, rather than rigidly hopping from one surface to another. Being able to essentially fly through these segments makes them much more interesting than they were before, as you're forced to deal with enemies that can attack from any angle while orienting yourself to solve various puzzles. Some of these sections, like the Ishimura's hanger, have also expanded in scope, deviating from the design of the ship's innards to give you a bit more freedom to explore. Others, like the ADS cannon repair job, have been completely redesigned to ramp up the tension, shifting from a stale turret shooting gallery to a treacherous spacewalk, and this carries over into your fights against The Leviathan as well.
If you've played Dead Space 2 before, the freedom of movement in these redesigned zero-G segments will feel instantly familiar, and this is a consistent theme throughout this remake. The addition of special upgrades for each weapon in Isaac's arsenal of mining tools has also carried over from the 2011 sequel. You can attach a mod to the Plasma Cutter that causes its ammunition to set alight anything you shoot, dealing scalding burn damage over time, while another lets you use the Disc Ripper to ricochet sawblades that slice through multiple enemies. These mods are scattered throughout the Ishimura, so you're rewarded for searching every nook and cranny of the desolate mining vessel. A new security clearance system initially locks you out of certain rooms and lockers, though, but you'll gradually unlock higher clearance levels as you progress through the story.
[EA Motive's Dead Space remake] improves upon the original with some smart new additions to almost every aspect of its design.
This system feels like it was added in service of the inclusion of bespoke side quests, which task you with backtracking to previously explored areas of the ship. Having a reason to go back makes revisiting what were once locked doors feel organic--and the now-seamless travel between each part of the ship makes it feel like a genuine place--but the side quests themselves aren't particularly interesting from a gameplay perspective. Enemies occasionally crop up to provide an obstacle along familiar routes, but you can often backtrack in relative safety, and these quests essentially boil down to picking up an item or activating a previously recorded message. Attaining more background information on what happened aboard the Ishimura before everything went to hell is a narrative treat at least, particularly if you're invested in the series' lore, but it's a shame these side quests aren't more involved.
Unlike the aforementioned upgrades, the primary fire modes for each weapon have largely remained the same as in the original game. However, a few of Isaac's repurposed firearms have entirely new secondary functions. The Pulse Rifle's alternate fire was formerly only really useful when completely surrounded by enemies, letting you hunker down to envelop yourself in a hail of bullets. This took a hefty toll on your ammunition and there were very few opportunities to use it without feeling like a waste. For the remake, Isaac's Pulse Rifle now comes equipped with a dual-purpose proximity mine that functions as either a trap or a makeshift grenade launcher. I found myself using this and the secondary fire modes on other weapons more often than I ever did in the original Dead Space, largely because they introduce an additional layer of strategy to each encounter with the ship's infestation of Necromorphs. The Flamethrower's new secondary fire mode is another good example, providing you with the option to shoot a wall of flame that can separate enemies by cordoning them off from one another with a fiery blaze.
Out of all the revised weapons, however, it's the Force Gun that stands out amongst the crowd. Previously, this mid-game weapon was little more than a tool for pushing enemies away. Now, it's been redesigned to unleash a thunderous blast of energy that rips skin and muscle clean off the bone. It's a delightfully gruesome weapon that makes exquisite use of the remake's new peeling system, which looks just as gross as it sounds.
The remake's overhauled visuals are phenomenal across the board, bringing the Ishimura's suffocatingly grim bowels to life with a disgusting sheen. It's an iconic location for a reason, and the visual upgrade and sheer attention to detail contribute to it feeling more lived in than ever. That’s true whether it's the abandoned suitcases strewn across the arrival lounge, the cramped crew quarters and the glimpse they offer into the dreary existence of those working aboard the ship, or the posters for a product described as a "carbonated hard bar" providing the only semblance of color amongst its metal-carved hallways. The peeling system is one facet of the remake's improved graphical fidelity, and it has a delightful impact on each combat encounter. It ensures that skin, fat, and muscle layers are ripped off enemies with each successive wound, making the exposed bones vulnerable to snapping in half from a well-placed round or two. The green light running up the spine of Isaac's suit is a visual indicator of his health, and this makes the Necromorph's own bodies a reminder of theirs.
Dead Space's combat still feels somewhat fresh because of the way it foregoes genre conventions where the headshot is king. Necromorphs can only be killed by slicing off their limbs, and it remains incredibly satisfying using weapons like the Plasma Cutter to lop them off at the legs before blasting away at their elongated arms as they desperately crawl toward you. The peeling system only enhances the experience, especially when using the Force Gun's secondary fire. This shoots out a gravity well that pulls enemies towards it, ripping their corpuscles off in the process. Like many of the weapon's secondary fire modes, this is rife for experimentation. You might set off a trap, using the gravity well to pull a bunch of enemies into one clump before burning them all with the flamethrower or using the Plasma Cutter to break through their now bare bones. For as great as the original Dead Space was, repetition did settle in during its final couple of hours, but the remake's added strategy and the variety of tools you're able to play around with prevent this from happening again.
It's impossible to expect the Dead Space remake to be as transformative as something like the Resident Evil 2 remake was. The generational leap isn't as grand and so much about it feels inherently familiar to the 2008 original, such is the way EA Motive has weaved its changes into the Dead Space mold. The new side quests might leave a lot to be desired, but every other addition contributes to a remake that stays true to its progenitor while also improving upon it in a number of ways. Newcomers and hardcore Dead Space fans will get the most out of the experience, but this is now the quintessential way to play one of the survival horror genre's best.