I still vividly remember the afternoon I first played Dead Space, ten years ago today. The release date had been moved up by two weeks, and I was so excited to finally play a new survival horror game that I could barely stand it. After work I went straight to my local game store (I miss Play N Trade), rushed home, turned off all the lights in my room, and booted up my Xbox 360. Then all that joy I felt quickly turned into a frenzied panic as I made my way through the darkened halls of the USG Ishimura, a colossal spacecraft with hallways drenched in gallons of blood and oozing atmosphere, waiting for the next grotesque monster to jump out and scare the bejeezus out of me… And I loved it almost every second of it.
Even a decade later, Dead Space is still the scariest game I’ve ever played. While the action horror sequel, Dead Space 2 may be the best in the series, the original will always hold a special place in my heart.
For those who haven’t played Dead Space (you should), it’s a survival horror game that takes place far in the future and puts you in the shoes of Isaac Clarke, an engineer tasked with fixing a mining spacecraft and meeting up with his girlfriend who lives aboard it. Unfortunately, things go horribly, horribly wrong and you end up having to fight your way through the undead crew that number in the thousands to try and escape the Ishimura with not only your life, but your sanity. It’s the stuff horror legends are made of.
I’ve played through Dead Space at least a dozen times by now, so it doesn’t scare me as much as it used to, but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t spooky. Necromorphs, the undead and hideously transformed crew of the USG Ishimura, are some of the most unsettling enemies in gaming, and they still creeped me during my most recent playthrough. From the slashers, the “normal” variant, to the guardians, the most unfortunate of the crew who retain their memories but are stuck to walls and can do nothing but attack you as they wail in agony, I don’t think I’ll ever feel anything close to comfortable when fighting them, no matter how many more times I play through Dead Space. It’s like they’re the brain child of John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, the perfect mesh of body horror and alien monsters. And speaking of aliens and famous filmmakers, the setting, ambience, and the ingenuity of both the extraterrestrial menace and protagonist evoke strong feelings similar to the ones I felt when first watching Ridley Scott’s 1979 film.
Despite these strong inspirations, Dead Space never feels like an imitation. It’s definitely paying homage to these classics, but Dead Space is still confident enough to be its own thing, and not John Carpenter’s thing.
Get it? Because he directed The Thing? Whatever, I’m hilarious.
Anyway, Dead Space still has the best HUD (Heads Up Display) in all of gaming. Your health, ammo, and skills are all displayed on your character, making the already stellar immersion that much more effective. Your inventory and shops are all activated in real time too, which means you can’t even relax when deciding what to buy or sell. I still remember screaming a few expletives the first (and only) time I got attacked from behind while deciding what items to drop so I could make room for more ammo…
While the combat may not be quite as memorable as the enemies, environment, or story (which is best experienced with as little information as possible), it’s still terrific. Using different futuristic engineering tools instead of conventional weapons (although you do get a couple of guns eventually) makes Isaac seem like an improvisational badass without sacrificing the feeling of struggling to survive. The plasma cutter is one of my favorite weapons in all of gaming, and the dismemberment system (you have to cut/shoot of the limbs of Necromorphs to kill them) is still one of the best combat mechanics I’ve seen in the genre. If you freak out and go for the head, odds are it’ll only make whatever is trying to kill you run at you even faster.
The only issues I have with Dead Space stem from two different gameplay mechanics, the ones found in the zero-g locations and the gunner sequences. The aiming, jumping, and landing in zero gravity feels a little clunky, but it’s mostly forgivable. The gunner sequences however, are just bad, and have only gotten worse with age. The times you’re forced to protect the Ishimura from incoming debris and asteroids are the only low points in the entire game. It breaks the immersion for me each time, and the aiming controls are painfully sluggish or frustratingly fast depending on your controller settings. The one time I failed to protect the ship on this playthrough, it felt like the game killed me rather than I had died by making a mistake, and that’s how I’ve always remembered those parts.
Even with my minor complaints, Dead Space is still the gold standard for horror survival games. Although I’ve memorized most of it by now, I was still caught off guard by a few jump scares, creeped out by its unnerving monsters, and invested enough in the story to finish it fairly quickly yet again. Here’s hoping that those of you who haven’t played Dead Space will give it a shot (you can play it on PS3, Xbox 360, PC, and Xbox One through backwards compatibility) and that EA eventually revives the franchise, giving it the ending it deserves.