In space, only the dead survive.
Dead Space is an original survival-horror title developed in-house by Electronic Arts, and features a heavily modified version of the game engine used for The Godfather: The Game. The game takes place aboard the USG Ishimura, a "planet cracker"-type of mining starship. Players control Isaac Clarke, a starship engineer dispatched to the Ishimura after it sends out a distress call. Once aboard, it rapidly becomes apparent that a previously-unknown alien force has taken over the ship, and Isaac must use his wide array of modified tools to help combat the alien menace and restore the ship to working order.
Dead Space's most interesting draw is two-fold: the revolutionary combat system, and the setting and atmosphere of the game. Because Isaac is using things like industrial saws and plasma cutters and not rifles or handguns to fight, the game relies on dealing lines of damage to dismember or decapitate enemies. In fact, attempting to blast most enemies head-on will result in a lot of wasted ammunition and a swift death. It's a very novel approach, especially for anyone who's already familiar with FPS games, since it requires unlearning the "headshot reflex".
The atmosphere takes the best elements from the other classics in the survival horror genre. Running around in the Ishimura echoes the same sort of paranoid claustrophobia from the UNN Rickenbacker, with a distinct heavy-industrial twist. The perspective is third person, in the same style of Resident Evil 4 or Gears of War. Isaac's armor draws lightly on Roman styles, with an extremely distinctive helmet and inch-thick bands of metal running along his arms and torso. None of the HUD elements are actually painted onscreen as a player abstraction. Instead, the ammo counters, Isaac's inventory, map, and communications systems are all holographic and only show up when needed, and all of them are set up as if Isaac himself were using them.
Dead Space is poised to become one of the classics in a genre that is an all-or-nothing endeavor. It's been favorably compared to most of the genre classics, and while it's not quite a revolutionary title in the sense that the original Silent Hill or Resident Evil were, it's an extremely solid game. It's got loads of style, but more than that, it's gripping in a way that demands you call in sick to work, darken all the lights in your computer room, and blast through it in one sitting.
The story is simple, but compelling. Isaac Clarke is an engineer working for the Concordance Extraction Corporation. When the CEC receives a distress call from the USG Ishimura in orbit around the planet Aegis 7, Isaac and four other employees are dispatched to investigate and make repairs. On the way there, Isaac receives a message from his girlfriend, Nicole Brennan, who is stationed aboard the Ishimura. The message appears to date from before the distress beacon was activated.
Isaac & co. are forced to crash-land on the Ishimura, and mere minutes after they enter the ship and start looking around for the missing crew, two of them are torn apart by terrifying humanoid aliens, named necromorphs. Isaac is separated from Kendra and Hammond by necessity as he attempts to get the tram system running. The situation never quite gets better; just as Isaac manages to fix a major problem on the ship, something else goes wrong. Then, Isaac discovers that not all of the crew is dead yet.
The combat system is fantastic. The weapons are all primarily the sort of industrial repair tool you'd expect to find on a starship, with the exception of a pulse rifle that Isaac is able to manufacture with the help of the shop system. My personal favorites are the Ripper, an remote industrial saw that uses a gravity beam to actually control and handle the saw from a distance, and the Force Gun, a modified jackhammer of sorts that projects entire walls of force at short range. Isaac also has a stasis projector and a telekinesis module at his disposal; judicious application of stasis, as well as using TK to throw junk at enemies, is critical to saving ammo at higher levels. All of the weapons, as well as Isaac's RIG (a combination of a personal computer and air recirculation and health systems)and the TK and Stasis modules are upgradable and customizable. It's entirely possible to complete the game with any combination of weapons, or even just one of them. In fact, there are Achievements/Trophies on the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions for doing just that.
Each deck has a very distinct flavor to it, and the zero-gravity and vacuum areas are better than anything I've ever played before. The first time you hit vacuum is particularly notable; Isaac's airtank kicks in, and the only sounds you can hear after that are his labored breathing and vibrations that go through his suit, such as the clangs of his boots on the deck. The sound work that went into this is on a level with the design in System Shock 2. You can hear necromorphs scuttling through the vents overhead and knocking stuff over in the next room and the ship itself is prone to spectacular failures and power outages in certain sectors. The music is striking without being intrusive: enemy appearances will fire off musical "stingers", but this doesn't always happen as soon as you see them, and it's entirely possible to hear a stinger but not see any enemies.
The game is very suited to replays. The upgrade system is purposely designed so that you will not be able to max out any weapon on your first playthrough without sacrificing performance on almost all of the others. As a nice bonus, starting a new game from a cleared save game will start you off with all of the upgrades you've purchased in previous playthroughs. The only catch is that you cannot change the difficulty level on cleared save games. Because of the versatility of the weapons, it's definitely worth trying to play through and use only a single weapon, especially the basic plasma cutter.
Like every other video game, this one isn't without its faults. If you're a veteran of the survival horror genre, I'd recommend starting on Hard from the beginning, as Medium seems to be a lot more generous about ammo drops. The story itself is fairly linear, in the same way that the Half-Life or Resident Evil games are; whether or not this is an actual problem is left as an exercise to the player. The PC version suffers from some minor mouse slowdown, but disabling the VSync (left on by default) clears this up 95% of the time, and if you have a PC-compatible Xbox 360 controller, Dead Space will detect and autoconfigure for it. If you buy the game for PS3 or Xbox 360, there are some fancy DLC suits you can purchase, but they are considered level 5 suits by the game, which will prevent you from changing to any others until you get another level 5 or better suit.
Dead Space is right up there with Half-Life 2, System Shock 2, Resident Evil 4, and a slew of other games that I make the time to replay every so often, just to remind myself what's possible with the genre in this day and age. This game plays to its strengths, and it's definitely worth a rental if you're not sure about it. If you're a fan of survival horror games, I'd pick it up, no questions asked.