Unless it's Madden under that welding mask, EA must be serious about adding variety to its portfolio of familiar licences. Dead Space isn't based on a sport, a children's novel, or a sport in a children's novel. It's not family friendly - it's not particularly friendly at all - and it's certainly not casual. In fact, it's a chance to remember how broad EA's output can be: this isn't from the company that made endless Sims 2 expansions, it's from the company that sits back patiently waiting for Spore to come to the boil, and recently allowed Criterion to drive Burnout so far out of its comfort zone.
But it's not all good news. Dead Space's plot, detailing engineer Isaac Clarke's fight against the mutating alien Necromorphs aboard the Ishimura, a vast mining spaceship, seems to have been constructed in the dark from a limited selection of flashcards, and many of the game's elements - from the over-the-shoulder camera to the derelict spacehulk setting - are not hard to trace back to their original lineages within other companies' IP. A certain degree of educated theft seems to be the norm for survival-horror, but Dead Space goes further than you might expect, taking clichs from both science-fiction and monster movies and creating a perfect storm of the abstractly familiar.
That doesn't mean it isn't effective, however, and perhaps that's because, deep down, Dead Space doesn't have the loftiest of goals. "Today's demo is all about scaring the pants off you," says Derek Chan, the game's global product manager, before adding, possibly under threat of immediate termination, "It's also about polish and innovation."
It's soon clear that what it's really all about is atmosphere. The first sign is the dimming of the demo room lights - a masterstroke from the developers that ensures that half my notes end up written on my leg. What follows is a walkthrough, and subsequent hands-on, with the second chapter of the game - a chillsome plod around the Ishimura's medical wing.
Dead Space is certainly effective. While the design may be pedestrian - a sparking mess of heating ducts and smashed containment chambers, so generic as to be perversely comforting - the pacing and staging is often brilliant. Playing out in what are essentially a series of closed-off arenas, the game has a natural understanding of the correct balance of action and anticipation, and is constantly messing with its audiences' expectations. No monsters burst from these closets: most rooms, when first glimpsed through blinking overheads and flickering computer screens, initially appear empty, threats only sneaking into your peripheral vision after you've started to let yourself feel comfortable.
Making the most of a genuinely creepy soundtrack of clicks and gasps and full-bodied roars, the Necromorphs lurk and circle and wait, only rushing out - always nearer than anticipated - at the last minute. The stop-start blasts of intense, close-up violence that follow - tentacles lash around and talons plunge through skin - are then followed by further uneasy pauses before the second-wave attacks.
The whole process is aided by the intentionally sluggish pacing: whether it's crossing a room, reloading a weapon, or waiting for a door to slide open, everything takes a very long time to happen in Dead Space - a brilliant bit of Kubrickian design that elevates even the most mundane encounters.
Pacing isn't the only trick on display here. Other nice touches include the combat, which requires you to approach every type of Necromorph differently. Able to sprout limbs at will, it's essential to learn which body part of each flavour of beast to target first, taking it down before it evolves into something nastier. The development team are calling this "strategic dismemberment", and it works to turn each encounter into something of a puzzle. Tthe result, if you get it wrong, is often an animation of your head being ripped off.
The HUD is another elegant piece of implementation, placing all critical information within the world rather than plastered on top of the screen. Health is displayed by a strand of lights on the main character's spine, taking a cue from RoboBlitz (hopefully the only thing the developers have chosen to borrow). Equally, all guns have ammo meter holograms projected above them, and if you get lost, as you often will in this identikit dereliction of hallways and morgues, a click of the right-stick will project guidance markers onto the floor below you. Even the QTE button prompts sprout from the player's back - a somewhat annoying piece of cleverness, as it's all too easy to lose sight of them when you turn around during battles.
Guns are more of a mixed bag, shallow clips prescribing a measured style of play as survival-horrors tend to do. There's also a dizzying array of upgrades - including an unnecessary time-slowing function and an oddly clunky implementation of Half-Life 2's gravity gun - which suggests that Dead Space may be trying to take on too much. It's yet to be seen whether the rest of the game can comfortably provide the kind of variety to justify such an all-inclusive arsenal.
Over-complication may not be the only worry. As ever, the steady stream of choreographed shocks means that Dead Space is shaping up to be an extremely scripted game. Puzzle sections, such as the physics-bending zero-gravity rooms which allow you to walk the walls, turning geography into a challenge in a hunt for the exit, may mix things up somewhat, but even in the space of a short demo, you'll have ample time to tire slightly at the thought of replaying the same corridor, with the same surprises occurring at exactly the same moment each time.
To be fair, it's a problem none of Dead Space's peers have been able to shake, either, and perhaps the scripting simply goes with the territory. At least EA's game is confident in what it is: when the lights go out and the monsters flood in, you're left under no illusions that you're experiencing anything other than a fancy ghost train. It may suffer on repeated playthroughs, but for those willing to stump up the cost of the ticket, this slick and well-poised game could still be a lot of fun first time around the track. Dead Space isn't perfect, then, but it's already looking like a product with the unmistakable heft of hard work behind it. Success or failure, EA will struggle to churn out one of these every year.
Dead Space is due out on PC, 360 and PS3 on 31st October.