Full disclosure: I love Event Horizon. I own the odd-looking limited edition box set DVD, and cherish it despite it being precisely the wrong size to fit on any DVD shelves. I've seen it sufficiently often that I can probably lip-sync to most of the really good scenes.
It's important you understand this, because without the same appreciation for "Paul Anderson's Good Film" (as very much distinct from all of Paul Anderson's other films), you won't be instantly grabbed by the premise of Dead Space - EA's latest foray into developing original games, and potentially the start of a new horror series.
Set 500 years in the future, Dead Space casts you as Isaac Clarke, an engineer who is dispatched into deep space with a small shuttle crew to find out why the enormous Ishimura mining ship has lost contact with Earth. Several kilometres long and capable of strip-mining an entire planet, the Ishimura is a formidable vessel, and home to over a thousand crew. When you arrive, however, it's quiet, cold and dead - but as you attempt to restart the ship's systems, you discover that whatever disposed of the original crew is still lurking in the shadows...
A dimension of pure chaos
You can see where the Event Horizon comparisons come in, then - and indeed, we rather suspect that Anderson's film has been a major inspiration for Dead Space (are we conspiracy theorists for noting the protagonist's surname, Clarke, matches up with Event Horizon's rescue ship, the Lewis and Clarke?). The atmosphere on board the Ishimura is disquieting and sinister, with vast, epic spaces defined in sweeping Gothic architecture that owes as much to medieval cathedrals as to spaceship design. Playing with flickering lights, rumbling sound effects and suspicious shadows, the game does its utmost to make the player uncomfortable and on edge.
However, we're not convinced by EA's description of Dead Space as "survival horror" - a genre largely defined by games like Silent Hill and Project Zero, where combat does play a secondary role to basic survival. This is very much an action-horror game - with the chilling atmosphere bursting into extremely raw, tense combat on a regular basis.
According to producer Glen Schofield, who was our tour guide around the Ishimura, the sections which we saw were particularly action-heavy. However, even if other areas of the game are more sedate and more psychological in their scares, this is still a game whose shooter credentials are right up there with its horror credentials.
Walking Clarke around in third-person perspective (in a really nice touch, all HUD elements appear either as indicators on his space suit, or as holograms which are projected into the air around by the suit), he is assailed by a steady stream of nightmarish fiends. The Thing is the real inspiration here; from vastly mutated humans with razor-sharp, insect-like limbs, to hideous dead babies with bloodied tentacles waving from gory wounds in their backs, Dead Space doesn't hold back.
Just as well that Clarke is well fit to defend himself. Although he's an engineer, rather than a marine, the Ishimura is helpfully equipped with a wide variety of mining tools which do a rather fine job of dismembering enemies. Your most basic weapon is a Plasma Cutter, which is essentially a powerful pistol - other guns we saw included a Line Gun, which fires out a long arc that's excellent at shearing enemies in half, and an as-yet-unnamed ("the first name we thought up for it was really dumb," laughs Schofield) weapon which is essentially a circular saw that floats in the air in front of you.
Speaking of dismemberment, that's actually the first feature that Schofield mentions in the game - "strategic dismemberment", which is the ability to blow off an enemys limb's, tentacles, head(s) or other body parts. This makes a shocking mess, as you might imagine, but doesn't always kill them - enemies who have lost their legs will still crawl and flop towards you, for instance. Even decapitation may not always be fatal to these hellish nasties.
Clarke's arsenal doesn't just extend to straightforward weapons. He's also got something called a TK Gun, which is essentially Half-Life 2's gravity gun - and can be used to turn environmental objects (or dismembered limbs, of course) into lethal weapons when ammo runs low. He also has the ability to put creatures and objects in stasis, slowing down time for them, but unlike the TK Gun this ability needs to be recharged before use. Both abilities are dual-purpose - handy in combat, but also used in solving puzzles.
When she crossed over, she was just a ship...
So far, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this sounds much like a rather improved Doom 3 - and there's certainly some validity in that comparison. Dead Space is a better-looking game than Doom 3, and certainly seems to be more aggressively paced, but the atmosphere is similar in some regards.
Combat, however, is rather different; even with the arsenal of weapons at Clarke's disposal, battles still end up being close-range, visceral and genuinely nail-biting. It's not just your enemies that can suffer grisly deaths; watching Clarke having his legs ripped off or his belly torn open a couple of times will hammer home that getting up close and personal with these foes isn't something with which to be trifled.
Dead Space also improves on most other games with a space setting by really taking advantage of the environment - not just by providing loads of metallic corridors, but also by playing around with concepts like gravity and vacuum. Zero-G environments form a major part of the challenge of the game. Your spacesuit has magnetic boots which allow you to walk on any surface, at any angle, but jumping off into space gives you genuine freefall controls - and a fairly scary amount of inertia. There are also Zero-G sections on the outer hull of the ship - we can't imagine that jumping here is a good idea in the slightest.
Vacuum, too, is used in a spectacular way. Dead Space actually treats sound in a vacuum perfectly - when the air is sucked out of a chamber, you can only hear noises from inside your suit, and sounds transmitted through the soles of your feet. Gunshots and enemy noises are totally inaudible - but your own breathing, grunting and heartbeat are incredibly loud, and the rumbles of the ship on your boots are the only noises transmitted from outside. It's haunting and intimidating.
At the moment, Schofield tells us, only a small amount of the game is up and running in a polished state - but with nearly two years of development under its belt, Dead Space is on target to launch on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC by the end of this year.
He's also adamant that while the sections we've seen are non-stop action, the team isn't ignoring the storyline and atmosphere by any means. Much of the story will be told through video, audio and text logs that you encounter as you move through the enormous ship, but there will also be survivors and other characters in the game. Interestingly, Dead Space takes another leaf from Half-Life 2's book - all storytelling will come through scripted events that go on in the background, with absolutely no non-interactive cut-scenes to lift you out of the experience.
Despite being mis-sold slightly as a survival horror, Dead Space is looking fantastic - a tight, tense and exciting shooter for the adrenalin junkies, mixed with some superbly atmospheric and sinister overtones (and some really, really nasty gore) for the horror fans. As you'd expect, it's also fully next-gen gorgeous; we may not need eyes where we're going, but they'll probably come in handy all the same. Look out for more on Dead Space as the year progresses.