Version tested: Xbox 360
If you're in the future, and you work on a spaceship, and you get a call telling you to go and check out some remote colony because contact has mysteriously been lost, do yourself a favour and call in sick that day. Skive for your life. The only reason space colonies, and the drifting spacecraft spookily orbiting above them, stop communicating is because they've been overrun by bloodthirsty monsters. This is scientific fact.
Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what has happened to the USG Ishimura, a deep space mining vessel - or "planet cracker" - which has been tearing up chunks of some distant dead world in the quest for greater profits. When it all goes eerily silent, the crew of the USG Kellion are despatched to investigate and you, as petty engineer Isaac Clarke, are along for the ride. Isaac has a personal reason to hope all is well on the Ishimura. His girlfriend, Nicole, is on the ship and the last contact he had with her was a disturbing plea for help.
Needless to say, things don't start well. The Kellion shuttle crashes, and the investigators are attacked by fleshy shambling things as soon as they enter the Ishimura. Isaac is separated from the two other survivors - computer technician Kendra Daniels and gruff military man Sgt. Zach Hammond - and must make his way through the bowels of the ruined vessel to organise an escape plan.
It's a journey that is never less than visually stunning, thanks to some painstaking attention to detail in the graphics. Motes of dust drift lazily in the air, mist curls up from ominous shafts, flickers of light illuminate skittering shapes in the distance. Isaac's protective suit (which you can upgrade throughout the game) is a curiously old-fashioned mixture of textile and brass, with weave and rivets clearly visible as you prowl the darkness from over his shoulder. The textures don't always keep their detail at close range, but considering the frame rate is rock solid and there's absolutely no screen tearing that seems like a minor compromise. This level of technical polish holds true on both 360 and PS3 versions, you'll be pleased to hear.
Control is instantly intuitive, but then it should be, since the game has basically stolen the meat of the control scheme from Resident Evil 4. There's no jumping, climbing or crouching, with environmental interactions carried out by following button prompts in the appropriate place. You can move and open doors while aiming, while the d-pad offers quick access to your four weapon slots. Health packs can be stockpiled and used with a hot button. Isaac picks up a couple of augmented abilities along the way - Stasis, which slows down objects and enemies, and Kinesis, which allows him to grab or drag objects from afar. These are sensibly activated by the face buttons modified by the aiming button, as is reloading, so all your combat options are instantly accessible whenever you have your gun raised. There's never any fumbling around trying to do two things at once in the thick of the action.
To aid with the immersion in Dead Space's grim tale, all the info you need is conveyed on-screen without resorting to health bars or pause screens. Or rather these elements are used but in such a way that it feels part of the gameworld rather than a mood-breaking interruption. Isaac's health is monitored by a glowing blue gauge on the back of his suit, next to the dial which shows how much Stasis energy he has left. It's not always successful though, since when you're backed up against a wall by gibbering space mutants it can be impossible to see how close you are to death. Holograms are the key to everything else, with your inventory and incoming video messages relayed through floating semi-translucent screens which pop up next to Isaac. You can even rotate the camera around and through these screens, revealing a rather nifty 3D effect.