Much like one of Dead Space's necromorphs after meeting the business end of a plasma cutter, I am torn. I really want to love Dead Space for its brilliant graphics, brutally satisfying combat and creepy atmosphere. But I also want to berate it for its generic plot, repetitive structure and overall predictability.
You see, the plot really is a bit rubbish. Stop me if you've heard this before: You are Space Engineer Isaac Clarke,on a mission to answer a Distress Call from a Big, Adrift Space Ship. Of course, said space ship is overrun with monsters of unknown origin, and after a brief introductory sequence wherein everything goes Very Wrong (complete with the obligatory deaths of two red shirts) you are separated from your team and henceforth set out to fix the ship's various vital systems and find your characterless Love Interest.
This marks the beginning of the game's endless fetch quest, which forces you to go from A to B to C etc. all over the entire ship to fix one thing after another. Every time one task is completed, something else pops up which demands your immediate attention. At no point does the game take an unexpected twist or turn. Even the characters themselves comment on the repetitive nature of your tasks. The story line is little more than an excuse to go around shooting aliens, and as such never manages to surprise or shock, with predictable "twists" which can be seen coming from miles away.
While the plot is insipid and uninspired, the gunplay is visceral and satisfying. The basis of combat in Dead Space revolves around severing the limbs and appendages of your enemies, the transmorphed humans dubbed necromorphs. Each weapon has a unique use, and you'll probably want to keep all of them around, with the exception of the inexplicably rubbish flamethrower. All weapons have unique properties and deal damage in a specific area. The plasma cutter and line gun fire horizontal or vertical lines of damage, excellently suited to severing long limbs. The ripper fires a saw blade which hovers a few meters in front of the weapon, leaving a bloody mess in its wake and making a suitably unnerving sound for a weapon that cuts through flesh and bone. The force gun functions much like a shotgun, firing a burst of energy capable of knocking over most enemies, but it's practically useless at anything but close range. The pulse rifle is a fairly standard assault rifle, dealing concentrated damage in a small, triangular area. Finally there's the contact beam, which takes a few seconds to charge up, but destroys almost any enemy in a single hit. When all else fails, you can take a swing at enemies, giving you some room to breathe.
Battles can be hectic and nerve-wracking, as enemies can come from all sides, including air ducts in the ceiling and walls. Occasionally, a room will enter lockdown until all necromorphs are killed. These large battles don't overstay their welcome, nor do they pop up so often that every other room becomes an action set piece. It's a shame the boss battles, while initially impressive due to their scope, don't live up to the same standards, as they quickly devolve into avoiding predictable attack patterns and shooting the obvious weak spots. Bafflingly, the few huge bosses in the game all have the exact same weak spots, which is disappointing, to say the least.
In true horror fashion, enemies often come from unexpected places, so you are always kept on your toes. You won't be running carelessly around every corner without knowing what's waiting for you. Sometimes it's just dancing shadows, or a canister rolling ominously over the floor. Corpses on the floor might spring up unexpectedly. Occasionally, you'll encounter a crew member of the Ishimura who survived the initial onslaught, but none of them have made it through unscarred. Their madness is unnerving at best, and while all these things may have been done before, it's an important part of the unsettling atmosphere which permeates the entire vessel.
Much of this can also be accredited to the game's superb sound design. The weapons sound punchy, the necromorphs sound vicious, and the clanking of Isaac's boots makes it feel like you're really carrying around a lot of weight, also accentuated by the brilliantly gruesome sound of stomping on a downed enemy with said boots. When you're in a vacuum in or around the Ishimura, there is no sound but for Isaac's breathing and the very faint sounds of his footsteps and guns. You won't hear enemies creeping up behind you, which makes these sections quite effective for their total lack of peripheral noise, as the silence can lull you into a false sense of safety.
Besides areas in the vacuum of space, you'll also spend some time in zero-gravity environments, sometimes combined with the previously mentioned vacuums. In these situations, Isaac's boots will keep him grounded to whatever surface he's on (strangely not just metal), but your sense of direction will be put to the test as ceilings become floors and left becomes right. Enemies can come at you from every side and momentum carries debris and corpses in every which way. Killing a necromorph results in a satisfying mess of floating body parts and squirts of blood floating around. You'll often have to solve light environmental puzzles in these areas, never nearly hard enough to stump you, but enough to break up the killing of space zombies and give you a bit of a diversion. Isaac has two additional powers built into his suit to solve these puzzles: stasis, which slows down objects (as well as enemies, usefully), and kinesis, used to move objects from a distance. Think gravity gun, but not quite as novel or useful.
Also built into Isaac's suit is all the information that would normally be conveyed in an on-screen HUD. A glowing tube running along his spine monitors his health status, with the amount of stasis energy and remaining air supply (when in a vacuum) displayed next to it. When accessing the inventory, map or any other game menu, a holographic display pops up in front of Isaac, which you can actually turn the camera around. None of this pauses the game, so if you want to access the inventory, you'd better be sure there are no necromorphs around. Fortunately, you'll rarely need to access the inventory in the heat of combat, as using med packs can be done with one of the face buttons and switching weapons maps to the d-pad.
It's a good thing there is no on-screen clutter, as Dead Space is a visually arresting game. It doesn't beat you over the head with it, but it's in the subtle touches of lighting, dust particles floating around in a ray of light, the rock solid frame rate, total absence of screen tear, and general lack of visual blemishes. There is really nothing I noticed in the visuals over the course of my two playthroughs to remind me I was in a videogame, except maybe corpses that disappear after leaving an area. It's an excellent looking game all around.
Were it not for the lack of variety and surprises in practically every facet of the game, from the plot to the gameplay, Dead Space could have been a classic to rival Resident Evil 4. As it is, it's a brilliantly designed game from a technical perspective, with great gunplay, hamstrung by a lack of creativity over the long run. The gameplay and general polish of the game are enough to carry it past these shortcomings and make it easy to recommend.