It's rare that I finish a game, whether it's on the PC or my Xbox 360. The last one I completed was Call of Duty 4, and before that, Portal. Neither represented much of a commitment, though, since I only needed about six hours to polish off the former and just three for the latter. Given this history, I'm somewhat surprised to have just completed Dead Space—a 12-hour ordeal that tore me away from hurling rebels and Storm Troopers in Force Unleashed.
I hadn't read much about Dead Space before its release, but a string of high scores on Metacritic convinced me to give it a shot. Within an hour, I was hooked. Deep. The game starts predictably enough, with a crash landing that quickly throws you into a hostile environment. All alone... and vulnerable.
This sense of vulnerability is what makes the game really shine for me. An over-the-shoulder perspective provides a viewpoint much like Gears of War, which is for some reason less offensive to my keyboard-and-mouse preferences than a straight first-person perspective. The pseudo-third-person view also gives you a better sense of your character, the flimsy armor he wears, and the brutality inflicted by enemies who largely rely on melee attacks.
Some have called Dead Space a survival horror game, while others have pegged it as an action title. It's somewhere between the two, I think, trending one way or the other depending on just how good you are. The game certainly isn't a run-and-gun affair—you're not nearly invincible enough for reckless abandon, nor are your weapons powerful enough, nor ammunition plentiful enough. Tactical strategy is key to conserving ammunition and other resources, and to keeping your character alive. Unlike some console shooters, you won't find egregious amounts of auto-aim here. Dead Space encourages you to surgically shoot off limbs, crippling (and slowing, which is useful when you're facing a large horde) enemies before finally finishing them off with a brutal foot stomp. Or you can clumsily blast away at the center of mass and waste rounds. The choice is yours.
Running out of ammunition doesn't leave you completely defenseless; each weapon has a melee attack. But you won't last long without a full clip, especially later in the game. Fortunately, save points are distributed liberally throughout the levels. In Dead Space, stressful tension comes from the environment itself, rather than your fear of having to repeat large stretches of the game upon death.
Dead Space's story plays out nicely through in-game cinematics. The narrative is a linear affair, leading you back and forth through the bowels of a mining ship, and beyond. This world is worth exploring as much as you can, not only to take in the atmosphere and eye candy, which is plentiful, but to stock up on in-game items and cash. Goods can be bought, sold, and stored at glorified vending machines found throughout the levels.
Shopping is a vital component of the game, since it provides access to suit upgrades, new weapons, ammo, health, power nodes, and other useful items. The weapons are surprisingly original, without a rehashed rocket launcher or shotgun cliché in the mix. The game also gives you access to work benches, which with the help of power nodes, can be used to upgrade weapons, increasing their damage, reload speed, capacity, and more. Work benches can also be used to upgrade your suit's hit points, oxygen supply, and the game's take on bullet time and a gravity gun. Bullet time is employed through stasis modules that don't slow down the entire world, but specifically-targeted objects within it, making for some beautifully gory slow-motion combat sequences.
Even with slo-mo at your disposal, combat in Dead Space is often sudden, frantic, and full of sphincter-tightening moments. The game tends to spring multiple enemies on you at once, but this rarely happens without warning, even it's just an audible cue that something nasty lurks around the next corner. These warnings keep the action from feeling arbitrary or artificial—you won't find Doom 3 monster closets here—and they make you pay a lot more attention to the subtleties of the environment. Sound is used particularly effectively, with in-game music often giving way to long stretches of silence that had my heart skipping a beat at every ambient noise.
A reference to Captain Carmack in one of the text logs you find in the game hints that the development team clearly had Doom on its mind. But Dead Space easily outdoes its inspiration, and the goodness doesn't end when you finish the game. An animated Dead Space: Downfall prequel movie has been released, and while it's only about an hour long, it nicely fills in the game's back story, expanding a mythology that will apparently live on in a sequel. I can't wait.
Dead Space certainly isn't for everyone. It's a challenging, stressful, and tension-filled ride that demands your attention and may leave you more tired than relaxed. And yet I admire the game's hold over my heart rate and its ability to inspire real dread about what's making that slithering sound around the next corner. In completing the game, I felt relieved, not because I was finished, but because I had survived.