Platforms: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC - PS3 version reviewed.
Some games make you think that originality is over-rated. Dead Space is a fine example. A heady cocktail of sci-fi and horror games and movies, there's barely a truly new idea to be found in it. Without Alien, The Thing and Event Horizon it would probably never have existed. Without Doom 3, Resident Evil 4, System Shock and Half-Life 2, it's hard to imagine a world with Dead Space in it. Yet despite the fact that you can see so many elements stolen or borrowed, this is a fantastic survival horror game. In fact, it's easily the best in the genre since Resident Evil 4.
You can safely put this down to three things: atmosphere, slick game mechanics and the sort of polish that you wish all games would do their best to emulate. Basically, Dead Space bends over backwards to give you a genuinely scary, suspense-packed and thoroughly enjoyable experience - and that's for everyone, not just the hardcore few who can be bothered to put up with the huge difficulty spikes or frustration that are too often part and parcel of the survival horror game. It's still got enough depth to keep the more ardent gamer happy, but it never does so at the expense of the more casual crowd. I can see a few snobs turning their nose up at this, but I think EA should be congratulated on doing a brilliant job.
The opening gives you a pretty good feel for Dead Space straight away. The setup - troubleshooting team arrives to investigate spacecraft in distress, discovers all hell has broken loose - is pretty much a cliché, yet Dead Space's presentation makes it feel as compelling as any big blockbuster movie. Of course, it helps that Dead Space looks like a big blockbuster movie. EA's in-house engine powers an amazing looking game, with detailed, lifelike characters and environments, awesome real-time lighting and a dizzying array of post-processing and particle effects.
The viewpoint is a variation on the over-the-shoulder view of Resident Evil 4 while the overall style is reminiscent of Doom 3, but that doesn't really do justice to how strong the game looks. It's gloomy, gritty, horrendously gory and the stuff of futuristic nightmares. This is what a next-gen survival horror game should look like.
Perhaps more important than how it looks, however, is how it sounds. I played the majority of Dead Space through headphones and I can honestly say that it's the sort of experience where it's best to wear brown trousers. Things scuttle out of sight through the dark, metallic corridors. You can hear telltale growling or clanking somewhere to your left, shifting past the back of your head and creeping somewhere to the right. When you're under attack from numerous monstrosities - and you will be - the music swells until you can feel a little knot of panic in your stomach.
Meanwhile, the frantic radio and video messages from your team-mates and the audio/video logs you'll discover only serve to accentuate the game's overwhelming fear factor. That's the thing about Dead Space; you've seen or heard all of this before - the dark corridors, the unlit chambers, the logs, the lurking horrors - but EA's game uses the power of the PS3, 360 and PC to take it to a whole new level.