The more things change, the more they same the same. It’s a cliched adage, but after a few hours with EA’s all-singing, all-dancing remake of action-horror gem Dead Space, we’re getting a new and improved experience that reinforces what made Dead Space so great in the first place.
To get why that’s so important you have to understand Dead Space. Dead Space is not interested in thinking about its horror. It’s scary in a more westernised splatterpunk sense: you are a big engineer in a huge metal suit and if anything living or undead comes at you, you are going to mess it up with your array of heavy weaponry. You’re just an engineer – a blue collar worker sent to fix a failed spaceship that your wife is onboard. Then, body-morphing horror monsters burst out of every vent and you just deal with it. Necromorphs are scary only because you may not be able to cut their limbs off before they murder you, ghosts are scary because you can’t shoot them yet.
Personally, this is my comfort zone. Dead Space is a beloved horror franchise for me because while I’ll still die, death is mostly scary because of the body horror elements, or because the intense combat encounters make it more likely that you’ll be killed before you can off the monsters attacking you from all sides.
The Dead Space remake keeps that feeling of intensity – it’s like being stuck inside the coolant tower scene from Aliens – while working in new elements that complement what’s already there, and after just a few hours I’m confident that this could be the definitive edition of the game, showing off exactly what the original team had wanted to do, unfettered by the technical restrictions of the Xbox 360 at launch.
There’s a few vanity improvements to this: you no longer progress through the doomed spaceship Ishimura by getting on its tram and sitting in a loading screen for a minute or so. The whole of Dead Space is technically a one shot, especially as your inventory and all other UI elements appear on screen projected from your cool spacesuit, so you’re pretty much spending the entire time looking at Isaac’s back. It’s a cool improvement, but mostly it just means Dead Space gets a little weirder, forcing you to scramble through service lifts and maintenance hatches between chapters.
One of my favourite new updates is the “peeling system” which sees you carving necromorphs to pieces. Dismemberment is a core part of the Dead Space experience, but the new peeling system has you blowing chunks out of the lumbering beasties as they come toward you. Poorly aimed shots will cut the skull down to the bone, while spraying someone with the pulse rifle will have you blow holes out of them.
Playing with the lights is a big part of Dead Space, as one of the new mechanics has you able to use batteries to power areas. During the hands-on, I had to choose whether to cut the power from the lights or the elevator to progress. Realising I needed the elevator to return downstairs, I knew I would need to cut the power to the lights around me to progress. This is unpleasant, and makes you the architect of a shitty situation you have to try and survive – necromorphs attacking you in the darkness feels like a delicious way to punish players.
Even at its most terrifying, the weaponry in Dead Space is so powerful it’s tough to feel too scared. During my hands on I got to play with the Plasma Cutter but also the pulse rifle. A huge issue with Dead Space was that there wasn’t really a lot of reasons to use anything except the plasma cutter, but here the pulse rifle has an alternate fire proximity mine that is invaluable for keeping your flanks covered as you’re assaulted from all sides.
Better yet, using a module you can pick up items and throw them at enemies. Picking up a Necromorph’s severed, bladed, arm and throwing it through another to pin him to the wall feels fantastic, and is a great way to show how the tech at the heart of Dead Space has had a modern upgrade. If impaling necromorphs on their own arms is the future, I’m a convert.
As a remake, it’s fairly faithful. The biggest change to the established storyline is a real push to put the player character into more of the horror sequences. An early example involves a flying necromorph bat thing that can turn corpses into more necromorphs. In the original game, this enemy is introduced as it infects the captain behind reinforced glass before the necromorph bursts out into the main room. Here, you’re in the room investigating the captain’s body when the bat attacks, and the captain is turned into a necromorph while sprawled across you.
Having a reason to use different weapons makes the combat feel a little more engaging, and so does the addition of Dead Space 2’s ability to stamp on dead enemies to turn them into meaty chunks, dropping any loot they might have been carrying like they’re a big meaty pinata. You won’t feel too bad about making a mess though: the ray-tracing means dark blood shines in the darkness, it looks sticky, and unpleasant.
Dead Space could be something special. A faithful and detailed update that is true to the spirit of the original while also giving hardcore fans a reason to replay the game. Isaac Clarke may be talking now, a change that doesn’t weird me out as much as I thought it would, but he’s the same old engineer, ready to carve a path through the doomed USG Ishimura. You’re going to want to join him.