I have to admit, when I flew out to E3 this year, I had barely heard the name Dead Space, but after a day at the show, currents were rippling through the crowd. Even amidst higher profile survival-horror games like Resident Evil 5 and Silent Hill: Homecoming it seemed like this was the game to play. Could the Redwood Shores studio that has been cranking out movie-licensed games for so long really have managed to upstage Capcom in the genre it defined? I had to find out for myself.
Dead Space is a blend of science-fiction and survival-horror that evokes Ridley Scott's Alien in the best possible way. The space station is lonely, dark, and creepy, and while the game does tend toward the brown and gray shades that dominate the genre, the sparing use of colored lighting can be very striking. There are no heads-up displays, and even menus are integrated into the game world as holograms. This is a seriously beautiful game.
This isn't quite a classic survival-horror where you control a clumsy everyman. Isaac, an engineer on a mining ship, may not be a super-soldier, but he is athletic, handy with a gun, and looks a bit like Boba Fett. The feel of the controls is pretty typical of third-person shooters, in fact. We were assured, however, that players would not feel powerful for long. This is a game with very constrained resources. Health and ammunition seem to be very limited, and it left us scrambling to escape some pretty intense situations.
The combat is smart and methodical too. You won't be able to just run-and-gun through your showdowns with the Necromorphs. Dead Space puts the emphasis on what they call "strategic dismemberment," an appropriately gruesome theme. This means that you'll only be able to take out enemies by removing the appendages they draw strength from. This varies for different types of enemies, and the Necromorphs come in many forms, so trying to figure these out in the heat of battle will be intense.
The weapons feel a bit beefier than the usual pea-shooters the genre is known for. You'll get some snazzy sci-fi arms that fire bursts of multiple rounds. The most interesting addition to the combat is the ability to create a pocket of slowed time. This is different from the usual "bullet-time" in that it must aimed and it only affects a small area, but we saw how it became an integral part of battle when fighting a large bull-like creature that could only be harmed from behind. This ability has to be recharged at certain terminal, and doesn't simply refill, so clearly the developers are aiming to keep it from being abused.
The level design seems thoughtful, with a mix of puzzles and action, and it even plays with gravity in some interesting ways. The demo culminated in a massive boss battle, and it was great to see how this came off as almost retro, with weak points, patterned attacks, and sequence where you had to shoot the boss's projectiles back at him.
It's impressive that the company so often criticized for resting on the same franchises would be the one to step up with some of the strongest original games at E3. Dead Space manages to push the survival-horror genre forward without drifting too far from what really makes it work. If EA Redwood can deliver on the potential we saw at the show, Capcom should be very worried indeed.