Our review of Dead Space, developed by Motive Studio. Available now for PS5 (reviewed), Xbox X/S, and Windows.
WHAT IS IT?
A remake of the almost-classic Dead Space (originally released for PS3, Xbox 360, and Windows).
IS IT GOOD?
It’s a fun roller coaster ride, but I wouldn’t exactly call it terrifying.
WHO SHOULD PLAY IT?
James Cameron, Lance Henriksen.
I SHOULD REACH THE FRONTIER IN ABOUT SIX WEEKS.
Nine years ago, I sat down to play a video game that, in form and content and ability to elicit sheer terror, was the closest any video game had ever come to replicating the experience of Ridley Scott’s original Alien. Starring a lone space engineer wandering an abandoned space station, menaced by terrifying Gigeresque monstrosities and armed with little more than a few hacked together mining tools, it paid homage to the cinematic classic while making the most of the immersive possibilities of gaming.
A masterpiece and one of the scariest video games ever made, it continues to stand tall in the annals of not just horror gaming history, but horror history, period.
That game was, of course, Alien: Isolation.
WITH A LITTLE LUCK, THE NETWORK WILL PICK ME UP.
I have never truly bought into the Dead Space hype. When I played it back in 2008, some five years before Alien: Isolation proved that it was, in fact, possible to make a truly great Alien homage, I was frustrated by Dead Space‘s overpowered central character and a repetitiveness that dulled its creepier edges. Don’t get me wrong, both Dead Space (2008) and Dead Space (2023) have some scary moments, as well as excellent creature design, but both in its original and remade form, it continues to be the lesser Alien knockoff, and that’s not because it lacks the license.
But let’s start with the good stuff. For those who loved the original – or for those like me, who simply liked it – Dead Space (2023) is a fun time. Players control space engineer Isaac Clarke as he stomps his way through the abandoned remains of the USG Ishimura, a spaceship overrun by “necromorph” aliens with the ability to possess – and grotesquely contort – the human body. The twelve-hour adventure, which plays like a sci-fi themed haunted house, or like the action-packed middle portion of James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), is consistently thrilling and contains some nice, compelling story beats.
Quality-of-life upgrades abound in this remake, with the expected graphical improvements – the play of light and shadow is particularly well done – alongside improved audio, accommodating controls, easier pathfinding, and a few narrative tweaks to keep fans of the original guessing. (In a way, it reminds me of the tweaks the stellar The Last of Us TV show has been making as it departs from its video game inspiration.) Combat is also a lot smoother, which, for reasons I’ll get to in a second, is both a blessing and a curse. The necromorphs, already horrifying back on my circa-2008 flatscreen TV, are so grotesque in modern high-def that the squeamish may balk at Dead Space‘s more gruesome sequences.
THIS IS CLARKE, LAST SURVIVOR OF THE ISHIMURA.
In my first hour with Dead Space, I would estimate that I killed at least fifty necromorphs. That averages to about 1 necromorph every 2 minutes. And, as far as I’m concerned, it reveals one of the game’s central flaws.
The problem with Dead Space – and I’ve been saying this for fifteen years now – is that it so inundates you with monstrosities, and does so so quickly, and so relentlessly, that it doesn’t take long for the enemies to lose much of their menace. One invulnerable xenomorph, as in Alien (1979) or Alien: Isolation (2014), is terrifying: you never know when it’s going to pop up, and you know that, when it does, it’s probably going to get you.
Conversely, the necromorphs of Dead Space are so numerous that they become cannon fodder after a certain point, especially as you upgrade Isaac’s weapons, which include a Plasma Cutter and Aliens-style Pulse Rifle. Combined with the remake’s fine-tuned combat controls, Dead Space increasingly resembles a shooting gallery rather than a survival horror title.
Worse still, generous checkpointing means that dying rarely has much consequence. Not to mention that, once you restart a section, you already know all the jump scares or other surprises. The first time you’re overwhelmed by a swarm of necromorphs, it can be legitimately scary. The third or fourth time is just a chore. (Alien: Isolation avoided this pitfall by having an independently scripted AI govern the behaviour of its titular alien, meaning you truly never knew when or where it would appear.)
I am the first to admit that the Alien vs. Aliens debate (which we’ve covered in the Toronto Guardian before) is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. Do you want a taut, genuinely unsettling horror experience in which one overpowered foe stalks your crew? Or do you prefer an adrenaline-infused action thriller directed by James Cameron? Neither answer is technically incorrect, though I’ve long since landed in the former category, even as I admittedly enjoyed Aliens and the various Predator films (last year’s Prey was excellent).
Still, big dumb action adventures with big dumb weapons are a dime a dozen, and Dead Space, while a great remake in its own right, will never replace the true horror greats – Alien: Isolation, Fatal Frame, Resident Evil VII – in my heart.
As a great man once said: game over man, game over.
Final score: 8/10 Bill Paxton.
Visit the official website for Dead Space here.