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I haven’t spent a lot of time with remakes. But Electronic Arts and Motive Studios put so much care into the remake of Dead Space, a 2008 sci-fi survival horror title, that it drew me in. Built with care and upgraded to a visually stunning level, this kind of craft gives remakes a reason to exist.
Dead Space’s original designers like Glen Schofield were heavily inspired by sci-fi movies like Alien and Event Horizon, as well as horror games like Resident Evil 4. I thought it noteworthy that Schofield, who made his own spiritual successor, Callisto Protocol, that debuted in December, offered thanks to EA’s Motive team for taking such care in crafting the Dead Space Remake. That was high praise, and I share it.
This is a phenomenal title that spooked me in so many ways, sometimes just by leaving me alone in the dark with a heart rate gone wild. Simple sounds like humming engines and screeching trams can scare you when the machinery grinds to a halt, interrupted by a roaring monster. From tiny crawling creatures to massive bosses with deadly octopus-like arms, Dead Space throws every kind of horror at you.
The beginning is scary because of the mystery. You have no clue why these monsters, the Necromorphs, are killing everybody they encounter aboard a mining spaceship. Isaac Clarke doesn’t start as a superhero. He’s just an ordinary mining engineer in deep space worried about his girlfriend aboard the USG Ishimura mining ship. His crew boards the derelict “planet cracker” ship to investigate why it has gone silent in a distant star system. There are things inside the ship that are hiding in the dark, and all you have to see them is a flashlight with a very narrow field of view.
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What’s different in the remake?
The best improvement that Motive brought to the new game is that Clarke has an actual voice. This makes for better storytelling. It makes the narrative more social and gives Clarke some personality as an engineer who stands up to every problem, whether it’s mechanical or monstrous. The previous game was an isolating experience, and Isaac just took orders from his compatriots.
The remake has a full cast of characters that you see acting out their story in audio logs or on an augmented reality stage, which becomes visible to Isaac when he views video recordings of the past. That gives us insight into the characters and needed context for the horrific bloodbath on the Ishimura.
Another achievement of the remake is the improved graphics of the modern game. The visual effects are so much better and creepier than the original. It feels more immersive and expansive. While the Ishimura was a bunch of hallways in the first game, now it is an entire ship, laid out physically like it would be if it really existed. If you want to take a tram to different parts of the ship, you can. Or you can walk through its connected corridors. It’s more like a whole world unto itself.
Isaac’s girlfriend Nicole is older than she was in the original Dead Space and has a deeper voice, almost like she aged during the intervening years while Isaac didn’t. There’s also a secret ending with another variation on the original ending in the final scene.
Motive has added a couple of cool gameplay systems. It can dial up the intensity dynamically if it senses you need more action. And it has a peeling system that shows bodies not just a goopy mess when you dismember or disembowel the Necromorphs. You see layered flesh, tendons and bones that break. Now you can shoot off a layer of a monster’s body and find you’ve still got more to clean off. You can creatively dismember a limb and then pin the Necromorph to the wall with a spike.
The game preserves the primary game mechanic of strategic dismemberment. If you don’t slow down the beasts by cutting out their legs, they will pin you in a corner. These Necropmorphs aren’t always lumbering, and it pays to slow them down, either with the cutting tools or the Statis beams that put them into slow motion. The enemies are so ugly and loud that your first reaction is to panic. But that’s not what you want. You want to be stone cold, take aim and shoot off a limb with one shot. It’s the ammo-efficient way and a kind of art form for Dead Space aficionados.
What you’ll like
The game becomes satisfying when you can dish it back to the enemies, who are monstrous reanimated humans. Stomping on their bodies as a final blow is quite satisfying. When you shoot them and bring them down, you have to remember to stomp on them with your giant space boot. It makes a squishy sound and it feels like it shakes the whole Ishimura. But you have to make sure the sucker is dead, and they cough up some good loot as a last gasp.
Fortunately, it’s not too quiet, as the remake team at Motive saw the opportunity to draw you in emotionally. As mentioned. there are other survivors on the ship, and Isaac, an everyday hero, talks now via the voice of Gunner Wright. The other surviving crew members tell Isaac where to go to help recover some of the ship’s functionality, but he solves some of the puzzles himself and talks things through with the other survivors, who are stuck in different parts of the ship.
The 3D puzzles of space
In space, there’s no ground for you to walk on. And Dead Space does a great job disorienting you with 3D puzzles. You have to keep track of the direction that you’re traveling using landmarks or attitude adjustments on which way you’re facing. I often found that I thought I was headed the right direction when in fact I got turned around and upside down and was going the wrong way.
You can also do this kind of puzzle-solving inside the ship. Sometimes, a door is locked or blocked by a bunch of debris. You can look into a window and use telekinesis or fire a projectile at a fuse and unlock the door. You also have to rewire a lot of places or plug in batteries to get doors to operate.
That’s why just navigating through 3D spaces in Dead Space can be so puzzling and intellectually rewarding.
Lot of necromorphs
Dead Space devs figured out that just one kind of zombie isn’t fun.
The Undead need to have a wide variety of types to get under your skin. The Slashers have large bone blades for arms that are like swords. Pregnant Necromorphs can drop a swarm of tiny spawn from their sacs. Dividers are tall Necromorphs who can take a lot of damage. And every now and then a giant tentacle grabs you and you have to shoot its bulbous bubble before you’re smashed to bits.
There are little crawling baby-like Necromorphs dubbed Lurkers that stop, dig in and lob shots at you from afar. This is really annoying in zero gravity, as you can’t tell where the shots are coming from in the dark.
The Hunters are also quite deadly and then they regenerate after you mutilate them. The only hope is to escape them or somehow trap them. Then there are massive bosses like the Leviathan and the Hive Mind.
When it comes to fighting, you’re armed only with a mining tool at the start. The plasma cutter shoots laser beams that can slice through a target. But I’m not the greatest shot, so it took me multiple tries to dismember the Necromorphs, either so they couldn’t keep walking at me or striking me with their giant spiked arms. You can turn your gun to shoot off legs or arms, but that takes presence of mind. Usually, I just kept firing away and ran low on ammo.
When you do manage to strategically dismember an enemy, you can close in and melee the beast if you want to save ammo. Even better, you can use telekinesis to grab a pole and impale a beast with it. Fortunately, you get better guns over time. The pulse rifle has automatic fire that lets you quickly empty a whole clip into a beast. But the Necromorphs get bigger and more monstrous too.
Over time, the Contact Beam became my favorite weapon, as it could do so much damage when you continuously beamed the Necromorphs. The Ripper was also a great way to cut the legs out from under the Necromorphs as they came at you with gigantic spikes for arms. Shredding them as they approached was quite satisfying. And setting traps using the Line Gun was also awesome, as the enemies would just walk right into laser beam traps. Upgrading these weapons at the Bench was oddly cathartic.
The upgrade in graphics adds so much more to the creepy atmosphere of Dead Space. As you’re looking at the hero Isaac floating in zero gravity with lots of tiny debris bouncing and spinning around you and lighting and shadows producing crazy effects. I paused for a second in a room that was filling up with decontamination smoke. In environments like this, it’s unnerving because you can’t see where the enemies are coming from.
The sound is quite awesome, as the many sequences of bending or grinding metal do a number on your ears. Those moments of screaming, whether it’s grinding metal or Necromorphs jumping out at you or horror music blasting you are quite terrifying. The crew is infected and you find people like the good captain of the ship morphing into increasingly scary and powerful enemies. Even the little baby imps that toss acid at you are hard to deal with, especially on a limited ammunition diet.
You scrounge for resources so much in the game that you might as well commit yourself to searching every square foot of the USG Ishimura. This is a daunting task as the ship has been rebuilt in full 3D, and it’s actually a fully connected and functional ship now. You can get lost wandering around it, and I did. So I had to turn on the blue line that shows you the way to your objective.
That cuts down on the immersion, for sure, but it sure saves you some time wandering around in circles on the big ship. One of the liberating parts of the game is when Isaac gets to float in zero gravity. He can move so fast and change his orientation that it makes up for all of the slow walking.
What you won’t like
The Ishimura’s full layout as a huge ship is great, but it does take a long time to get around. And sometimes you have to backtrack as you get higher security access to places you couldn’t get into on the first pass. Backtracking is an efficient use of the game assets, for sure, but it’s not as fun to retread environments that you’ve already visited before.
Every game has its minor annoyances. Among the more substantial is getting the right level of horror right. Dead Space has some incredible moments of artistic horror, like when you see the Leviathan for the first time. But there are also a lot of cheap moments, like jump scares or messages written in pools of blood.
In my mind, the game doesn’t need so many of the cheap moments, when it can scare the bejeezus out of you simply by making a mechanical tram come to an unexplained halt. I find the better graphics rendering is great at casting shadows in scenes with a lot of light — something known as high dynamic range. Wondering what’s in those shadows is scarier than all the gross bloodstains or pustules ready to pop.
I didn’t like it when creatures would attack me while I’m working on upgrading my weapons at a Bench or buying items at a shop. I suppose it is a horror game and these things would happen on a ship overrun with undead monsters. But it’s annoying in a game that depends so much on scarcity and hanging on to life and your health very carefully.
And for all of Isaac’s newfound speed, he still moves slower than a lot of the Necromorphs, and so it’s easy for him to get caught while fleeing unless he has a big head start.
You can dial your difficulty level as you wish. But I wish the devs were more generous with the resources you need to survive on the Ishimura. There’s never enough stuff. While you pick up more ammo and upgrade your guns, the Necromorphs get more plentiful and deadly as well.
Health pickups are rare when you play as I did on Balanced mode, and they cost a lot compared to buy the ever-scarce ammo for your various weapons. Speaking of scarcity, I didn’t like how under-powered the weapons can feel as you first get them. You can upgrade them over time, but the nodes you pick up for upgrades are rare. And early on, your inventory is quite limited. So you have to drop a lot of items.
Quite often the ammo you expend in blowing up an enemy is more than the loot you pick up from the body. When it comes to resources, the player is almost always in a half-starved state, unless you go back over old ground and pick up things once you get higher security clearances to open up more doors. To fully level up, you have to retread the ship so you’ll be ready for the final scenes.
Although I’ve played Dead Space before, I found this remake far more enjoyable. Somewhere along the way, the small improvements added up to a giant leap forward. The game keeps you on your toes because you’re always just a couple of mistakes or missed shots away from death.
While it’s a faithful remake, the story is better too. You care about Isaac, his declining mental state and his tense relationship with Nicole because he has a voice and they can interact together in a way that advances the story. And the game gives you a lot of control. You can choose which guns to level up, how much health and ammo to carry and where you invest your critical upgrades for your weapons.
It’s a great example of when you start with a clean slate, improve all of the graphics and game systems, and then wind up with a much better product than the original. This remake of a classic goes to show why video games just get better with the passage of time.
Disclosure: Electronic Arts provided me with a copy of the game on the PlayStation 5 for the purposes of this review. The game is also available on the Xbox Series X/S and Windows.
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