HardDrive-By: Dead Space (2023)

I can’t believe I bought this game.

I stumbled across the first Dead Space game pretty much by accident. I was in Target (which I no longer set foot in), and I had some money available for a cheap game (this was right before the first of the Steam Sales).  I am not nuts about horror games but I had enjoyed F.E.A.R. and was looking for something like that.  I forget what I paid for Dead Space, but full price would have been worth it.

I knew absolutely nothing about it at all going in and frankly, that added a lot to my experience because I simply didn’t know what to expect.  Scary stuff works best when it is a voyage of discovery.  It was a great little horror game even if I didn’t care for the jumpscare ending.  Most horror seems to go in for that these days so it can’t be helped.

Dead Space 2 didn’t really work as well for me.  I had preferred Isaac Clarke as a mute character, it let you immerse yourself in his terrifying world more completely. I didn’t mind him picking up a new girlfriend. But at the end of the day, Dead Space 2 was not so much a horror game as it was a third-person zombie shooter.

The only other game in the series that managed to capture the spirit of the first Dead Space was the one nobody played.  DS: Extraction.  Most of the complaints about it were by people who never played it. which was everyone who didn’t have a Wii.  I will also grant that it would have sucked hard if you didn’t have the gun caddy for your Wii controller. The complaints from people who never played it, were about it being a rail-shooter.  This was technically true, but credit where it’s long overdue, Eurocom took this and ran as fast and as far as they possibly could.  I think the fact that they were a British outfit helped them get into the Quatermass tropes that were needed to carry a Dead Space game.  It was more than just zombie dismemberment; it returned genuine horror to the franchise. It was eventually released on PS3.

There was also the surprisingly good Dead Space Mobile which was a 2010 mobile game that was way better than it had any right to be. Sadly it’s dead now.  If you are willing to dig and are good with patches you can still play it but it is unsupported.

Anyway, Deadspace became a mini-franchise for a while in the early 2010s.  There was a sort of manga, a couple of straight-to-video animated flicks, and a few books. And that was about it.

Dead Space 3: I didn’t finish and neither did anyone else to speak of.  It took the drawbacks of Dead Space 2 and expanded on them significantly while adding quite a lot of suck to call its own. It killed the franchise.

There was supposed to be a DS 4 where Ellie Langford was going to take over Isaac’s job of battling the Necromorphs but the terrible sales of DS 3 scraped it.

That was it, Dead Space was dead.

A lot of its fans were hoping it would be revived but anybody who knows anything about the gaming industry figured it was done for.  The old gaming business model of ‘build a game and sell it to players’ was no longer profitable.  Or to be exact, no longer profitable enough.  No loot boxes or season passes to be found in a game like Dead Space. 

Which was why I was so shocked to see a trailer for a remake in 2021. 

I didn’t think I’d buy it but with all the hype around I decided to reload my load copy and then discovered that it had been used as a teething ring about a decade ago.  I considered buying another copy of the OG but if I’m spending money anyway…

The new version is roughly the same game with only a few differences here and there.  The closest thing to current year politics is Nicole’s appearance.  I had assumed she and Isaac were maybe in their thirties but now Isaac appears to be a cougar hunter.  I guess it doesn’t make much difference since she still dies before we can meet her.  What does make a big difference is Isaac Clarke speaking.  While I preferred mute Isaac, I appreciate why the team remaking this game felt the need to give him a voice.  After two sequels where he could talk it would have been a little out there to have him go back to being voiceless. Also, in the OG version we didn’t see his face until the final cut scene but since we’ve seen it plenty of times since then there is little point in backtracking.  Isaac Clarke is not Doom Guy.

I’m not one to go on about cinematic openings in games but for a horror story, it is a necessity.  The mood has to be created.  Anticipation must be built. The slow approach is a good start with eerie lighting and Nicole’s last message setting the tone.  

The Ishimura is an intriguing design for a spaceship.  Ever since Star Wars almost every ship looks like it belongs in Star Wars but the Ishimura has its own aesthetic.  Not quite the space-going cathedral of Black Hole because it is not meant to be elegant, although it does fulfill the same function of being a haunted house in space.  While it is clearly industrial in nature there are two pylons toward the rear that gives it a vaguely temple-like appearance.

Once the tone is set the game doesn’t waste a lot of time getting you into the action.  Isaac is isolated from his shipmates and forced to use improvised weapons to “cut off their limbs.”  The dismemberment tactic was something very new when it was introduced in this game.  The gore is even gorier today.

Easily the best element carried over from the original game is the sound design.  The music is a beautiful rip-off of Futile Escape from the Aliens soundtrack. You know it when you hear it. The percussive crashes as the necromorphs attack you took things to a new level.  The confined nature of the ship allowed for easy guidance and more importantly confinement of the player. Isaac’s roar when he stomps on necromorphs still works as a satisfying victory howl.

The nature of the horror in Dead Space is Lovecraftian cosmic horror.  The threats are not supernatural but may as well be.  You don’t know why the necromorphs came into existence and you are pretty sure you can’t understand it or at least not without going insane.  And insanity is as serious a threat to Isaac as necromorphs.  As the game moves forward, it becomes obvious that Isaac is hallucinating and it won’t get better with time.  The question of what is causing it is never really answered beyond the Marker is doing it.  The Marker is basically Cthulu’s lawn gnome.  We don’t know what it is supposed to do but we know what it does to humans which is nothing good.

As for the game itself, everything looks roughly the same, but the detail work meets modern tastes.  Although, it feels a little odd to have artificial limitations built in when they aren’t needed anymore. I forget what design problem the Save Stations solved and I am not sure it would apply to the latest Frostbite engine fourteen years later but I was surprised to find I was happy to see them again.  

There are new mechanics like the circuit breaker boxes.  Turns out there isn’t enough power for everything in some sections of the new Ishimura, so you may have to choose between lights or life support for example.  If you spend a lot of nodes to build up your O2 capacity no problem keeping the lights on at the expense of no air. But those nodes won’t be available for weapons upgrades that you are going to need very badly so maybe you are better off in the dark… Surrounded by undead monsters?

The plot is still the same with a few little add-ons if you look for them.  I noted during my playthrough that there was an explicit reference to Dead Space: Extraction.  One of the text logs refers to the characters from that game, so presumably, it’s still canon. Good thing Isaac has a girlfriend because that means Calamity Lexine is still in this universe and looking for a new man.  Do not take an interest in Lexine if you are in Dead Space, it will not end well for you.

At the end of the day, Dead Space remains a classic and the remake is honestly a welcome improvement over the original.  The sales appear to be strong enough for EA to give reviving the franchise a serious look.

Okay, I’m done here.

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