The survival horror genre is rife with games in which you are isolated in a hostile environment full of monsters, and Dead Space is no exception. But from the moment you're thrown into the middle of the fray in the heart-pounding introduction until the bone-chilling conclusion, it's clear that this is something quite unique. With its disturbingly twisted visuals, its deeply engrossing story, and innovative strategic dismemberment combat system, Dead Space is a best-in-its-class game that surpasses other entries in its venerable genre in nearly every way and will be the standard by which they are judged for years to come.
When the Concordance Extraction Corporation loses radio contact with its Planet Cracker-class mining ship, the USG Ishimura, engineer Isaac Clarke is dispatched on a routine mission to repair its communications array. However, Clarke is also on a mission of his own, having recently received a cryptic message from Nicole Brennan, a medical officer serving aboard the Ishimura. While on board he intends to reunite with her and learn the meaning behind her strange broadcast. Unfortunately, the moment you set foot on the derelict ship, it's obvious that something terrible has happened.
As Isaac, you are separated almost immediately from the rest of your team by the former crew of the Ishimura, which has been transformed into horrifying monsters called Necromorphs. Forced to fight for his survival, Isaac makes do with the tools at hand to defend himself with, which are for the most part repurposed mining instruments like plasma welding guns or buzz saws. These improvised weapons are put to graphic, gruesome work as bodily damage and even severe head trauma isn't enough to kill a Necromorph--only by severing their limbs can you put them down for good. This nuance, referred to as strategic dismemberment, vastly alters the way combat is approached in Dead Space from the typical "aim for the head"-style gameplay seen in most action games and zombie apocalypse scenarios.
Every class of Necromorph requires a different strategy to handle, and knowing how to combat multiple types simultaneously is an essential skill if you want to survive for long. Though dismemberment is ultimately the key to victory, failing to finish off a monster properly will only send it into a berserker rage and force it to adapt to its new, partially appendageless situation so that it can continue trying to eat your face. Even more alarming than their ghastly appearances and uncouth manners is the fact that they are quite intelligent. Necromorphs attack in packs using loose team tactics, and are capable of traversing the ship's extensive ventilation system to sneak around for outflanking or ambushing. They feign death among the corpses of their peers to rise up and attack when you least expect it, and they often come in waves, leaving you wondering if it's truly over or if they're simply toying with you.
The most basic Necromorphs are humanoid monsters that attack in a frenzy. Horribly mutated undead babies also make an appearance, and they run along the walls and ceilings sprouting tentacles from their backs capable of throwing organic projectiles. Others still are heavily armored but vulnerable from behind, are bloated with dozens of spiderlike parasites that are released upon their host's death, or shriek madly as they carry explosive pods toward you in a suicidal charge. In one fully interactive gameplay sequence that comprises some of the more amazing moments to be experienced in Dead Space, you're assaulted by the gigantic tentacle of an even larger, unseen beast that drags you to a gruesome and bloody death as you struggle to shoot yourself free.
Finally, at several key points in the story, Isaac stumbles upon some of the most incredible and truly terrifying boss monsters to be seen in the survival horror genre. Though revealing the circumstances around which you confront these nightmares would do much to spoil them, it is safe to say that these epic encounters are easily some of the most remarkable seen in years.
One of the first things to notice in Dead Space is that it features a complete lack of a traditional heads-up display; instead, pertinent information is integrated directly into Isaac's RIG uniform. To see his current health you need only glance at the iridescent meter built into the RIG's spine (or pay attention to his physical cues), and to see how much ammo is left in your current weapon, simply check the display readout visible whenever you raise it into the ready position. If you ever find yourself wondering where you need to be next, you need only press a key for Isaac's RIG to temporarily trace a beam of light on the ground toward your next objective. When called up, menus are holographically projected ahead of you in real time, producing a sense of urgency as you remain vulnerable to attack. These simple yet ingenious systems ensure that you remain firmly within the realm of the gameworld at all times, preserving the horror experience.
Your ultimate goal aboard the Ishimura is to escape from it, hopefully along with Nicole; but to get to that point you must first accomplish a series of dependent tasks. Guided remotely or in person by the remaining survivors of your doomed repair operation, your missions take you from deck to deck in a logical chain of events. For example, early on you discover that the ship's orbit is decaying because its engines are offline, so you must travel to engineering to refuel and restore them. Once they're back online and the Ishimura begins to correct its course, you realize that you're about to pass through an asteroid belt and that the automated defense systems are down, so it's off to do something about that.