The horror genre works well in video games. You stop being a passive observer. Suddenly you're in the bad place, running low on health, with something terrible chasing you. Dead Space is like that. Only this time the bad place is a space ship. And you've got a chainsaw.
So it's not particularly subtle. American games rely on the illusion of competence, so you're not going to be some frightened little girl with a camera, like in the Fatal Frame series. No, you're gonna be some heavily armed tank, wading through the darkness with a selection of high-tech power tools at your side.
The game's combat-heavy emphasis is on "strategic dismemberment." As an engineer responding to a distress call from the mining ship USG Ishimura, you pick up quite an array of nasty power tools. You're gonna need 'em, too. The Necromorphs, horribly insectile distortions of human remains, can't be killed by the traditional FPS shots to the chest. No, you gotta blast their limbs off or they're gonna keep coming after you, screeching and spitting all the while.
Beyond that, you get to do fun futuristic engineering puzzles. There are several environments in the game that are zero gravity and a few breathtaking sequences out in space. Your power suit comes equipped with a stasis projector and a kinetic lift, allowing you to slow down and manipulate objects. I had a lot of fun messing around with the monsters and the environment. I'd like to sound cool and jump on the "the puzzles were too easy" bandwagon, but I appreciated that it didn't take a trip to the strategy guide to figure anything out.
Simply put, the game is fun to play. A really good story will sometimes carry me across the chasm of mediocre gameplay, but if I can interface with the game smoothly, if I can be sucked into the world, the game is a winner. Dead Space was really smooth. I didn't feel like I was getting dicked around by bad controls, I didn't feel like dangerous threats were being obscured by bad camera angles, and I had a lot of fun exploring the depths of the Ishimura.
As to the stuff I didn't like, your fellow crew mates, Token Gruff Black NCO and Token Crabby Scientist with the Big Rack, are genuinely unpleasant people. When they aren't shrilly arguing with each other, they're barking orders at you. There's not much going on with the game's story beyond "go there, repair this." About 90% of the game's levels start with a radio call from TCSwtBR telling you that something needs to be fixed, but you need to jump through a couple more hoops to do it. After awhile, you want your character to grab the mic and scream "Hey, why don't you come down and do some of these stupid fetch quests yourself!" Needless to say, one of them winds up betraying you.
The whole Unitology thing is kinda goofy. Sure, you get big creepy rooms where ritual suicides have taken place, but the whole thing kinda smacks of obvious allusions to Scientology. If it were actually bringing issues of faith and blind allegiance into question that would have been interesting, but it's just used as a window dressing for the game, something to supply whispered chants and spooky runes in the dark hallways of the Ishimura.
Dead Space also relies almost exclusively on my least favorite scare tactic: the soundtrack-spike jump scare. The survival horror games I grew up with relied on a certain enforced vulnerability. You were afraid because you weren't much of a match against the monsters you faced so your best bet was to hide from the small stuff, figure out the puzzles, and take down the big stuff quickly before it drained your painfully limited medical supplies. Dead Space is all about combat and dismemberment, which isn't exactly fertile ground for tension to grow. Instead, you get a bunch of screeching Necromorphs jumping at you from ceilings and air vents. It's not particularly subtle but it works well enough, and the sound design for the creatures are genuinely creepy. Also, for all my griping about cheap jump scares, the game's final cut scene ends with one of the scariest jump scenes I've encountered in awhile.
Finally, the "twist ending" didn't make a lot of sense. Spoiler city here, but if the hive mind is trying to manipulate you into returning the marker, why is it sending all its creatures out to kill you? Is the Marker a seperate, sentient entity, unattached to the hive mind? Is the hive mind easily confused and cranky? Walk me through this, please?
Don't take the negatives too seriously. I am a hater, after all. In the end, Dead Space was pretty darn cool. It plays like the video game equivalent of House on Haunted Hill: completely obvious and lunatic and a whole lot of popcorn-chompin' fun.
For those of you video game devotees, I was going to write a long essay on the decline of the survival horror genre, but someone else already beat me to it. They did it better, too. Check out Leigh Alexander's incredible kotaku article here.