We've skewered you with the Dead Space trailer cut by James Han, peppered you with details about the Community Event at Electronic Arts Redwood Shores, and slow-basted you in details about the game's forward-thinking dynamic lighting mesh. But apart from the briefest of mentions, we've held off on serving up our impressions of Dead Space as a video game...until now. Under the jump, our impressions of the gameplay of Dead Space (including what EA doesn't want you to know), how the game measures up against the knowledge and aspirations of its wicked-smart design team, and why it can be so hard to make the case for video games as art.
As a recovering video game addict turned fearless io9 correspondent, I couldn't have been more excited about participating in Dead Space's Community Event at Redwood Shores on Wednesday-after all, I got ninety minutes of exclusive gameplay along with liberal doses of food, info, and funny PR reps acting like they liked me. (Throw in an audiobook of Gillian Anderson reading Barry N. Malzberg's "A Galaxy Called Rome" and you've got my idea of a perfect afternoon.) But I also felt a responsibility-as a recovering video game addict, as a fearless io9 correspondent-to be honest to io9 readers, and just not swallow the long, cool glasses of necromorph-tinted Kool-Aid. I've been burned often enough by IPs both licensed-Enter The Matrix, anyone?-and original-Black & White, anyone else?-to be an acquiescent junketgoer, happy to turn my eyes from the problems on the monitor in front of me to the swag bag beside me.
And so here is the first confounding paradox of Dead Space: although the presentations of the production team utterly convinced me they had created a truly original science fiction survival horror story, at no point did anything in my three thirty minute playtime sessions of Dead Space reinforce that conviction. Dead Space pulls atmosphere and ideas from all four Alien films, Paul Verhoeven's gruesome science-fiction flicks, John Carpenter movies both awesome and awful, and semi-stinkers like Event Horizon and Screamers, but the team seems to think the industrial bays of Dead Space are completely different from those of Aliens or Terminator because the color scheme is brown and gray instead of blue or green.
Inspiration also comes from an impressive array of games: Half-Life 1 and 2; the Doom series (man, especially the Doom series); System Shock and Bioshock; the Resident Evil games with an emphasis on RE4, and a dash of Silent Hill, a smattering of Eternal Darkness. Peter Jackson's King Kong removed the HUD before Dead Space did, Psi-Ops gave us fun with telekinesis four years before the stuff seen here, and the Prince of Persia was slowing time long before Isaac refilled his first can of Stasis. (Even Isaac's design, which I love, reminds me of The Destroyer, an old Thor enemy and one-time herald of Galactus.) Perhaps only at Electronic Arts—a company that sports licenses, long-established IPs, and rigorous bureaucratic orthodoxy have made into the eighth largest software company in the world—can Dead Space be called original without a certain amount of Simpsonesque finger-twiddling, eye-darting, and lip-pursing. In fact, my willingness to take the team at their word and consider Dead Space cutting edge worked against my success when I finally played: it took me twenty minutes to realize that those lovely lit x-boxy looking cases scattered everywhere were, of course, breakable crates with helpful stuff inside.
But here's Dead Space's second confounding paradox: none of that matters. I spent maybe thirty seconds arching an eyebrow when a game described as groundbreaking has Isaac sent to go get gadget x to open blocked airlock y (that was on the embargoed level, by the way, so don't tell anyone I told you). The rest of the time? I was alternately clutching the Xbox 360 controller to my chest like it was my beloved Boo Bear warding off the bogeyman, and waving it about like it was a boomstick about to take out some Deadites.
Contrary to the worry of some of our io9 commenters, constant focus testing did not turn Dead Space into Halo in zero gravity, but it did keep the game playable, enjoyable and frustrating for the right reason-like, I got too rattled and used up more ammo than I should have-and not the wrong ones—like, I am being chased by monsters but Isaac refuses to haul his ass out of the room at faster than a measured walk. When Isaac has no choice but move in close and try to club a skittering mutant to death with his empty weapon, grunting and panting, the space crates don't matter, the fetch objectives don't matter, the fact your main character has the same first name as the bartender on the Love Boat doesn't matter. Dead Space isn't immersive because there's no HUD or next to no cutscenes: it's immersive because the controls have been tested and massaged so nicely that the difference between what you want to do and what the character onscreen is doing disappears. I know plenty of survival horror fans who believe that the closer to powerless the main character is, the more nightmarish and terrifying the game can be. But Dead Space, like Romero's Living Dead movies, taps into the nightmare that you could survive if you could be on your guard every single second and never, ever make a mistake...but you won't, because you can't.
Some people have argued that video games can't be art because the video game player never surrenders to the creator of a video game the way the a reader or moviegoer or gallery visitor must surrender to the writer or the filmmakers or the artist. And I've seen some people argue that Dead Space won't be satisfying because the game makers sacrificed the potential to be original at the altar of constant focus testing. But a sestina can be satisfying despite the rigorousness of its structure (vetted by troubadors, the focus testers of their day), and anyone reading Lolita or watching Memento has to keep their brains as busy as the fingers of any videogamer. But ultimately the can't-be-arters and won't-be-originalers ignore the active, repetitive experience with which most of us initially experience art-as children, yelling "again!" when the parent reaches the end of our favorite story, and it's a rare child that doesn't at least sometime get its wish. Despite all the thought and effort put into making its meticulously crafted skin feel sensuously new, there's not an original bone in Dead Space's body and thank god for that. It's like playing that movie you've seen a dozen times on cable that sucks you in every time it comes on. Some childish part of me-the gleefully nihilistic child-has been yelling "again!" since it first played Dead Space on Wednesday. I expect it to continue doing so until the game's release on October 27.