'Dead Space' hands-on: Gruesome sci-fi horror has never felt so comforting

The remake is better and more broken than the original, but there's time to fix that last part.
Dead Space
EA

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Jessica Conditt
Jessica Conditt|@JessConditt|October 14, 2022 11:00 AM

The Dead Space remake has to be better than Dead Space. The original came out 14 years ago and imploded common ideas of what a horror game should be: It decreased the power of the headshot and stripped away all on-screen icons to immerse us in the ravaged corridors of the Ishimura, where we were stalked by half-human monsters with freakishly elongated limbs. Dead Space was terrifying and thrilling and surprising, and these emotions have only made the game shine brighter in our memories. This is the version of Dead Space that the remake has to compete with — the one that lives only in our heads, filtered by nostalgia. It seems like an impossible standard to reach. But I think the Dead Space remake nails it — mostly.

Motive Studio and EA held a demo event for Dead Space last month, and I got to play the first three chapters of the remake, stopping just after Isaac restarted the centrifuge. This was the full game in pre-beta form and I played on PC with an Xbox controller. It was immediately impressive by modern standards: The metallic rooms of the Ishimura were filled with crisp, horrific details, and the health indicator running up Isaac’s spine was clearer than ever. Tense instrumentals and mechanical humming noises rose and fell as he explored the ship, and sharp audio cues kept the sense of impending doom alive. Some of the sounds tapped directly into my nostalgia neurons, particularly at the save stations and while picking up items.

Dead Space
EA

The Dead Space remake has fresh voice acting, puzzles, storylines and mechanics, and an AI-driven director that maximizes the horror of each scene. This system doesn’t randomize the behavior of enemies, but it sets off environmental features like steaming pipes, harsh whispers and flickering lights. Whatever the horror director was doing during my playthrough, it worked — I was suitably scared in every setting.

In the demo, Dead Space followed a familiar cadence of dark hallways and towering necromorphs, but it also offered a handful of surprises. For one, the pulse rifle had a new alternative fire that threw out a small proximity mine, rather than a 360-degree spray. (Nothing about the plasma cutter was changed because the plasma cutter is and always has been perfect.) And then there was the revamped zero-gravity mechanic — instead of clinging to surfaces and leaping off of them in an extended jump, the Dead Space remake let me swim through the air, opening up new puzzle and exploration opportunities, especially in conjunction with the stasis and kinesis abilities. It all felt entirely natural, as if this was what developers wanted to do with Dead Space the first time around, but our 2008 hardware just couldn’t handle it.

Dead Space
EA

Honestly though, today’s hardware can’t handle this version of Dead Space, at least not in its current preview form. There are no loading screens in the remake and this feature caused critical problems during my playthrough. I encountered significant and persistent framerate issues throughout the demo, particularly after walking through doorways, as background loading kicked in. My game crashed once and I voluntarily restarted it another time, after slogging through multiple scenes of stuttering animations. The framerate issues were extremely frustrating. Isaac also felt sluggish at certain points, causing me to misfire my weapons or waste time stomping on already-dead enemies. I wasn’t the only player in the room to experience these problems, though some demos seemed to run just fine from start to finish. Developers at Motive made it clear they were aware of these issues and promised they'd be resolved before release day, but my preview experience was less than seamless.

EA
EA

Outside of the framerate frustrations, the Dead Space remake was a delicious slice of old-school video game terror. The necromorphs attacked from the shadows and screamed with guttural, humanlike cries, their long blades and bloody intestines lit only by the glow of Isaac’s plasma cutter. The Dead Space rhythm of stasis, shoot, stomp still worked wonders on nearly every enemy, and headshots didn’t do much to stop the onslaught. Resource management was a crucial aspect of play and each monster took multiple hits to die, leaving infected limbs and tentacles strewn across the floor after each encounter. Some elevator rides were also conspicuously long, as was Isaac’s time on the horizontal people mover — developers told me this was all on purpose, not to cheat in extra loading time, but to give players a moment to breathe and think about the horrors ahead.

I screamed within two minutes of playing the new Dead Space. Even in the crowded demo room, surrounded by PR people, developers and other reporters, the remake sucked me in and scared the hell out of me. It didn’t matter that I’d played the original when it came out in 2008; it didn’t matter that I knew what to expect out of the necromorphs and NPCs; the first three chapters of the remake were tense and terrifying.

Dead Space
EA

More impressively though, the new Dead Space made me smile. Even in its pre-beta form, the remake felt familiar but fresh, and I could’ve kept playing all day — well, if the framerate issues had abated. This problem worries me slightly, but there’s time for Motive to address it before the game hits PC, PS5 and Xbox Series consoles on January 27th, 2023. When the remake ran smoothly, its lack of a HUD was still effective as an immersive tool, the necromorphs were horrifying, and the upgraded mechanics slid smoothly into the frantic rhythm of the game. Overall, this was Dead Space, but better than I remembered.

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'Dead Space' hands-on: Gruesome sci-fi horror has never felt so comforting