“Somehow, Dead Space returned.”
The thing is, unlike that space dude, everyone has been waiting for Electronic Arts to realize Dead Space never stopped being a viable playground for unsettling stories and novel gameplay. Revisiting the original game 15 years after its original release—a game that truly does feel 15 years old when you actually go back and watch footage from it—is the safest possible play for testing the waters on Dead Space, but that’s fine. Dead Space still rocks.
Look, The Callisto Protocol was well-meaning. Under the right circumstances, such as late in the evening with a beer, it was even good. But The Callisto Protocol tried really hard to be a modern spin on Dead Space, and what it mostly revealed was how good Dead Space still was. EA Motive has applied what amounts to a light touch to updating Dead Space since it came out more than a decade ago, but it looks like Dead Space (now, with much better lighting) and plays like Dead Space (now, with a better map and transit system to use).
You’ll get to hear Rob and I unpack our thoughts on this updated cosmic horror on Waypoint Radio this week, but in the meantime, after playing the finished game for a few hours, we went back and forth over what we make of the formally silent Isaac Clarke speaking in this one, how haunting the atmosphere of barely-audible whispers feels, and why it remains sick as hell to walk around with a floating fan that you’re prepared to launch at an alien’s feet.
Rob: Now this is more like it, don’t you think?
I didn’t play the original Dead Space until 2016, and then it was on a PC port that was so bad that even the tolerance for half-assed PC controls that I built up throughout the late 2000s was tested. Even then, however, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed a game that I remembered getting respectful but not adoring reviews upon its release. The “CUT OFF THEIR LIMBS” combat that created a mechanical justification for an extreme gore-fest was surprisingly fun and the Ishimura was a rotting industrial hell that had aged well as a setting despite being so clearly a product of its era.
You could look at Dead Space and see a game that was shaped by the technical limitations of the time and was also on the cutting edge of the “dark, brown and gray” aesthetic that signaled games were not just for kids anymore, and you certainly weren’t a kid because you loved bleak murkiness now and not the colorful cartoon worlds of Nintendo.
But Dead Space also came by its look honestly and cleverly: as Isaac Clarke, you were an industrial engineer being sent to work aboard the USG Ishimura, a “planet-cracker” mining ship designed to perform strip mining tasks on a cosmic scale. By the time you get there, the crew is mostly dead and turned into blade-armed zombies called necromorphs, and you try and figure out what happened while battling them in the gloom of the now almost-derelict vessel.
The Ishimura had the power and purpose of the Death Star but the look of a rusting industrial heap. Everything about it was slightly colossal in scale and also impersonal, a far cry from the comparatively dazzling, dense interiors of the Van Buren in System Shock 2. It didn’t feel quite so forced and obvious when you stepped into rooms designed for sprawling combat encounters, with plenty of room for Isaac and his hulking adversaries to lumber around one another. Of course things felt sparse and crude aboard the Ishimura.
Times and graphical capabilities have changed, though. This week, we receive a current generation remake of Dead Space and I both love it and keep having moments where I feel like I need to go back to the original game to see if this is an even more revisionist remake than I can recall. For instance… did the soundtrack always sound like such a terrific riff on Goldsmith’s work on Alien? As I play this game, Alien: Isolation is popping into my head more than Callisto Protocol, which is not really a comparison I remember drawing before and I know it seems absurd because this is game where you are blowing monsters apart in rooms that are festooned with entrails and blood spatters in a way that the chillier, eerier Isolation rarely permits.
Yet in this playthrough everything feels so much more haunted. Was I hearing this many voices before, pitched just on the cusp of becoming comprehensible language? We know from early audio logs that members of the crew were, for weeks, being troubled by profound senses of guilt, traumatic flashbacks, and strange voices from their past. But did we know from the start of the original game that Isaac’s family was destroyed by the Scientology-like church that was pursuing its own agenda aboard the Ishimura, dead in a murder-suicide following multiple failed interventions? Did it feel, before, like Isaac might be battling the projected demons that haunted the crew before their deaths?
There is an early moment where you hear this unholy, gong-like pounding echoing down a hallway and this time it nearly made my heart stop the first time I heard it. I trudged around the corner and came into view of a lost medical patient, eerily framed at the end of the hall by blazing cold floodlights, just mindlessly smashing their head into a wall so hard the Ishimura itself seemed to be ringing. And you know, it completely got to me. I stared at this poor bastard, frozen in horror, for a good ten or fifteen seconds. It’s just good horror game haunted house stuff but was it always this good?
Patrick: Brother, it feels so good to spend half my time walking around, slowly and clumsily, with a razor-sharp fan floating in the air again. This place might be cursed, but Rob, I’m home. This is where I’m supposed to be. (Am I a Unitologist now?) Apologies to the crew that has to deal with all the vents I’ve busted up, but this place is doomed anyway, right?
You’re right to look at this take on Dead Space with confused eyes. We both played The Last of Us update from last year, but that was a game from 2013, and the sequel was only a few years ago. Naughty Dog’s coat of polish looks incredible, but they kept the game mostly alone, and instead pulled the magic trick of making the game match your memories. Dead Space…I haven’t touched the original game since it came out in 2008. (Did Dead Space 3 really come out the same year as The Last of Us? They were only a few months apart!)
Like you, I cannot tell where the original Dead Space ends and this new one begins, which is both a function of distance from the original and a compliment to how slick this one feels. I want to be specific about what I mean by slick, too. I’m not suggesting they’ve cleaned up this dirty, dinged-up ship designed to extract resources—if anything, they’ve yucked it up—but to gesture at how much they’ve successfully evoked all the familiar beats, while making the kinds of tweaks (like a better map) that one would hope from a loving update.
A note: my washer and dryer are near my office. Dead Space is a game frequently dishing out unsettling noises, be it the murmurs of a necromorph crawling around the vents or the Ishimura’s busted equipment coming slowly undone. At one point, I couldn’t tell if Dead Space was making a steady drumbeat of industrial noises that were getting under my nerves, or if I was conflating it with a pair of shoes tumbling in the dryer. During one of the game’s brief quiet moments, I told myself that I “needed a glass of water,” which was merely an excuse to take a break from the game, see if anything was in the dryer (there wasn’t), double check all the doors were locked, and “accidentally” leaving a light on in the room next door, while simultaneously “accidentally” leaving my office door open, letting the light leak in.
In other words, Dead Space is accomplishing a difficult task: it’s scaring me all over again, even though I already know what’s going to happen. Movies don’t do that to me. Except, like you said, I’m not sure I do know what’s going to happen. The encounters feel different, but they might not be? The set pieces feel familiar, but they might be a tad different? Does this version of Dead SpaceI have less goofy environmental graffiti, acknowledging how tacky it feels in 2023, but realizing you can’t get rid of it entirely because it’s part of Dead Space? Or is everything the same and I don’t care?
Intentionally or not, it’s playing with memory and nostalgia in a way that I’m finding thrilling.
But you touch on an important note, one that I’m not yet settled on, albeit I’m only a few chapters into the game. (As of this writing, I’m trying to flip the engines back on, to avoid crashing into the nearby planet.) One of the major decisions made for this remake is to give Isaac Clarke a voice. Visceral Games did give Isaac a voice in Dead Space 2—in fact, it’s the same voice actor continuing the role here—but he’s dead silent in the original game. It’s part of the flavor of Dead Space, and I’m not clear the writing justifies the change here yet.
To be clear, the logic is sound. It feels weird to have Isaac, a silent protagonist who also has a clear emotional motivation for survival, to not speak. My problem, instead, is what he’s saying. I don’t remember how much we knew about Isaac’s history with Unitology in 2008, but man, Issac (and the extended crew) sure are handling how badly things are going on this otherwise routine check-up on the Ishimura pretty well. There’s blood all over the walls and the crew have been turned into monsters? Shrug. Your wife has been spending her free time cracking open the guts of these creatures and trying to understand why everyone onboard is going insane? Eh.
In every instance, Isaac is cool as a cucumber—too cool, imo. The only time my man starts losing it is when his oxygen is almost gone. That worked in the original because the character was portrayed as a brick house. I mean, look at how the man stomps boxes! Does the character, as written, feel like the same person? It’s not taking me out of the story, but there’s a disconnect here I can’t square. I almost feel like they should have ripped the bandaid off entirely and re-cast Isaac; they’re missing some…gravitas?
P.S. Is this where I selfishly admit that while I know the thing to say is that the games industry is crass and cynical about cashing in on things like remakes, the deft touch taken to Dead Space and The Last of Us has me wishing more games were given this treatment?
Rob: Oh boy, Talking Isaac… I think the issue is they have kept a lot of the overall content of these conversations roughly the same, except now there are little spaces where Isaac interjects and people make a point of responding before assigning the next mission. Plus, yes, all of this gets weirder the minute Isaac is talking and responding to stuff. Think about the opening. So both versions open with a really disturbing message from Isaac’s girlfriend Nicole, basically on the verge of tears and sounding like she is thinking about hurling herself out the nearest airlock rather than face what’s happening around her. Originally you cut from that to the tech nerd, Daniels, vaguely talking about the message and then ignoring you as she engages in sparring with the mission commander. Now, Daniels and Isaac strikes up a friendly conversation over the message and your relationship.
But the minute the characters interact with each other about that message, it gets really weird that nobody says something like, “So… does it sound like maybe things are a totally fucked up here?” In fact I would say the message in this new version, which is less garbled and more intact, is even more alarming about the state of affairs aboard the Ishimura!
That sense of disconnection never quite goes away here, like Isaac and his team lead Hammon are on a troubleshooting tech support call in between zombie attacks, and I think more than a performance issue it is just a byproduct of the compromise struck between keeping the story and characterizations broadly intact while also giving Isaac the speaking part he had for the rest of the series.
Still, you know what? In looking this up for the purposes of comparison it hit me that this Dead Space remake looks a lot like how I remember the original game… and the original game looked and sounded nothing like I remembered it. It used what it had to great effect, I certainly remember lots of oppressive, stark shadows and flickering lights, but in old gameplay videos it is really rationing a lot of these effects. The game was more flatly lit than I remember, nowhere near as dripping with atmosphere as I would have said.
This new Dead Space? It’s a really special update of the original. It does not feel like quite as complete a revision as Resident Evil 2, but neither does it hew so closely to the original that is risks becoming underwhelming. I hate to sound like a back of the box quote but it earns it: every single compartment and corridor aboard the Ishimura is so dense with detail and menace that every new area becomes a memorable event in itself.
It does all this without, in my experience, compromising performance. I have played this in the quality mode on PS5 and have not regretted that decision one iota. Movement and aiming are smooth, highlighting how good the combat design is in this game. On the other hand, coming from that PC port I have never had it so good, so my bar is on the floor. I know you tend to be a performance mode guy, so I am curious how you find the controls and combat?
Patrick: I know these new consoles have only been out a few years—and it’s only recently that luck and overpaying stopped factoring into acquiring one—but my kingdom for DLSS on these things! I’m playing in performance mode…and it’s fine. I’m being a snob. The Callisto Protocol was super dark and didn’t emphasize lighting the same way Dead Space does, so I did not really notice the change in resolution. Here, there are so many instances where Isaac is close to the screen, and it’s had me wondering if I could stomach the drop in frame rate.
(I suspect I will stick it out, though. The frame rate bug has gotten me good this gen.)
You’ve nailed it when it comes to the Isaac stuff, though. I, too, recoiled when Isaac’s wife left this distraught message on approach to the Ishimura, and Isaac’s response was wishing they spoke more often than every six months. Poor Isaac, how he must long for the gentle whisper of his traumatized wife sharing sweet nothings about a weaponized space religion!
I’m sure it’s a distressing prospect to revisit a modern classic like Dead Space, especially the way the developers went about it, which was to involve the community from day one and be a relatively open book about their process. But I’m not precious about the past, and having played a decent chunk of the game now, I wish they’d taken some bigger swings when it came to the characterization and dialogue. It’s hard to blame the voice actor in this case, so I take that back.
But this is a lot of talk about the story in a game where, most of the time, you’re running in the dark from screaming monstrosities. Lemme tell you a story about an otherwise normal encounter where I goofed picking up a series of objects to throw, and instead of looking cool and blowing up a bunch of necromorphs, I got skewered and died with an animation that, I must admit, is not nearly as cool and ridiculous as anything in The Callisto Protocol. Upon reloading, I prepped for the encounter by aiming my gun where the first enemy came out the last time—and they didn’t appear. Instead, some fucker dropped from the ceiling and started getting me from behind.
Apparently, Dead Space has a reactive “AI director” of sorts that is tracking players, and it’s able to generate different kinds of enemy encounters. It puts an interesting wrinkle into how I typically play these games, where if I grossly misuse resources in combat, I might purposely die and streamline my process the next go around. Here, though, I can’t count on any of that, because the enemy layout, including the loot drops, aren’t static. This friggin’ rules, because it pushes back on the survival horror strategy of optimized survival. I’m only playing on normal, but I’ve been forced to use a lot more health than I normally would in a game like this, because there’s no guarantee that trying a room again will net a better outcome for me.
What does is keep an element of surprise in the familiar. That’s hard.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is my inability to spend upgrade points on anything that isn’t the basic plasma cutter. I’m trying, I really am, and the game is giving me enough ammo that I don’t feel guilty goofing around with the other weapons I’ve come across (the ripper + pulse rifle), butbutbut I can see the heat damage bonus for the plasma cutter is only a few spaces away, and maybe I’ll be able to shake this dedication once I’ve hopped over there.
Dead Space kicked ass in 2008, and this version kicks ass in 2023. It’s spooky, and it feels good to tear apart ugly dudes. What else is there to say? I hope the same team gets a chance to apply this same treatment for Dead Space 2, though perhaps with the confidence to put more of their own bloody stamp on it. And if that’s a problem, screw it—just let them make their own Dead Space, pull some elements from the sequels, and chart a new path.
So long as we don’t forget about the blood moons. We can’t get rid of the blood moons. Surely you’ve read about the blood moons, Rob? Hey, why are you walking away from me? Brother Rob, have you heard the good word about the blood moons!