Originality is overrated. Dead Space proudly wears a host of influences on its sleeve: Alien and Solaris, Half-Life and Resident Evil 4. Plenty of boilerplate game design factors in, too: claustrophobic corridors, explosive canisters, gathering credits to spend at stores, even though you're on a dead ship. But Dead Space is a reminder that influence and convention, sharply focused, can become terrifically creepy.
The focal lens is Isaac Clarke, an engineer sent to repair the mining ship Ishimura, disabled after retrieving something from an uninhabited planet. The artifact, worshipped by religious nutjobs, triggers the animation of dead flesh. The results, called Necromorphs, swarm the Ishimura and can only be killed by dismemberment. So Isaac, armed with repurposed repair tools, embarks on a gratuitously bloody slog that looks like the lawnmower climax from Dead Alive transplanted to a working-class spaceship.
The game's utter commitment to the premise makes it work until the threadbare story takes precedence over slicing up monsters. Horror games love to jab at religion, but tired anti-Scientology commentary only drains tension. Mostly, however, using an industrial saw to sever limbs from a rancid reanimated meatbag is purpose enough, especially when done in perfectly realized zero gravity. Throw in thinly justified powers (stasis slows monster movement, while rudimentary kinesis manipulates objects from afar) and the occasional vacuum (where enemy approach is appropriately silent) and Isaac's mission becomes one "Holy shit!" moment after another.
Beyond the game: EA may be too excited to have a new narrative property. Dead Space has already spawned comic books, an animated film, and multiple online adventure games, all dedicated to expanding the game's backstory and peripheral characters.
Worth playing for: The grimy-but-gorgeous environments, decorated with holographic pop-ups and innumerable flickering lights and shadows. The perfectly lit details are beautiful and overwhelming. This is one of the year's most notable visual achievements.
Frustration sets in when: Only one boss fight (the zero-g Leviathan) has any juice. Most are bigger, louder versions of routine encounters. The rooms in which Isaac is dogpiled by a dozen Necromorphs are far more challenging and rewarding than the disappointing final level and end boss.
Final judgment: A forgettable story can't handicap this sickly, atmospheric gorefest.