More so now than ever before, coming up with a truly original game - not just a new franchise, but new gameplay concepts as well - has become a tall order. "Dead Space" certainly looks derivative at first glance, the result of tossing "Doom 3," "Gears of War" and "BioShock" into a blender. Yet "Dead Space" easily establishes its own identity and provides a unique, intense, blood-curdling experience.
Let's get the "BioShock" comparisons out of the way early. You're an everyman who enters an isolated colony ("deep space" is the new "underwater," apparently) where all the inhabitants have been mutated by unknown causes and they all want to rip the flesh from your bones. You can even pick up audio logs left by now-deceased crewmembers, and you gain telekinesis and stasis abilities. The only things missing are giant scuba divers with drill-arms and clowns welcoming you to the circus of value.
On the other hand, there was nothing quite like "BioShock" at the time, so imitators are still welcome. Calling "Dead Space" a clone would be doing it a disservice. Stop me if you've heard the phrase "greater than the sum of its parts" before, but when the game's parts are ripped straight from some of the most well-regarded games of this generation, the package as a whole becomes that much easier to appreciate.
You'll control space engineer (not space marine - see? Unique!) Isaac Clarke from an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective, and you'll never leave that perspective for the entire game, even when opening menus, which just appear as holographic images in front of Isaac's face.
No loading screens, either. Combined with the ominous shadows and chilling sounds of monsters that might or might not be there, "Dead Space" creates one of the most legitimately immersive game worlds of this generation, other than Isaac having an unfortunate case of Gordon-Freemanitis (he's mute).
Even though hideous beasts are running amuck, Isaac's priorities lie in fixing every technical problem with the space station imaginable, including busted engines and poison gas filling the vents. Kind of odd how when it's immediately apparent no survivors roam the station, your superiors value the integrity of this cursed vessel more than your own life, but whatever.
Funny thing is, Isaac is a perfectly capable fighter given the right weaponry. He's usually toting enough med-packs to patch himself up whenever necessary, and his weapons sure put a hurting on the bad guys. There are laser cutters, buzz saws and flamethrowers just to name a few.
You'll have to resist the urge to pump a baddie's chest full of plasma. Even headshots won't do. Creatures only go down after their various limbs/appendages/tentacles have been severed in the most gruesome way possible. Trying to aim in just the right spots when some slimy abomination with claws comes barreling toward you gets pretty intense.
When someone tells you "I'm going to scare you" upfront, your natural instinct is to be defiant, but the enemies in "Dead Space" have a knack for catching you off guard, mainly because they can bust through pretty much any wall around you. If nothing else, you'll be overly paranoid about every corner you turn.
Even if you're never scared, the action gets so loud and intense you'll never keep a steady heartbeat. When played correctly, "Dead Space" avoids many of the pitfalls of the horror genre by integrating the precise-controls of a run-and-gun shooter to a slow and methodical one. And bonus points to EA, usually lambasted for being a sequel factory, for coming up with a unique, quality product for the hardcore masses.