Motive's remake improves on the solid base of Visceral Games' 2008 original game while still adding enough novelty for returning fans. The updated visuals are the oozing red cherry on top of the reanimated remains of the USG Ishimura's crew.
You can’t compile a list of the best survival horror games these days without including Dead Space. When the original game launched in 2008, it received praise from critics and anyone else who could stomach a playthrough. Its sequels Dead Space 2 (2011) and Dead Space 3 (2013) went on to do as well, if not better.
So, in 2021, when developer Motive announced that a remake was in development during EA Play Live with an eerie teaser trailer, fans of the series (us included) held their collective breaths. Today that wait is over.
We’ve spent the last few days wandering through the derelict halls of the USG Ishimura to find out if this remake is worth the time and money of newcomers to the series or long-time fans.
Rethink your trip to space
If you’ve played the original, the story should be familiar. Set sometime during the 26th century, humanity has exhausted all of Earth’s resources. Humans have resorted to the destructive deep space mining of other planets. In 2008 this might’ve seemed like a suitable science-fiction setting for a space-themed survival horror game. Fifteen years later it doesn’t seem quite as fictitious or farfetched.
You fill the stompy space boots of Isaac Clarke, an unassuming systems engineer (who can talk now). You’re part of a team sent to investigate and repair the Ishimura, the flagship of the Concordance Extraction Corporation and the first Planet Cracker-class ship.
Upon the team’s arrival, what should have been a routine repair quickly goes south. The ship you arrive on is destroyed, leaving you and your team stranded. The Ishimura appears to be abandoned with most of its systems corrupted or damaged beyond repair. There’s also a strange red smear over everything. It doesn’t take you or the team long to realise that smear used to be the ship’s crew members and that something is seriously wrong.
Within the first ten minutes, you’re separated from your team and witness something turn one of them into an abomination David Cronenberg would be proud of. You eventually learn these alien-human hybrids are called Necromorphs. They obviously didn’t take kindly to their planet being mined.
Okay, that’s not the real reason they’re pissed. We didn’t really have the time to sit down and ask. But without spoiling too much, a religious cult and one of The British Museum’s favourite pastimes (foreign artefact ‘relocation’) are involved. You and what’s left of your team need to escape the Ishimura alive while also piecing together the mystery of what happened, searching for survivors and solving puzzles along the way.
The main campaign spans around twelve to fifteen hours across twelve chapters. If you’re looking to complete the entire game, that should take around twenty hours. While the story follows similar beats to the original, the remake introduces new interactions and dialogue for the main characters, adding depth. There are more text and audio logs expanding the game’s lore and adding additional exposition.
Those playtime numbers are just a rough estimate. If this is your first playthrough you can expect it to take a little longer as you regularly pause to give your pounding heart a break.
Everything is a weapon if you’re violent enough
System engineers of the distant future aren’t packing heat. Nor are they combat trained. You spend the first ten or so minutes of the game unarmed and vulnerable. You’ll eventually arm yourself but there’s only one traditional firearm in the game. The rest of the seven-weapon roster are mining tools that protagonist Isaac modifies using his engineering smarts.
As you progress through creepy corridors and abandoned offices, you’ll find ammo, parts to sell for cash, and power nodes. You’ll spend the latter to upgrade your Resource Integration Gear space suit, or RiG for short. You’ll have to make careful decisions on what you upgrade as the number of nodes is limited. You’ll also acquire kinesis and stasis abilities that you’ll use to defend yourself and solve puzzles.
You’ll use your augmented mining equipment (and your big stompy space boots if you run out of ammo) to carve your way through the Necromorphs. But, as in the original game, aiming for the head won’t help you here. You’ll need to dismember your foes’ limbs before you’re truly safe. The dev team has used EA’s Frostbite engine to expand on this with what they call a “Necromorph peeling system”, and it’s as disgusting as it sounds.
Similarly to how buildings can be partially destroyed in the Battlefield franchise, enemy dismemberment utilises the new peeling system to expose layers of skin, muscles, bones, and organs as they are damaged. The smart player will use this to their advantage, noting at a glance how strong your newly upgraded plasma cutter is. It also adds a lot more gore to the game.
Who knew bloodied walls could look this good
Along with tweaks to gameplay and new systems, the devs have greatly improved the audio and visuals of Dead Space bringing it in line with what you’d expect from a 2023 title. But this is a remake, not a remaster. They haven’t simply upscaled existing textures and assets, as with most remastered games. They’ve rebuilt every texture, animation, effect, and piece of enemy behaviour in the Frostbite engine and it pays off immensely.
If you played the original game in anticipation as we did, the comparative screenshots are a good indication of what you can expect visually, granted you have a PC that will run it with the settings maxed out (PC requirements here). They will not, however, prepare you for how the improved lighting, shadows, updated textures and assets, and volumetric fog add to the tension and atmosphere. Even if you dial the settings back slightly and use upscaling tech like Nvidia’s DLSS or AMD’s FSR, it still manages to look good and feel terrifying.
You’re always immersed in the horror
It’s almost as if the Motive dev team had a big chalkboard in their office with the word ‘tension’ in big letters with a smaller ‘immersion’ underneath. Every aspect of Dead Space seems to work towards keeping you immersed or creating a sense of tension, but usually both at the same time.
Want to swap out an empty weapon in your loadout, check the map, or playback an audio log? A context menu appears as a hologram in front of you in real time without pausing the action. You’re left with your camera fixed in position while you frantically navigate through the menus. Even if you wait until things are seemingly calmer, you’ll always feel in danger.
There aren’t any overlaid HUD elements displaying your health points, ammo count, oxygen time, or minimap. These systems are expertly integrated into the gameplay and always visible thanks to the over-the-shoulder third-person perspective, further adding to the immersion.
Your health, oxygen, and stasis are integrated into your RiG, your ammo count is visible when you aim your weapon, and the map has its own menu page. To avoid having to bring that up every time you get lost, your RiG projects a holographic route to your currently selected objective via a hotkey.
Even the game’s placement of save points, which you have to manually trigger, makes you question what’s coming up next. “Why do they think I should save now?” we found ourselves constantly wondering.
Outside of scripted action pieces, as you’re wandering through halls and finding clues, the game uses a dynamic encounter generation system that combines elements like enemy spawns and audio and lighting changes for custom situations in each playthrough. And then there’s a NewGame+ system for future playthroughs.
Say you hear a distant scream. The lights flicker and something jumps out of a nearby vent to tear you apart. After you’ve loaded your save and returned to the same vent there’s no guarantee that will happen again. Maybe the lights will flicker, prompting you to ready yourself but nothing appears. Until you turn around to discover it used a different vent and you lose your head this time.
Dead Space (2023) verdict
A remake of 2008’s Dead Space was always going to have big stompy shoes to fill. You might think improving on an already stellar game would be relatively simple, but we’d argue it’s easier to bungle. Thankfully, Motive has managed to improve on not only the gruesome visuals but engaging gameplay and engrossing story Visceral Games developed in 2008, without losing what made it a pioneer in the survival horror genre.
Whether you’re a fan of the franchise, returning after a long hiatus, or completely new to the Dead Space universe, you’re going to want to play this one, even with its admittedly high price tag of R1,000 on Steam, R1,100 on Xbox Series X|S, or R1,070 on PS5. We’re left feeling cautiously optimistic about remakes for the sequels. But let’s not count our Necromorphs before they burst out of a vent.