In October 2017, publisher Electronic Arts unceremoniously shut down its studio Visceral Games, best known for shooter series Dead Space. Visceral was part of a dwindling breed at EA, devoted to linear high-budget games instead of a profitable “live service” model. One former employee noted that even the popular Dead Space 2 had been considered a financial failure, and the odds of a new one appearing in the near future seemed small. Yet tomorrow, EA will do just that, releasing a remake of the original 2008 Dead Space developed by its Canadian team Motive Studio. The Dead Space remake isn’t the path I’d have chosen for a resurrection of one of my favorite series. It also happens to be great.
Dead Space (2023) is most obviously a better-looking version of Dead Space (2008). Debuting on next-generation consoles and PC, it’s the kind of game where everything glistens, from the slimy explosive tentacles wreathing its futuristic spaceship to the ornate brassy ridges on protagonist Isaac Clarke’s suit. But beneath that surface, Motive has polished the foundations of Dead Space with changes drawn from its 2011 sequel as well as some simple yet effective new ideas. Rather than an elaborate reimagining in the vein of the Resident Evil 2 remake, a metanarrative experiment like the Final Fantasy VII Remake, or a user-friendly transformation of a tough-to-play classic like the yet-unreleased System Shock remake, it’s just an immensely solid update to an already excellent game — and one that couldn’t have come at a better time.
The Dead Space franchise is a third-person shooter series defined by a clever twist: you’re in a disaster zone overrun by grotesque zombie-like monstrosities dubbed “necromorphs,” but instead of a bullet to the head, the creatures go down when you sever their blade- or bomb-like limbs. While horror games have explored just about every permutation of the hideously twisted human form, Dead Space forces you to confront it with combat that feels like gruesome surgery — aided by weapons based on power tools like plasma cutters and radial arm saws as well as telekinetic powers and a time-slowing ability called stasis.
The Dead Space remake — like the original — sets this action on a mining spaceship called the USG Ishimura, which has gone unexpectedly silent after cracking open a planet in the depths of space. Engineer Isaac Clarke boards the Ishimura hoping to repair it and track down his girlfriend, a doctor named Nicole Brennan. Instead, he and his team find themselves thwarted at every turn, not only by the necromorph outbreak but also by a mysterious sabotage operation and their own increasingly unstable mental states. Isaac learns the outbreak stems from an apparently madness-inducing alien artifact brought on board the Ishimura. And a powerful religious cult called the Church of Unitology, which is, of course, absolutely nothing like the Church of Scientology, may be helping it spread.
Dead Space was initially conceived as a sequel to the exploration-heavy immersive sim System Shock 2, and although that plan was abandoned early in development, the influence feels evident in the original and carries over to the remake. The Ishimura is a fairly small and self-contained location, full of looping shortcuts and a tram backbone that lets you move easily between levels. (It’s unsurprisingly reminiscent of Arkane’s 2017 Prey, another indirect System Shock successor.) Both iterations of the game involve fixing problems by backtracking through flickering corridors and cavernous common areas, blasting the monsters that burst out of vents or play dead in plain sight. It’s a structure that Dead Space’s two direct sequels would downplay, moving toward comparatively linear level design.
But while the original Dead Space established the basic combat system, some of the series’ best elements came later. Dead Space 2 turned telekinesis into a full-fledged secondary combat option — letting you do things like freeze an enemy with stasis, chop its arm off with a plasma cutter, and pin it to a wall with its own severed limb. It’s so intuitive that the original game feels incomplete without it, and the same goes for some other features, like free-floating zero-gravity sections that let you jet through the vacuum of space rather than just hopping between walls with magnetic boots.
The Dead Space remake is the best that playing a Dead Space game has ever felt. (I ran through it on a PC with a controller and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 graphics card, the game’s recommended spec.) On top of combining the first and second game’s best elements, Motive has overhauled a few undeniably bad encounters, particularly a couple of interminable cannon-blasting set pieces that now feel far snappier and less repetitive. It maintains the methodical but not artificially slow pace of the original, creating suspense with shameless sudden blackouts and enemy jump scares but mostly avoiding the heavily scripted sensory assaults and quicktime sequences that Dead Space 2 became known for. Isaac will certainly take his share of physical and mental punishment, but Dead Space is emphatically a horror game — something to play with and master, not simply be subjected to.
And the remake introduces a few welcome tweaks of its own. The game largely keeps Dead Space’s original array of weapons, but it buffs some of the less popular ones with fresh alternate fire modes — the flamethrower, for instance, can now produce a protective wall of fire. As you attack enemies, you’ll see chunks of their flesh visibly erode, letting you know how close you are to severing a limb. One weapon takes things further with a fire mode that strips off entire layers of skin and muscle, leaving brittle animate skeletons that you can knock out with another weapon. It’s gory and over the top, and I can’t get enough of it.
Dead Space still happily embraces the shooter genre’s artificial yet satisfying shorthands. Enemies have familiar glowing weak spots to aim for, and you’ll stomp gigantic supply crates to release the futuristic equivalent of a single $100 bill, carefully collecting money for supplemental ammo and dopamine-drip upgrades like new suits. On top of being glossy and dramatically lit compared to their 2008 counterparts, the levels are now full of clearly marked stuff to smash and throw at enemies; I have never been so aware of furniture’s potential impalement value. Some doors and lockers are gated behind a new “clearance” system that lets you open them later, when you’ve collected credentials off the bodies of dead crew officers, giving you an organic way to learn about the people on the Ishimura.
The upgrades encourage exploration, too. Like before, you collect power nodes that you can weld to your weapons and suit at benches scattered through the levels. But this time, some of those welding points are unlocked by items that enable specific special functions, like setting enemies on fire with plasma shots. While the powers aren’t necessarily new, the items add an extra incentive to poke around the ship. And they’re far simpler than the confusing modular weapons in Dead Space 3, an okay-at-best game whose influence is nearly undetectable in the remake.
The riskiest moves Motive makes aren’t mechanical but narrative. Dead Space began as a relatively simple space-horror story that evoked Event Horizon, but its plot became more lore heavy and tortured with each game and supplemental tie-in book — Dead Space 3’s climax is as baroquely incoherent as a fever dream, culminating in the decision to (spoilers) make players physically fight a moon. And between the first two games, Isaac underwent a dramatic shift from a silent masked protagonist to a character voiced by actor Gunner Wright, who plays the man as a combination of weary, snarky, and horrifically traumatized.
Wright came on board for the Dead Space remake, giving Isaac a voice in conversations that have been extended, centering characters’ motivations and backstories more clearly. You’re no longer playing a silent figure constantly ordered around by snippy superiors doing the bare minimum to convey where you’re supposed to go but, instead, a competent technician who has a tense but collegial relationship with his team. A series of side missions, which are basically just encouragements to explore specific optional rooms, also give a little extra background on his relationship with Nicole and what she’s been doing on the ship.
Games writer Tom Bissell once laid out a passionate argument against Dead Space 2’s expanded plot and Wright’s voice acting, arguing that a horror game protagonist’s vulnerability “annuls any need for ‘character’ or ‘personality’” to make players care. “Isaac is not relaying an experience. He is, rather, the relay we carry and protect during our experience,” Bissell declared. “The Isaac of the first Dead Space was so moving precisely because you had no idea what was inside his head.”
But I always found Isaac’s inexpressiveness in Dead Space distracting because it was so ostentatiously stiff in a story about ordinary people having a brush with madness and tragedy. A first-person control system lets the protagonist simply disappear, but a third-person avatar makes it impossible to ignore all of the moments that someone would normally react and doesn’t. (A lot of these reactions were buried in the original game’s menu text, which is written from Isaac’s perspective.) Wright imbues the character with an endearing charm that makes him fun not only to protect but also to be around for 15 or 16 hours. It’s enough to make me forget that Motive has made Isaac a generic brunet in his rare unmasked scenes, rather than keeping his distinctive salt-and-pepper hair.
Isaac’s companions, including Nicole, have been rewritten to feel more engaging and human. We’re thankfully past the period where blockbuster shooters have to pretend to be nuanced high art, but the remake is simply better at pragmatic genre storytelling: the underappreciated craft of giving characters enough personality and relatable motivation that I want to listen to them talk. The remake is weakest toward the end, where it feels either rushed or hemmed in by the original script. But it still pulls a little twist that’s compellingly creepy, even if it doesn’t change the story’s ultimate trajectory.
The Dead Space remake feels clean and good in a way that few big-budget Western titles do right now. In 2008, Dead Space seemed like a variation on any number of story-based horror shooters. It was directly inspired by Resident Evil 4 (which itself is getting a remake this year) but also shared DNA with first-person games like BioShock and Half-Life 2, which beat it by a few years to telekinesis and weaponized industrial tools. But in 2023’s world of modest indie narrative games and sprawling open-world AAA slogs, it stands nearly alone. The closest equivalent, Dead Space creator Glen Schofield’s The Callisto Protocol, seemed almost embarrassed to be a game instead of an unforgiving interactive movie.
Sadly, I’m not sure what Motive’s success here means. I’ve seen the game compared to a director’s cut, but none of Dead Space’s original primary creators are involved, and the term suggests a level of deference toward designers that EA simply hasn’t shown. Dead Space remains a relic from an age of self-contained prestige shooters that almost certainly isn’t coming back; I’m not even sure Motive’s approach would work for remaking the series’ other games. But none of that diminishes the sheer ridiculous pleasure of ripping up a zombie with a sawblade and stomping it for loot.
Dead Space will release on January 27th for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and S, and PC.