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Will the Dead Space Remake Keep the Horrific Magic of the Original?

Are you ready to visit the USG Ishimura, one last time?

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Will the Dead Space Remake Keep the Horrific Magic of the Original

Looking Back at the Horror

With Halloween right around the corner and a remake slated for release on January 27 2023, there’s never been a better time to look back at the original Dead Space, and take a look ahead to what the future might bring.

Dead Space was originally released for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC in 2008. Taking inspiration from the works that came before it – the camera and combat of Resident Evil 4, the world-building and technological terror of System Shock, and the psychology and twisted creature design of Silent Hill – as well as bringing plenty of new, terrifying ideas to the table, it easily carved out its own niche in the market and became beloved by fans the world over.

Dead Space was a seminal experience for many. In fact, other than Resident Evil 4 (which I had only completed with the help of a guide), it was the first horror game I played all the way through and it opened my eyes to a whole new world of fun and fear. And I wasn’t alone.

The Dead Space remake has big shoes to fill. Fans are very precious over this game (myself included) and will not be happy with anything less than perfect. But from what has been shown off so far, EA certainly seems to be heading in the right direction. With improved graphics and lighting, and enhanced dismemberment and gore, this remake appears to be stacking up to the nostalgic, rose-tinted version kept alive in players’ minds.

So, what made the original so fantastically scary? And what does the remake need to get right in order to be welcomed with open (scythe-tipped) arms?

Image: Motive Studio - Isaac is back, but is he bringing the horror we remember him for with him?
Image: Motive Studio – Isaac is back, but is he bringing the horror we remember him for with him?

Every Good Tale Starts at the Beginning

The original Dead Space keeps things simple. It is the story of a lone man trapped aboard a crumbling space station infested with alien zombies. Yes, there are deeper mysteries to uncover (such as where these monsters came from) but the details are scarce, and the simplicity of the setup makes it all the scarier. Knowing as much about what is going on as main character Isaac Clarke – as well as giving him little in the way of a personal backstory – allows players to easily slip into his hefty boots. And they can imagine that it is they themselves who must face the terrors that lurk aboard the USG Ishimura, alone and completely unprepared.

There’s always the desire to add more when revisiting a game – to add more complex characters, flesh out the plot, sprinkle in a few teasers and easter eggs for the sequels – a desire that EA and Motive Studio should avoid at all costs. When it comes to horror, simple works best.

The very beginning of Dead Space sets the mood perfectly. From approaching the derelict Ishimura from a distance, seeing it floating there – dead in the water – above a cracked planet, to entering the enormous ship for the first time, taking in both its grandeur and its oppressive closeness, its silence. Then watching in horror as terrifying scythe-limbed Necromorph tears your accompanying crew to shreds, only to immediately have to run from another through a twisting and dimly-lit corridor. And when you reach the elevator at the end and think you’re safe, the undead abomination starts to claw its way in, only to be crushed by the doors at the very last second. It is an exhilarating set piece, but one that wouldn’t have worked half so well without the nearly ten minutes of quiet build-up first. Ten minutes of building atmosphere and tension, knowing something is going to happen, but not what, or when.

Image: Visceral Games - Is there anything quite as unnerving as an abandoned spaceship?
Image: Visceral Games – Is there anything quite as unnerving as an abandoned spaceship?

While it may be difficult to replicate that opening exactly in the remake, as so many have experienced it first-hand by now, Motive Studio should stick closely to the original’s script. One possible misstep would be to speed it up, to get to the horror within the first few minutes. After all, that’s what players are here for, right? Wrong. Horror is at its best when it plays on people’s fears, when it gets in their heads and sends their imaginations into overdrive. Building the tension, as the original did so well, can keep players on the edge of their seats far longer than with cheap thrills and jump scares.

The Atmosphere of Dead Space

The USG Ishimura is a truly inspired setting for a horror game. Yes, it draws inspiration from films like Alien and Event Horizon, but it makes the place its own.

Space is an inherently creepy setting, with nothing but a few easily broken feet of steel keeping you from the choking darkness of the void beyond. And the original Dead Space certainly knows how to play into that fear, with the corridors of the Ishimura constantly creaking and groaning, as if it’s struggling to hold itself together. Not to mention the sections that have already been completely destroyed, for one reason or another, where the player must guide Isaac through sections of low gravity, and where a single wrong move could send him floating off into the dark recesses of space.

Early Alpha footage has confirmed that these low-gravity sections have been completely overhauled in the remake. Where, in the original, Isaac was locked to specific surfaces, only able to hop between them with slow, calculated jumps, in the remake, he can now float freely through the air. No longer being tied down opens up a whole new way of exploring these areas, and, potentially, the opportunity to find new, alternate routes.

Image: Motive Studio - Completely overhauled for the remake, Isaac will now be able to hover through low-gravity areas.
Image: Motive Studio – Completely overhauled for the remake, Isaac will now be able to hover through low-gravity areas.

The original game had phenomenal lighting for its time. Every location aboard the enormous ship was bathed in darkness, illuminated only in part by thin LED strips, swinging lights, or the faint beam of Isaac’s flashlight. It ramped up the fear factor massively, with leaping shadows thrown across the walls and enemies scuttling around unseen. Thankfully, Motive Studio appears to be doubling down on the use of light to scare, as new gameplay footage shows off their revamped lighting system – with new volumetric lighting, ray-tracing, and particles making light sources and shadows far more realistic, and far more terrifying.

Image: Motive Studio - The USG Ishimura has never looked so good, or so scary.
Image: Motive Studio – The USG Ishimura has never looked so good, or so scary.

A Fully Fleshed-Out World

To help ground the setting, every menu, pop-up, and bar is 100% diegetic. That means that they exist in the game world for the characters to see, not just the player. Isaac’s health bar and stasis meter are on his back, the map and inventory screens pop up as holograms from his visor, and even ammo counts appear as holograms on the weapons themselves. This helps make everything feel more realistic, grounding the player in a believable world. Which only serves to make the horror feel more believable, too. And with the extra graphical fidelity afforded by current-gen hardware, the developers at Motive can push this even further, showing the lights of Isaac’s health bars reflect off his armour or the glow of the holograms bounce off the walls, making the world feel even more alive.

The original Dead Space had no cutscenes and only had loading screens between levels (carefully level geometry allowed different parts of each level to be loaded in only when they were needed, entirely unbeknownst to the player). And with the processing power of current-gen hardware already cutting loading screens down to mere seconds in other games, could we see the first truly “one-take” video game (God of War doesn’t count as opening menus cut away from the action) with nothing to take players away from the scares? Here’s hoping Motive Studio has the tech to make it happen.

Image: Visceral Games - All UI elements exist within the game world itself.
Image: Visceral Games – All UI elements exist within the game world itself.

The Art (and Sound) of Terror

Despite being 14 years old, the original Dead Space’s art design is still impeccable. The look, feel, and layout of the USG Ishimura are both fantastical and realistic in their design. Environments are dense and packed with detail. Levels feel open – as though this was once a real place where people lived and worked – yet funnel players down the critical path, and ensure that although they might feel it, they are never truly lost.

Open-world games are big at the moment, in more ways than one, and it would be a crying shame for EA and Motive to try to expand the remake’s core horror experience with filler and fluff. From the look of the recent trailers, they appear to be sticking to the original’s tight corridors and enclosed spaces (now rendered in all their terrifying beauty with 4K textures and volumetric fog), and hopefully, that won’t change between now and January.

Image: Visceral Games/Motive Studio - 14 years is a long time when it comes to technology in games.
Image: Visceral Games/Motive Studio – 14 years is a long time when it comes to technology in games.

The ship itself may be terrifying, but it’s the Necromorphs that stick in the mind like a vivid nightmare. The original game’s monsters are still a sight to behold all these years later, with their sickly alabaster skin, broken and contorted figures, and spikey, scythe-like appendages. And players can’t look away, they have to face these abominations head-on. This, coupled with the fact that the only way to kill them off for good is to dismember them one crooked limb at a time, really upped the sickeningly grotesque body horror that was Dead Space’s main selling point.

And from what we’ve seen so far, Motive is doubling down on the grotesque. The Necromorphs have received a fresh coat of paint, with higher resolution skin textures and shining blood and viscera to really hammer home the fact that these twisted things were once human. The developers have also created a new destruction model which allows players to flay every last scrap of skin off an attacking Necromorph until there is little more than bone remaining. An absurd amount of detail has gone into this feature, with every attack wounding these monsters realistically. Motive certainly isn’t shying away from the gore; they are embracing it.

Image: Motive Studio - New tech = more terrifying Necromorphs. | Dead Space Remake
Image: Motive Studio – New tech = more terrifying Necromorphs.

Sound plays a key role in horror. Loud sounds, ambiguous sounds, wet sounds, all set the player’s imagination running. The creaking of strained metal, the echoing bang of pipes, and the roar of machinery come together to make the Ishimura a truly unsettling place to explore. Couple these with the wet drip of fresh blood, the squelch of fleshy bodies, and the blood-curdling screams of the Necromorphs, and the player quickly becomes overwhelmed, jumping at every little sound, never knowing what might have made it. To make things even worse, the weapons are loudest of all, shrieking and whirring and banging with every pull of the trigger, and easily masking the sound of any approaching enemies.

But then, stepping out into space takes it all away, and leaves the player with nothing but the sound of Isaac’s laboured breathing and the muted thud of his magnetized boots. Such an emptiness, such a sudden lack of stimulation, draws the player into Isaac’s head even further and builds on the very real feeling of isolation.

Better technology also means better sound. Just imagine trying to pick your way through the chaos of a Necromorph fight with 3D audio. Or how insignificant you would feel in the muted majesty of space.

Cut Off Their Limbs

Building on Resident Evil 4’s game-changing over-the-shoulder combat, Dead Space paid homage to the horror classic while also updating it. Movement, while still a little clunky, is much more fluid, and Isaac can move while aiming. Something players really need to take advantage of in the ship’s tight and claustrophobic corridors. Necromorphs are quick, and while only one or two attacks the player at a time at the start of the game, by the end, anyone who hasn’t got to grips with the game’s combat will quickly become overwhelmed.

Image: Visceral Games - Ready to face this in 4K? - Dead Space Remake
Image: Visceral Games – Ready to face this in 4K?

Necromorphs can only be killed by cutting off their limbs and, thankfully, Isaac has the right tools for the job. Being an engineer, Isaac’s weapons are the station’s power tools – gadgets designed to slice and tear through metal, but which have no problem doing the same to flesh and bone. The original had a good variety of weapons for players to get their hands on, ranging from the up-close-and-personal Ripper to the spray-and-pray Pulse Rifle. Motive would do well to bring each and every one of them back for the remake, as they all played a different role and could be used in tandem with each other to take down the different types of Necromorphs both tactically and efficiently. Of course, some of these weapons were better than others, so if Motive want to give those a quick tune-up, that’s fine by me.

What they should not do is neglect them all in favour of the Plasma Cutter. Yes, it is the perfect weapon, and yes, it’s the one I used for almost my entire first playthrough, but it would take the thrill out of on-the-fly experimentation if the trusty Plasma Cutter was too overpowered.

Image: Motive Studio - Will the trusty Plasma Cutter carry you through the remake? Or will you be forced to experiment? Dead Space Remake
Image: Motive Studio – Will the trusty Plasma Cutter carry you through the remake? Or will you be forced to experiment?

And lastly, while the original Dead Space wasn’t a long game by any stretch, it would be nice to see Motive trim the fat and make this new experience even more streamlined. That means no long slogs back through previously visited sections of the ship, no new side missions, and the outright removal of the oft-derided asteroid turret mission. Horror should be carefully choreographed and tightly paced, and anything that messes with that formula should be left on the cutting room floor.

The Future Looks Bright

So, while the Dead Space remake has a lot to live up to, it looks like EA and Motive Studio know what they are doing. The developers have a lot of love and respect for the original, they are big fans just like everyone else. And with all the effort they are putting into this game, it’s clear they will clearly accept nothing but the very best. And while I’m terrified at the prospect, I cannot wait to step aboard the Ishimura one more time. Will you be coming with me?

Max Longhurst is a keen gamer, avid writer and reader, and former teacher. He first got into gaming when, at the age of 8, his parents bought him a PS2 and Kingdom Hearts for Christmas, and he’s never looked back. Primarily a PlayStation fan, he loves games with a rich single-player experience and stories with unexpected twists and turns.

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