So this review is written now that I have played through Dead Space 1, something that according to the save log took 13 hours. It's not a very long game though it seems to include unlocks and achievements as well as higher difficulty levels once you finish it. But first things first.
Dead Space 1 is called a "Survival horror" game, I don't know if I agree with that since there are very few real survival horror segments in the game and most of the time you are so stocked up on weapons that it takes away the scary part of the gameplay. You play as an engineer who, along with his team, are supposed to perform maintenance on a huge space ship called the Ishimura. Ishimura specializes in space mining operations and is able to crack planets open to harvest minerals. As your maintenance ship closes to the Ishimura no one is responding your hails and due to an accident the tiny vessel is forced to make an emergency landing inside the larger mining ship.
As soon as you arrive you realize something is very wrong and it doesn't take many minutes before you are jumped by monsters and have to fight for your life in the claustrophobic corridors among the mayhem created by some kind of alien life forms who have taken over the Ishimura.
The game is played "over the shoulder" in 3rd person only which I think takes away a part of the tension. You can see a lot more with this camera angle. Much of the gameplay revolves around you dismembering monsters with a variety of weapons. Monsters can take a lot of damage and keep coming at you unless you shoot off their arms and legs.
The game also prides itself with having no Heads Up Display (HUD), instead all the information about your ammo count, oxygen level, health, inventory, objectives etc are displayed on your space suit, weapons, holographic displays that you activate with the push of a few buttons and so on. The interesting part of this is that the game doesn't pause when you browse your inventory or check objectives, making it a bit more hectic at times when you are beset by monsters and have to use a medikit.
Another interesting and well made aspect the game offers is "zero gravity" in areas both inside and outside the Ishimura. This makes monster able to come at you from all angles. Overall however the scares become very predictable and follow a certain routine. They often appear out of ventilation shafts, they always roar and make their presence known a second or two before appearing and the music often spoils "imminent danger" by changing the score to something a bit more unsettling. This is a shame because the level design and story would lend itself wonderfully well for a much more slow paced and scarier game. Instead it ends up being a bit too similar to Doom 3 (which was scarier) but in 3rd person.
Lastly the game features upgrades for your space suit and weapons and I don't think there is any way for you to upgrade all of your gear and your space suit in one run, which may increase the replay value.
The voice acting and bits of audio and text logs giving you information about events and your mission are all great, and you slowly unravel the cause of the horrors aboard the Ishimura.
Overall the game is very good and kept me interested throughout the campaign. But if I have to go back to the "survival horror" aspects of the game, then the following things should have been different:
1) A lot less weapons and ammo, preferably being unarmed. Nothing makes you fear for your life in a game more than being unarmed and hunted by blood crazed enemies.
2) Less lights, more darkness. The game is often very colorful, and while it includes a lot of gruesome scenes they appear less grim than if they had been lit properly with blinking lights or having the main character rely on a torchlight to navigate dark hallways
3) More silence, less music. The game features ambient sound effects of things being dropped or thrown around, distant screams, mechanical sounds etc. There are also eerie whispers in the empty corridors. But it all drowns in the music. Oftentimes dead silence creates a much heavier atmosphere of dread and horror.
Dead Space does a few things very early on that are unsettling, it plays with shadows, has things such as fire extinguishers roll into an empty corridor by themselves and so on. This made me tense up a bit, however these moments are very rare and instead you are often calmly walking around blasting monsters that are trying to run up to you. The over reliance on jump scares makes them extremely predictable to the point where you know exactly when enemies will appear while you are doing something in a large room.
So I don't think calling Dead Space a "survival horror" is the correct term and if people find this game scary then I highly recommend playing "Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners" of the "Earth and Amnesia the Dark Descent" for a real scare. Both games feature something that I really like, a "horror/sanity" meter that make the horror parts a lot more effective since your character is affected by horrifying sights and that makes the controls, aiming of guns or even hiding a lot harder and prolonged exposore to fear causes death.
Ultimately Dead Space is a good and interesting game, there isn't anything wrong with the gameplay, but I think that it could have been a lot more scary by simply doing a few things differently. I just started playing Dead Space 2 so a review of that will follow in a couple of days.