Resident Evil 4 is highly regarded as one of the best games of the 6th generation, and Dead Space is highly regarded for being Resident Evil 4 in space. In general, RE4 is the better remembered of the two, even though it can be contended that Dead Space improves the gameplay by adding strafing and graphic dismemberment to the formula. So what is it about RE4 that makes it more memorable than Dead Space? I think the comparison is two-fold; first, RE4 establishes memorable characters, and second, its pacing is unrivaled even today.
In regards to characters, Dead Space chose to go with a silent protagonist. This is an approach taken by a lot of games, even benchmark games like Half-Life 2, Legend of Zelda, and Chrono Trigger. The difference is the supporting cast—and in Dead Space that cast is practically non-existent. You have two fellow crewmates, one whose only purpose seems to be directing you to your next objective, and the other whose reason for existence was to die to setup tension. I think the silence of the protagonist removed a lot of opportunities Dead Space had to add depth to the characters.
On the other hand, several reviews that came out at the time of RE4’s release complained that Leon Kennedy was just plain silly, and this impacted their final score of the game. But that silliness is one of the best parts of the game for me. I love the cliché action movie lines like “Where’s everyone going? Bingo?” or horrible repartee such as, “I’m sending my right hand after you” with “Your right hand comes off?”
The dialogue is entertaining, and it sets an appropriate action movie tone to the game. Although the Resident Evil franchise had its origins in the survival horror genre with fixed camera angles and disempowerment through lack of available resources, RE4 took a drastic turn and mutated to a game where you can jump through windows without taking damage and kick enemies after shooting them in the face.
While the game still manages to pack in some scary moments, you still felt like a hardcore action hero – and Leon acts like one. With that established, the supporting cast can much more easily play off of him. The mid-game villain Salazar provides some of the most hilarious cutscenes in my memory as the two go back and forth like a pair of arguing 4 year olds.
Resident Evil 4’s characters and dialogue enhanced the game, but the same cannot be said about Dead Space. The emotional hook of the game is established by Isaac’s need to find his wife, Nicole, and even though she is a crucial component to the mystery of the USG Ishimura, the audience has no reason to share Isaac’s motivation to find her, and because we can only relate to her through short prerecorded messages, her development is completely undermined by Isaac being mute.
Nicole’s presence would have been more effective and touching if we knew something more about Isaac and about the relationship they shared, but the game doesn’t fill us in. This ultimately made every character’s involvement in the game’s obligatory plot twist seem like it was more of a by-the-numbers decision than an act of genius storytelling.
Am I saying that Dead Space would have been better if Isaac quipped things like “Sorry to disarm you, but I needed a hand”? Well, yes, but I’m not saying that’s the only direction they should have taken it. Silent Hill 2 was an extraordinarily serious game, but the voice of the protagonist was absolutely necessary to setup the game’s climax and ending. Dead Space would have been greatly improved if it took similar steps to set up its own ending instead of basing the majority of the game around trying to repair a dying ship.
This brings me to the next point: pacing. Dead Space can be boiled down to a series of fetch quests. Your friends tell you that the hyperdrive needs fixing, and once you’ve done that they call you up and say “Damn, now the flowers need water or we’re going to run out of oxygen.” What does this have to do with the climax of the game, or the search to find Isaac’s wife? Absolutely nothing. It’s filler.
In Resident Evil 4, Leon has exactly two goals: shoot Ganados in the face, and save Ashley. Everything you do is in pursuit of those goals. Even when Ashley gets captured time and time again, it doesn’t feel like the game is artificially extending itself because it feels like a constant struggle the whole way. More importantly, the situations change drastically as you move along. At one point you’re in a village and the next you’re in a castle sewer exterminating stealth cockroaches from hell.
Dead Space had you in the same ship for a majority of the game, and its attempts at changing the pace involved turning the gravity off, or having timed air segments. While I think these environments are great, they were almost like a separate game entirely. Fundamentally, when you’re not in those environments, you’re in a straight hallway or circular room strafing around and aiming your gun to cut enemy arms off until they stop moving.
RE4 included things like furniture you can push in front of windows, two-story homes you can remove the ladder access from, and alcoves you can use as cover. If the location can’t keep it interesting, then the game introduces a new enemy that will completely surprise you; all of these things built on the game’s core mechanics rather than simply taking a break from them. And even though you were a crazy action hero, the game made sure that you felt overwhelmed at every turn – just enough to make you feel like you’re still a pro for accomplishing the next task.
Mechanically, Dead Space definitely had a lot of potential to show up RE4 entirely, but ultimately its lack of characterization and variety made it forgettable, at least for me. For years to come, I will still load up Resident Evil 4 HD to enjoy the unrivaled and unique entertainment it provides while Dead Space will doubtlessly fall into obscurity.