Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Dead Space 2

Oh God, what the hell are you?
In space, as the saying goes, no one can hear you scream. This is not specifically true in regards to the original Dead Space of course. Placed in control of Isaac Clarke, the player would have unquestionably heard the engineer’s muffled screams of anguish as he was unwittingly bashed around by a particularly grotesque parasitic alien menace within the claustrophobic industrial confines of the USG Ishimura. First released around Halloween in 2008, Dead Space reinvigorated the survival horror genre months before Resident Evil 5 could even have a chance to disappoint us. Though receiving very good reviews, Dead Space did not sell well initially, quickly finding itself in bargain bins across the country, but this did ultimately work in the game’s favour as word of mouth began to spread and it developed a dedicated fanbase. Dead Space was a tightly paced, highly tense sci-fi horror game with absolutely stellar production values that served to create a wholly immersive experience.  It may not have been the most original game, building as it did upon the third person foundation set by Resident Evil 4, but it did redefine the genre through a number of intelligent twists, such as tactical dismemberment of your foes, a subtle HUD system and an emphasis on actual horror and tremendous isolation. Two years later, Dead Space 2 has finally been released and supposedly: this time, its war.

After successfully escaping the USG Ishimura in the original game, Isaac Clarke finds himself three years later contained within a psychiatric ward, clinically diagnosed insane and suffering from intense hallucinations of his dead girlfriend Nicole who tragically committed suicide onboard the Ishimura before Isaac could reach her. The game begins in an unapologetically grotesque manner, when an orderly attempts to wake Isaac only to be turned into a necromorph before our very eyes and thus begins a harrowing sequence in which you must escape your asylum whilst dressed in a strait jacket during a necromorph outbreak. It is a jarring opening as you wander around defenseless with little health. Eventually, however, you gather your usual array of weapons, tools and armour and proceed to discover how and why the station has been infected and why Isaac keeps seeing his dead girlfriend and also why pesky government gun-ships keep shooting at him. 

Whilst Dead Space 2 plays more or less like the first game, there are a couple of big changes. The biggest is the promotion of Isaac himself into a full speaking character.  In the first game, Clarke was a Gordon Freeman styled mute who remained largely faceless throughout. In a way this emphasized the horror and isolation of the experience, as you were haplessly ordered around to different areas of the ship in order to divert some life threatening catastrophe. The refreshing thing about  Isaac was that he wasn’t your usual space marine or special forces commando with arms the size of watermelons, he was an engineer tasked with repairing a spaceship which just so happened to be infested with a horrific alien presence. Fortunately in Dead Space 2, fleshing out the character of Isaac is done particularly well, you become more attached to Isaac as you play on through and there are a couple of moments towards the end which easily make him one of the more memorable characters in the great pantheon of gaming. Part of the story of Dead Space 2 deals with Clarke’s loosening grip on reality and the psychological torment he feels as a result of the event of the first game. It doesn’t help that he keeps seeing a mutilated version of his dead girlfriend with glowy eyes that constantly taunts him reminding him of his life failures.  I know… Women, right?

The other big change is the setting, Dead Space 2 is located within a large metropolis known as The Sprawl which is located on Titan, one of the moons orbiting Saturn. One of Visceral Games’ triumphs with the first game was in the creation of a believable space ship environment, from medical bays, to dormitories right on through to the dark and dank sub levels of engineering, you believed this was once a functioning ship board community where hundreds of people had worked, slept and relaxed, before they fell into disarray. Up until the release of Dead Space 2, Visceral have been building up players into expecting a new kind of city environment in which we’ll witness the cataclysm happening in present tense. It is a smart move and development from the first game to be sure, but unfortunately with exception to a couple of scenes in the early stages you never really get the sense of the scale of the city or the pandemic that has engulfed its society. Occasionally you will pass a window that looks out on to your typical sci-fi cityscape and there are plenty of times when you are ingratiated with the grand sight of Saturn and its accompanying rings, but these scenes are all to brief. It is as if the game is always focusing you down the next corridor.     


I am in a space city. Watch it burn.
Another problem related to Dead Space 2’s city setting is that the environments are very familiar. There is a brief visit to a shopping centre complete with accompanying easy listening music in the background, as we have seen in both Dead Rising games.  The church of unitology, the hub for the game’s foregrounding religion (think of a right wing version of scientology gone mainstream), is vaguely reminiscent of the purple and blue hues from the Covenant spacecrafts from the Halo games. Then there is a visit to a dilapidated pre-school, which tries in earnest to create fear by juxtaposing the innocence of its childhood setting with the body horror of the necromorphs. It all comes across as very clich├ęd, and most gamers will have been through these kind of environments in numerous franchises, FEAR, Silent Hill, Left 4 Dead and most prominently Bioshock.

The Sprawl is never as well realized as the underwater city of Rapture. Bioshock allowed the player to explore the wards of this miraculous utopia turned dystopia to a far greater extent and as a result you got a chilling sense of what the city was and what its inhabitants were like before the cataclysmic events that led to its downfall. Dead Space 2 could have really benefited from a similar layout. Afterall, one of the things that I really like about Dead Space is the world Visceral games has created around it, from the process of planet cracking which effectively acts as the usual environmental commentary on mankind’s exhaustion of natural resources to the conflict between the space age government and the church. The game world demands the kind of added depth that Bioshock had.  A greater emphasis on the city would have also improved the horror, questioning the player with a risk versus reward kind of dilemma.  Should I turn right and diligently carry on to my objective? Or should I turn left and see if I can score some much needed supplies? This would have been a proper evolution from the original Dead Space.  As it stands the environments of Dead Space 2 really affect the overall satisfaction of the game.  It just emphasizes how linear the game is, forcing you down corridors of a different colour past the demented scrawling of ‘I DON’T WANT TO DIE’ on the walls and the obligatory jump out scare moment that will inevitably lead to the zero-g puzzle sequence.                          

Thankfully, the combat, which was one the first game’s strengths remains as good as ever. Combat whether it be in third or first person is usually always focused upon the headshot. The great thing about Dead Space was that it required the player to take an alternative approach to defeating your enemies. The necromorphs which are basically reiterations of the monsters from John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, cannot merely be defeated by frenzied shooting to the upper chest or head. Indeed this will often make things worse. You have to think tactically, like cutting off their legs to slow them down, or removing their scythe like limbs to reduce the potential damage they could inflict upon you.

The usual weapons are back, the trusty plasma cutter for precision dismemberment. The indispensible Ripper for close quarters mutilation. The generic pulse rifle for short controlled bursts and when situations call for a ‘lets rock!’ kind of crowd control moments. The flamethrower from alien and of course my personal favourite the contact beam for boss humiliation.The force gun still remains as useless as ever and will probably never leave your inventory safe. There are a couple of new worthy additions to the arsenal.The javelin launcher, is essentially a harpoon gun which can pin enemies to walls and the trip mine gun allows the player to lay traps.There is a precision rifle, a more conventional firearm that feels a bit flat against the tried and tested favourites but is at least effective at blowing limbs away from long distances. As in the first game, each weapon can be upgraded via a nuanced development tree, which will greatly enhance your chances especially on the harder difficulties. 

This is a good thing because Dead Space 2 is a far harder game than the first game. There are four difficulty levels to choose from when you start a new game. Optimistically, I opted for Zealot, the hardest setting, having proudly gained my Epic tier 3 Engineer achievement from the last game. This decision proved to be overly ambitious as I quickly found myself lacking in ammo and health. With much regret I relegated myself down a level and found the game much easier to play through. That is until I reached the final chapters, where the game just throws the enemies at you. It is tremendously unforgiving, it’s not exactly scary in any way because you become used to watching the horrific death scenes over and over again. I reached the decision where I just couldn’t be asked with completing the challenge and so relegated myself once more to normal. Luckily, as with the first Dead Space, you are bound to limp through on your first attempt, it is only on your second attempt where you play through with your upgraded weapons that you actually get better at the game. The game isn’t as scary of course by this stage of course but the satisfaction of laying the smack down on all the alien bastards who caused you much grief early on makes it worth it. Very much like the nature of fear itself, Dead Space is easier to cope with once you know what you are going into. If this idea doesn’t cut it for you then you could also try the new ‘Hard Core’ mode, where ammo and supplies are even more scarce, the monsters will kill you in one hit and you are only allowed to save your game three times throughout the entire campaign.            

          Won't someone think about the children?

The game also includes added variety to the first game’s bestiary. The common necromorph slashers will still run at you screaming like an angry pirate and the leapers are still a problematic enemy to deal with since they are always just below your eye line when they attack you. The bull like Brute returns and once again is easy enough to kill once you blow off its arms with the contact beam. As the game is set in the city, Visceral have tried to incorporate new enemies that represent the population who have been turned into necromorphs. Most alarming are swarms of infantile necromorphs, easy enough to take out individually but on mass they can become quite formidable. Then there are the pukers, enemies who projectile vomit over you from a distance (hmmm… wonder where they got that idea from…) who quickly identify themselves as complete and utter bastards. The best new enemy are the stalkers who have been heavily influenced by Jurassic Park. They are fast moving predators who hunt in packs and will playfully peek round corners at you before they charge at you. Running after them will often send them fleeing but you will of course be open to flanking attacks. You only ever fight these enemies in maze like locations. Literally, whenever you come across a room full of crates you know what it is you will have to deal with, but these sequences do at least switch the role of hunter and hunted quite well. In the first half of the game, most enemies aren’t much a problem so long as you refrain from panicking, use the right weapons and place your shots well. It is only in the later stages of the game when the base models develop into the black badass incarnations with the red glowing eyes that things start to become a little hectic. 

Disappointingly there are less boss fights in Dead Space 2. Fans of the first game will remember the zero-G fight against the leviathan or the final boss, a monolithic creature that seemingly came out of nowhere. There are a variety of large spidery tripod walker enemies, which are easy enough to take care of and a highly scripted sequence in which you fight a tank like creature with a large T-Rex mouth. Dead Space 2 relies far more on these kind of set piece moments rather than boss fights and these are admirably executed with great energy, a fight through a moving train is one such memorable moment from the early stages of the game. A later sequence involving a rocket powered free fall is essentially a familiar component to the modern action adventure game, but is still exhilarating nonetheless. As with Dead Space, a lot of the game will lock you in areas under the guidance of quarantine where you will be forced to defeat waves and waves of necromorphs before the lockdown is lifted and these are often the more difficult sections of the game.
Dead Space 2 also has improved zero-g sections where you soar like Iron Man.
Aside from the single player campaign, Dead Space 2 includes a multiplayer versus mode.  Four players play as engineers and four other play as the necromorphs, Left 4 Dead style, but not as good. I don’t understand why a Gears of War styled co-op horde mode wasn’t released for the game, which would have surely suited the game better. As it stands, the game mode, is quite good fun for the first hour but starts to wear thin based on how overpowered the humans are. It seems to exist solely for commercial reasons as a way of combating the used game market, since to play MP, the user must have an activation code, which you will get for free if you buy the game at full retail price. Most people can probably do without the MP mode to be honest because the single player is the main draw. Of course, if you are lucky enough to own a PS3 you can get the limited edition version of the game, which comes packaged with spin off game Dead Space: Extraction, an on rails light gun shooter originally released for the Wii in 2009. This game is a complete and utter blast, it has been a while since I last touched a light gun game (probably since House of the Dead 2 for the Dreamcast) but Extraction is an excellent story based game that is of worth to any fan of the franchise. In some ways I actually preferred it to Dead Space 2, which says something.      

Like Gears of War 2, Dead Space 2 suffers from the common problem surrounding that difficult second game, namely the mentality to remake the first game, though bigger and more badass... As with Gears of War, Dead Space was excellently paced in the style of the greatest Hollywood action blockbusters whilst being tightly contained as a complete experience. Though it is not as bad as Gears of War 2, the setting is Dead Space 2’s downfall, effectively making the game become a retread through the same kind of corridors of the first game. The game is also quite inconsistent, a strong first act gives way to a flabby middle section punctuated by a handful of highly scripted set pieces and ending with an explicitly difficult final few chapters and a rubbish final boss fight. Whilst trying to make the game more epic and badass the game has sacrificed a lot of the creeping dread of the original game. I know people who couldn’t complete Dead Space because they were too afraid (cowards all…). Hopefully they may find Dead Space 2 much easier but as far as horror is concerned, the game certainly doesn’t hold a candle to Amnesia: The Dark Descent. With that said, the game remains very polished and immersive albeit to a blunted extent in regards to horror and location. It does the core combat very well, tactical dismemberment is as satisfying as it was in the first game and Visceral’s development of Isaac Clarke is also very well handled and will be the main reason to return to the franchise when Dead Space 3 is inevitably released. The best moments in the game range from when you are desperately running around under siege from Necromorphs gathering ammo where ever you can to the moment in which you feel like an alien hunter. It is not as consistently well paced or designed as its precursor, but Dead Space 2 still at least remains an enjoyably third person action adventure.                        

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