Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Dead Space 2

Post-Launch Review
Dead Space 2
Developer: Visceral Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: January 25 2011

Dead Space 2 is the sequel to the first Dead Space. It's a third-person survival horror game that takes place three years after the Necromorph infestation and attack on the Ishimura. Isaac Clark, the sole survivor, finds himself in a hospital on Saturn's moon Titan, facing another Necromorph outbreak. Isaac fights his way through the Sprawl in order to discover and eliminate the source of the outbreak, contending with Unitologists who believe that the Necromorphs are humanity's salvation through transformation and rebirth.

At Launch
Dead Space 2 was very well received, mostly receiving review scores in the range of 85% to 95%. Reviewers praised the game's focus on Isaac, his change from a silent protagonist to a speaking character, and how the events of the first game have changed and scarred him — elements frequently left out of action or horror entertainment. Critics were somewhat divided on the horror elements, some feeling that they were effective, others complained that it loses its effectiveness when the player is taught to expect something in nearly every room and never given a chance to relax. One of the few criticisms was the game's multiplayer component: reviewers called it uninspired and devoid of the pacing and excitement present in the campaign mode.

Post Launch
Three DLC packs were available at launch: Hazard, Supernova, and Martial Law. Each includes new suits and weapons. These were not initially made available to PC players, despite the fact that the items were already included in the game code and the “downloadable content” was simply a decryption key. They seem to be present in my Steam copy of the game, though.
A two-chapter standalone campaign add-on called Severed was released as well, featuring characters from Dead Space Extraction. It was released for XBox and PS3, but not for PC, and EA has stated that it will not be released for PC.
Health along the spine, stasis energy is the semicircle, ammo count above gun
The Good
HUD... or lack thereof
Like the first Dead Space, the game's HUD is diegetic: it's not a set of boxes floating in the corners of your screen, it's Isaac's suit itself that generates holographic and physical indicators, including ammunition count, health, inventory, and objective markers. It's a nice touch that adds to the immersion.

Story & Characters
The plot and pacing are pretty good, but the real standout here is Isaac and the effects that Dead Space had on his mind. It's clear that he's suffering and mentally scarred and slightly crazy, and the ways the game deals with those issues are pretty interesting. The way things eventually turn out makes me wonder if some of those issues will persist in future games.
Another element I found interesting was the role of the human villains. One of them gets toasted right after the reveal. The second one, the station director, is a major hindrance to Isaac, constantly hounding him and sending roadblocks his way through the station security system... But you never even physically meet him, except very briefly in a cutscene without any big showdowns or anything. Most games would have made him a boss battle — I don't know, going half crazy by the end and climbing into a mech or turret of some sort. But that's not what happens.
Overall I was pleasantly surprised with a lot of the twists and developments.

The lighting in the game is really nice; very moody and atmospheric, and it moves well. The flashlight casts all the right shadows, sure, that's expected these days. But fire and gunshots do the same. There are bright lights in heavy contrast to the surrounding darkness, so shadows and their movement are emphasized and used to full effect. The one I thought was really cool: Isaac's helmet has glowy strips in it, and if it's dark enough, those strips cast visible light in lines shaped exactly like the lamps on the helmet.

The ending was... wow. I mean, great ending. I don't want to say too much because spoilers, but I will say this: you definitely have to have played Dead Space 1 to completion to fully appreciate the ending. There's a very good callback there. And make sure you stick around after the credits.

The Neutral
I played on Normal difficulty. I really shouldn't have, since I found the first Dead Space quite easy with the approach I took on weapon and armour upgrades (explore everywhere, fully upgrade Plasma Cutter, then armour, then a second weapon based on what weakness I thought I'd need to cover). I should have anticipated that the second one wouldn't be any harder, especially since it's easier to find power nodes (aka the upgrade component for all items). I had far more trouble with the instant-death situations than any of the combat, and those are independent of difficulty setting.
Furthermore, I had access the DLC weapons and armour available right from the start. Presumably they were included with my Steam copy of the game. That's pretty awesome, you might say. Well, every weapon and armour from the DLC missions are free in the in-game store. Normally you have to find schematics to unlock items for purchase and then, you know, purchase them; but the DLC items are instantly available and free of charge. So well before the game would normally allow me to access the flamethrower, I can pick up a more powerful variant for no money. And as soon as you have a weapon, you can find ammo for it, so I wasn't even restricted in that sense. So it's cool in the sense that I can choose whatever weapon I want, but it does make the game easier when you can pick and choose any (or all!) of the weapons right from the beginning.
If you're an FPS enthusiast, I'd recommend playing on hard mode or higher.

Not Scary
I don't find the Dead Space series scary overall. I'm not saying you won't, however — I make a distinction between scary and shocking, and Dead Space falls squarely into the latter category overall. I'll explore this a bit more in an article later on, but here's a summary: a game is “shocking” if it places more emphasis on sudden bursts and, well, shocks, like monsters bursting out of nearby vents; and if a game is “scary” it makes me want to quit out of sheer terror due to creepy atmosphere and building tension. So, Dead Space is shocking, not scary. This isn't a criticism, hence this bit being in the neutral section; it's just disappointing when the game bills itself as terrifying and all it does is make me jump every once in a while.
There's one major exception here. Minor spoilers, so skip this if you want to avoid them.
At a certain point in the game you discover how Isaac made it to Titan: the USG Ishimura was brought back intact, and is tethered to the Sprawl. Isaac discovers that he has to go into the Ishimura and reactivate its systems for a reason I won't specify here. Going in I expected nonstop action, assuming that the necromorph infestation began when the Ishimura was opened up. Isaac himself is terrified of going back in; you can hear it in his dialogue. And once you get in... it's empty. There were cleanup crews working on the ship for some time, so many sections are covered in sterile white plastic and red tape, and there are many portable lights strewn around the area. There's no indication of any living presence, human or necromorph. You wander through the same rooms and corridors as in the first game, but everything's clean and empty save for a few audio logs from a member of the cleanup crew who's slowly going crazy. It's a very effective, very unsettling segment.
One “scare” I thought was hilarious: while exploring behind the set of an abandoned stage in a preschool, something drops down on Isaac from above and he yells BLEEEAAAAAHHHH and it's a bright happy yellow cardboard cutout of a sun.

The Bad
Wasted Opportunity on Opening
Visceral really dropped the ball on the opening. I don't mean that the opening is bad — it drops you into things a little suddenly, sure, but that's not really a problem. What I mean is that the setup offers a lot of potential, and that potential is ignored. Basically, at the beginning of the game, you get a little cutscene of an interrogation/therapy session where Isaac is being asked questions. It's obvious there's something wrong with him; his speech is sluggish, he seems to have memory trouble, and he's hallucinating. He drifts out, and suddenly he's woken by a nurse or attendant of some sort. In the background you can see all kinds of blood. It's dark, there are problems with the lights. The guy is murdered by a Necromorph before your eyes and you're left alone to escape, hindered by your straightjacket.
You soon find out that it's three years after the events of the first Dead Space and Isaac has been kept in a hospital on Saturn's moon Titan, under constant surveillance, therapy, and memory-blocking drugs. The alien artifact from the first game imprinted some kind of malicious dementia pattern on his brain, and the memory blockers are an attempt to prevent it from spreading.
This could have provided an amazing intro sequence. Imagine if, instead of a quick cutscene and then a sudden Necromorph attack, you had a couple of little sequences of Isaac's day-to-day life in the hospital. Every so often you'd see Necromorphs attacking patients or charging at you. Depending on how you react, you'd get different dialogue from the nurses — for example, maybe you see a Necromorph coming at you, you attack it, and it turns out it was just another patient and the nurses have to beat you into submission. And then later, when Isaac is alone, another Necromorph comes at him, and he fights it off, and it crawls into a vent to escape. You know, really get us questioning Isaac's sanity, so that when the real Necromorphs show up, we doubt whether or not they're actually real.
But nope. Literally one minute into the game it's BAM! NECROMORPHS EVERYWHERE! RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!

Tries Too Hard
I mentioned above that Dead Space is shocking and not scary. The visuals are quite good and often unsettling, but the music usually ruins things. This is because the game plays a music sting EVERY SINGLE TIME YOU SEE A MONSTER. Okay, Dead Space. I get it. You're scary. Thanks.

The Verdict
Recommendation: play it.
Dead Space 2 is a very good game. Despite some nitpicks I think it's developing into a really great series, and definitely worth playing. Two caveats: if you want a challenge play on a higher difficulty than normal; and don't expect to be terrified. Definitely play the first one first, as well; the second one does include a “last time on Dead Space” intro, but the first game is worth experiencing, especially now that it's dropped in price. And DEFINITELY play all the way to the end, because the ending does a great job of both wrapping things up and raising the stakes at the same time.

1 comment:

  1. The only way to make a game scary is to give you crippling controls and few if any weapons. Dead Space is mainly a zombie survival game. Which means you have lots of weapons and medkits to survive the zombie hordes. That makes the game less scary, but makes killing the zombies more fun. Overall, this is an action game with a horror sci-fi setting, rather than a true horror survival game. The sci-fi horror setting is rare for an action game and that's why we love Dead Space so much. It fills the void Resident Evil left behind when they started sucking