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Video Game Review: Dead Space 2
Posted By Adam Robert Thomas On January 28, 2011 @ 10:47 pm In Games,Video Games | 1 Comment
Release Date: January 25th, 2011
Platform: Xbox 360 (Version Reviewed), Playstation 3, Windows PC
Developer: Visceral Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: Sci-fi Action Horror
ESRB: M for Mature
For many years, Electronic Arts was seen by most as the “evil empire” of the video game industry. They were big and they were bad. They consumed companies that made interesting games, only to churn terrible sequels out of their shells like some sort of corporate flesh-eating bacteria. It’s frightening how long this strategy worked out but eventually these policies led to a stiff downward turn in profits as opposed to simply the hatred they inspired in gamers, and so EA decided it had to change its ways.
Cut to 2008 when the newly christened Visceral Games (formerly known as EA Corporation Location 97-J/Redwood Shores) released one of the first attempts by the publishing giant to create a game that wasn’t a sequel, known as Dead Space. Unlike most original games, it had a media onslaught of advertising, a comic book tie-in, a prequel movie, and a dearth of new ideas within it. Yet, despite all of that, it was also a very good horror adventure set far into the future.
Well a few years have passed; Visceral got to try their hand at literature with 2010’s misaligned Dante’s Inferno. So they now return to the series that gave them their name with Dead Space 2. As with the first game, their excellent digital craftsmanship bleeds through every nook and crevice, but does it live up to, or let die the burgeoning franchise it so desperately wants to be?
“Death ends a life, not a relationship.”
The quote above, from turn-of-the-last-century humorist Robert Benchley, is probably the most elegant way to capture the underlying theme of morbid attachment at the heart of Dead Space 2. A far less elegant method would be to give you some back story, which is what’s happening now:
Dead Space introduced the world to CEC Engineer Isaac Clarke, a very silent protagonist (of the Legend of Zelda variety) of the year 2508 who was trying to meet his gal pal on the USG Ishimura, a city-large deep space mining vessel. Upon arriving at the ship, Isaac and company discover it overrun with an apparently alien presence that subsides on and mutates dead tissue, which of course means that the material kills people and turns them into horrifying monsters whose entire purpose is to kill other people. They’re called “Necromorphs”, but let’s be frank, they’re Space Zombies.
So Clarke was forced to use his mechanical know-how and left-over mining equipment in order to survive. Along the way, a plot occurred that mired him further into the origin of these horrors, and by the end he destroyed the “Red Marker” the tainted object which caused the whole ordeal, as well as a truly Lovecraftian abomination. He even found a ship and escaped with his life, which is more than could be said for his crew-mates who all perished to bad timing and irony.
Now it’s three years later and Isaac wakes up on the “Sprawl,” a space station built on the shards of the moon Titan (the one orbiting Saturn if you haven’t taken Astronomy in a while). He finds that much of the past few years of his life is missing from his memory, having been drugged and kept in an insane asylum. For good reason, as Clarke can’t stop hallucinations of his dead girlfriend, Nicole, from assaulting him during his waking hours. The next moments of his life hinge on this phantom, as erupting chaos from an already underway Necromorph outbreak and mysterious benefactors free him from his incarceration. Thus the stage is set for a second round between the engineer and his eldritch enemies.
First and foremost, Dead Space 2 actually delivers a far scarier experience than the first. Though the focus is a bit more on combat, it’s usually far more novel and involved with its jumps scares and gruesome imagery. Though this isn’t the Texas Chainsaw Massacre of horror games, it’s consistently better than the rote tactics of the first. Of course if you’re the squeamish type who doesn’t want to see faces melted off or decapitations, you should probably avoid this altogether.
To tune the terror, the game boasts a myriad of subtle improvements over the original travail on the Ishimura. The lighting is better (and very creepy), textures are more detailed, blood and gore effects seem … meatier, and the character models are beautifully disturbing. The already impeccable sound design of the first is retained and the folks at Visceral should be applauded for freaking the player out over footsteps as much as with bestial roaring. On the Xbox 360, the result is that the game takes up two discs, but this is a decidedly minor quibble when you consider the sheer quality of what’s on them.
The enemies don’t just look prett- uh, better, they’re also faster, attack in greater numbers and are far more varied, keeping all of the originals, but adding quite a few more. Most are quite disturbing, from the screaming children that swarm you like ants, to the nauseating “pukers” (guess what they do) and some new raptor-esque enemies that show a scary intelligence. These tweaks help propel this game to a far greater level of difficulty than the first, even for experienced players; I had mostly mastered the original and found myself dying rather consistently on this game’s “survivalist” difficulty, which is only one step above normal. However, the threat of death from an incredibly varied cast of baddies that constantly have you in a state of trepidation can hardly be considered a negative in a horror game, since that really is the point.
In order to give you a chance against such an onslaught, Isaac must have done his stretches and limbered up as he noticeably aims his weapons and moves faster than before. All of the original weapons return (with a few tweaks to some), as well as the same upgrade system and the use of stasis and telekinesis, but there are new toys as well. This includes a Javelin launcher which allows you to pin an enemy to a wall before triggering arcs of electricity to erupt out the spear. Though I question the practical value of such a device, since the other weapons are justified as either mining equipment or military issue, it’s a fun inclusion that results in many gruesome wall mounted exhibits left in your wake like a sort of macabre murder museum.
A game with “space” in its title better use said three-dimensional framework to its best and here they do, both with and without gravity. Some of the best moments occur when you’re thrust into a vacuum and you maneuver around using newly added thrusters to your suit. But while Zero-G space walks are fun little asides for the most part, the overall level design is what’s truly superb. In general the environments are a bit more restrictive, which helps to increase the difficulty as you have less room to maneuver, but also increases the tension. Whenever you actually get to a wide open area, it’s a brief relief, before you consider that it usually means that something very nasty is about to jump in your face. The layout’s quite varied, and the Sprawl feels like a very natural lived in place with plenty of history to it, even if you won’t experience much of this as you’ll be too busy trying to stay un-skewered.
All of these tweaks and improvements are tied together by the best overhaul yet: a markedly improved narrative! Whereas the original game was easily faulted for feeling quite familiar, often inspiring comparisons to Event Horizon, System Shock 2, and Resident Evil 4, and Isaac fit the “silent errand boy” mold so often used in video game protagonists, in Dead Space 2 almost all of this is thrown right out of the airlock.
Gone is the strict level structure that had you constantly backtracking to your trolley car. You progress past layers of the Sprawl through set pieces often quite unexpected and always spectacular.
Gone is Isaac’s vow of silence. The little engineer that could now speaks and becomes an actual character, ably portrayed by actor Gunner Wright.
Gone is the “lead you by the nose” narrative. Though when the game opens it seems as if you might be headed down this path, by the end Isaac becomes a very active character in the plot, making his own decisions and objectives. This is a welcome relief not only for this series but for gaming as whole, since if we’re being honest, most digital heroes end up servants to those around them and rarely act of their own volition.
In fact, it’s the narrative aspect that’s probably the most fascinating in the game. Dead Space 2 weaves a fascinating tale that builds upon the established mythology to create an action epic, yet never forgets the drama in the small lives of men and women. Isaac’s relationship with Nicole, long since dead, is at the core of this drama. We learn of his guilt over her death and spend time dealing with his burgeoning psychosis and inability to let go. It’s handled very well, and since we actually get to see his mental instability, he ends up being an interesting “other” even though you control his actions. Though he’s often likable – you’re never fully sure if his choices are the correct ones, and it only heightens the dread that the rest of the game cultivates.
On top of everything else, the game continues its one undercurrent of social relevance by again bringing in the Church of Unitology. An obvious allusion to Scientology, the Unitologists are played a little more fairly this go around though they’re still creepy zealots. However, portions of the game, especially the opening where you break out of the mental hospital seem almost to fit in with Scientology’s anti-psychology dogma. It’s difficult to tell if this was a conscious mollifying choice, or if it’s simple happenstance. It’s definitely better from a narrative perspective since new bogeymen show up in the form of the government (which appears to use Newspeak since it’s called “EarthGov”) and this ends up adding just a bit more verisimilitude to the universe.
Not everything is sunshine and roses; or in this case is it darkened hallways and rotting bodies? Though the sense of disconnection between the player and Isaac helps cement some creepiness, it also prevents any emotional investment you might develop from growing fully. There’s a similar disconnection in the game’s progression as well. The plot is a bit meandering, taking some time to really start cooking, and at times feels padded by several segments which feel a tad out of place and were included simply because they’re “cool” without having any true relevance. Then there’s the removal of the in-game map, which kills the illusion of exploration the first game at least tried to portray, and at times makes the game a tad more discomfiting to navigate.
Oh yeah then there’s the game’s new multiplayer mode. It’s pretty much Left 4 Dead’s versus mode, but on smaller maps and with a simple experience point progression system. Oddly enough though, the game presented might be a better version of Valve’s zombie survival opus due to a host of small tweaks, at least for console gamers, who rarely have the patience for the lengthy sessions required to get through a full L4D campaign. Though it can be a fun distraction, it simply doesn’t have enough content or variation to really merit more than a few hours of play. They’re a fun few hours, but it definitely pales in comparison to the core single player adventure.
It’s actually quite difficult to criticize this game for much though, there’s nary a misstep in the game’s execution, both on purely technical levels, and in terms of the overall design. Sure, it’s not going to shake up the industry, is perhaps a bit calculating and heartless and much of what’s here has been done before, though rarely as well. What’s original to the series is owned more fully than in the first game, and being heartless and impersonal is actually something of a good thing for the horror genre it’s cast into. Every moment of panicked breath and unblinking intensity it inspires is a testament to superb craft if not a twisted, diabolical form of love.
Perhaps this lack of negative traits is what’s truly telling. Here we have an exhilarating horror filled with pure malevolence made by a company that was for many years considered similarly evil. But since the inception of this series, EA has cleaned up their act; we no longer hear tales of employees unpaid and never home. Besides, when the evil is this good, it’s hard to fault them for it. Maybe the real lesson of Dead Space 2 is simply that evil begets evil, and actually needs to do so, if only to purge its system of darkness.
I think Activision needs to work on a survival horror game!
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