Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dead Space 2

Dead Space was part of an attempt by EA to branch out into new ground.  It was a survival horror game with a science fiction setting; not the most original idea I suppose, but it was a good game nonetheless.

EA and Visceral have seen fit to continue the Dead Space saga (well really, they've pretty much turned it into a franchise), and a result we now have Dead Space 2.  In the first game we were introduced to Isaac Clarke, an engineer.  Him and a small team are summoned to the USG Ishimura—a large planet-cracker that was apparently mining the surface of the planet Aegis 7.  Though part of the reason they were being sent out was to investigate why the ship had stopped communicating, it was supposed to be a routine maintenance mission.  Isaac himself had been looking forward to visiting his girlfriend Nicole, who was serving as a medical officer on the Ishimura.

But as they found out within 15 minutes of docking, something had gone horribly wrong on the Ishimura.  Disfigured creatures, dubbed Necromorphs—creatures that apparently used to be the crew--attack Isaac and the team.  As they fight for their lives, they gradually unravel a plot far more ambitious than I certainly expected.  Unfortunately, Issac’s adventures on the Ishimura have knocked a couple screws loose in his head.  Now he’s locked up in a psych ward, straitjacket and all; and here is where Dead Space 2’s story begins.  On Titan Station, otherwise known as the Sprawl; a metropolis located on one of Saturn’s moons.

As I played through the game, it became clear that Visceral had aimed to make a more explosive, more exciting game with Dead Space 2.   You’ll learn that they succeeded in this effort less than a minute in, as you watch a fellow trying to help you escape get transformed into a necromorph right in front of your eyes, then are forced to run for dear life—while still in a straitjacket—as more of them crash in from all sides.  And that’s not the half of it.  By the time you get your engineering suit back some 20 minutes later, you’ll have fought off a necromorph in said straitjacket, seen a man slit his own throat and watched the blood pour from it as he gurgled in pain, and watched a soldier get straight up impaled through the torso before being dragged through the air conditioning system and thrown back out as several chunks of meat.  This game means business.

The core gameplay is very similar to the first, though.  You’ll be minding your own business, finger casually on the trigger, before a necromorph pops out—frequently with friends—and makes every attempt to skewer you.  The unique physiology of most necromorphs makes head and torso shots ineffective; they will keep on trucking even if you blow their brains out.  So, instead you have to go for the limbs.

How’s a simple engineer to cope?  By ignoring all those safety and warning labels that come plastered over the tools of his trade!  The result of this is a surprisingly unique and cool arsenal of weapons, comprised primarily of workman’s tools jerry-rigged for combat.  These include Isaac’s trusty mineral cutter, a rivet gun, a hydrazine torch (read: a flamethrower), and a circular saw blade.  Alongside these (which were also in the old game), Dead Space 2 introduces a couple of toys of its own, while also tweaking the functionality of some of the returning weapons.  Among the newly introduced is the Javelin Gun, a pneumatic spear launcher that fires giant titanium spikes that will impale a target and send it soaring across the room until it is pinned to something.

As you play, you’ll find schematics for new weapons tools, as well as ammo supplies for them, which you can then purchase at store kiosks interspersed throughout the city.  Unfortunately, you won’t find nearly enough money to keep yourself decently equipped just lying on the ground, so like any survival horror game, you’ll need to do a lot of looting and scavenging; usually off of corpses.  Furthermore, as an engineer, Isaac can take a moment to perform upgrades on his stuff at any workbench he comes across, using Power Nodes either bought from the store or found lying around.  Most of this won’t sound new to anyone who's played the first game, though.

That’s not to say there aren’t some notable refinements, however.  Zero G segments are back, but they’ve been revamped.  Now, instead of jumping from wall to wall, Isaac can make use of small air thrusters installed around his suit to float around at will.  This is actually really fun, due in some small part to the fact that enemies are now almost nonexistent during these.  I recall saying that the first Dead Space was not a scary game, but its Zero G segments did keep me on edge, simply because the reduced volume made it impossible to hear and track enemies who would fly towards you from distant walls, attempting a full on collision (often from behind) that would scare the daylights out of me.

Kinesis is also back, allowing you to pick up most loose objects and move them around, as well as throw them as a form of attack.  Though you could do this in the first game, Dead Space 2 heavily emphasizes the use of Kinesis by giving you less ammo drops, and introducing sharp objects like construction poles lying around, that you can use to your advantage in combat.  Hint, hint.  You can even rip the claw off of a dead necromorph and use it to as a projectile.  Another returning feature is stasis, which lets you slow down objects and attacking enemies alike, giving you some breathing room in combat, and a method to solve certain puzzles during exploration.

Dead Space 2’s pacing has also been tweaked a little bit.  Now there are more highs and lows.  One moment you’re walking in silence, listening to audio tapes and text logs a la Bioshock and Metroid, the next you’re being held upside down by some giant abomination, about to be impaled through the head; or otherwise being awesome.  Many of the set-pieces are too epic to be described in words.  The “ebb and flow” pace of the original game is still here, but it’s been injected with a shot of badass here and there.

The visuals of Dead Space 2 look great.  I mean, perhaps from a technical standpoint the graphics aren’t awe inspiring per se, but what it lacks there it makes up in its themes and style.  Unlike the first game, which had you exploring mostly the same sorts of places (you were on a giant space ship, after all), Dead Space 2 has more variety.  Sure, the bleak futuristic locales and elements are still here and dominant, but there are some treats here and there; you’ll explore caverns, a church, and even an elementary school; complete with a showdown in the gym.  Some extra attention has been given to the details, like the various nuances of Isaac’s suit (it’s awesome seeing him put it on), and, perhaps most notably the afore-mentioned necromorph transformation scene.  Like in the first game, your HUD is composed mostly of a vitality bar attached to Isaac’s suit (known as your RIG), and an ammo readout projected above each gun.  Even your inventory is a hologram, and the game doesn’t pause as you sort through it.  This lack of any real overlay adds to the tension-inducing ambience.

As a horror game, I would expect animation, lights and shadows to be up to par, and Dead Space 2 delivers here as well.  Necromorphs exhibit some truly unsettling tendencies, like one that twitches constantly, and another that gyrates as it moves. Should you die in battle, most necromorphs have their own special finishing scenes, like one that beheads Isaac and then settles itself where his head used to be, taking control of his body.

Like the last game though, the real winner here is sound.  This is one game that I found truly benefited from a surround sound setup.  The sound design here is nothing short of masterful, to be frank.  All necromorphs have distinct sounds and screams, and the game plays along when they fake death, killing all the chords as they drop to the ground in mock defeat.  Often you’ll enter vacuums, areas with no oxygen.  Appropriately, the sound becomes heavily reduced and muddled, as if you were underwater.  Suddenly even the slightest audio cues have you glancing over your shoulder.  Even in normal areas, I found myself straining to hear: was that sound a necromorph, or perhaps just something minor thing falling over?  I could never tell, but it had me quaking in my boots sometimes.

This isn’t helped by the addition of a few new enemies such as one that is super fast (such to the point that it is literally a blur), and another that moves only with buddies, intelligently hiding from and flanking you, then performing a hit and run body slam before running back to hide.  You’ll even find yourself set upon by packs of rabid schoolchildren.

The voice acting is also not too shabby.  Isaac—previously a mute—now has a voice, though I didn’t think it changed things much.   It is amusing to hear him go nuts with the F-bombs when repeatedly bringing the boot of justice down upon the bodies of downed enemies.

One final new, if easily forgotten addition to Dead Space 2 is multiplayer.  At the time of this writing, I’ve only spent a couple hours playing it, but I was surprised by how good my impression was of it.  Players take on the role of two opposing teams: the Humans the Necromorphs.  If you remember games like Unreal Tournament and Time Splitters, overall most multiplayer rounds play like a game of Assault.  The humans have a sequence of objectives to complete (determined by what map is being played) and a set amount of time to complete them, while the necromorphs are tasked with stopping them. 

The two sides play very differently, but both require teamwork; a lone wolf is little more than a dead one.  As the humans, you’re given a plasma rifle, a stasis module, and a secondary weapon (the starter choice is a plasma cutter), as well as one med pack and one stasis pack.  Sticking together is key, especially because healing yourself will also heal others nearby (and you get extra XP for that).  Friendly fire is very possible however, so you have to check your fire, even when trying to shoot off a necromorph that has jumped one of your friends.

As a necromorph, you’re able to choose from a few different types, from the Lurker (a small babylike character that can fire projectiles and run on walls), to the Spitter, who can vomit acid across a room that will not only do damage, but slow the victim down to a crawl temporarily.  While the humans stand a better chance in a straight up confrontation, the necromorphs are not without advantages.  First of all, aside from the actual players, a steady flow of regular bot-controlled necromorphs also spawn.  Just like in the campaign, necromorphs can spawn from any vent on the map, unlike the humans who have set spawn areas.  Furthermore, you can fast-travel between vents to save time, and see humans through walls (as well as get a sense of their health via a color-coded glow emitted from their bodies).  Secondly, again like in the campaign, necromorphs can latch onto humans, immobilizing them, doing damage, and possibly performing an execution on them.  Finally, you can keep in mind that necromorphs are only playing defense.  Though you get points for kills, in the end you’ll probably walk away with more XP at the end of the round if your team won, than if you got a bunch of executions.

Like in every modern multiplayer game, your XP adds to your level, and leveling up unlocks new stuff.  For humans, you’ll unlock things like higher stasis capacity, other secondary weapons, and new suits, while the necromorphs get stat gains such as higher damage dealt as a certain class.  There also appears to be some viral content floating around.

Overall, Dead Space 2 is a wonderful game.  The multiplayer is competent, but the game stands strong without it.  Most of the tweaks made to the formula established in the first game work to positive effect.  Since multiple playthroughs (as well as a run through the aptly named Hardcore mode) are required to unlock everything, you’ve got a pretty reasonable amount of game here.  Furthermore, if you got the Limited Edition version on PS3, you got the acclaimed Wii game Dead Space Extraction for free!  Score!  A 9.0/10.