Thursday 2 February 2012

Dead Space 2

The Title Screen

Dead Space 2 is a third person, horror shooter by Visceral Games. Released in 2011 on PC, Xbox and PlayStation, it is the sequel to the 2008 Dead Space. The PC version is available on, but not exclusive to, Steam. Multiplayer and other online features requires an EA Online account.

The game features a single player campaign and multiplayer team deathmatch. This review will be on the single player only.

Disclaimer:  This is an adult game, with occasional strong language and quite graphic violence. There is also psychological horror that will not be suitable for some. 

The First Thing
As a big fan of Dead Space 1, what struck me first was that the main character now speaks. The 'silent protagonist' approach of the first game has been replaced with the more modern trend of having the player's character voice acted. The developers knew it would be an important step and a professional actor was used, allowing for a more believable and enjoyable character. Dead Space 1 and 2 serve as a useful comparison of how it is easier to relate to a voice-acted character, over a silent one.

Plot & Devices
Isaac Clarke (you) awakens in a mental asylum to be questioned about his experiences on the USG Ishimura (Dead Space 1). An unexpected Necromorph outbreak allows him to escape and he discovers he is on a space station called The Sprawl. An unfamiliar woman, who is trying to help, informs him that he is suffering from a dementia that will consume and kill him, due to his exposure to the marker. Left with no choice Isaac must battle his way through the space station and escape; never knowing who to trust and suffering demented hallucinations of his deceased girlfriend, Nicole. Isaac must find out what happened to him and why he is the centre of a Necromorph massacre - again.

Isaac Clarke

The plot is a character story; it is the story of Isaac. The events are explained in due course, but seem unimportant compared to development of the main character. Isaac is a 'nice guy' who is again forced to confront a nightmarish situation and to deal with his emotional past as his mind slips away. The player, like Isaac, will probably not fully understand why things happen but will understand enough to frame the events. 

The Dead Space franchise also features films and other game titles, set in the same universe with a continuous story. However, Dead Space 1 and 2 are the central games and the other material is really just plot filler that hardly overlaps. I would strongly advise that for enjoyment Dead Space 1 should be played before this game. Familiarity with the characters, knowledge of the emotional issues (Nicole) and events will put the player in a better position to continue the story.

Plot progression is done through video calling, or in-game sequences that blend seamlessly into the gameplay. During these sequences, the player will lose control and character interaction will take place, then control will be returned. This changeover is usually signified with Isaac removing, or replacing, his helmet. Information is revealed through dialogue but can also be found in audio and text logs; however as characters have different perspectives and motives, it can take a while to discover what really happened. Although Isaac will frequently interact with characters, it is rare for him to spend much game time in their actual presence - it is not a cooperative game.

The Necromorphs

The Game
Dead Space 2 is an 'over the shoulder' third person, horror-shooter. There is no HUD (heads-up display) and information is displayed through holograms on the relevant objects: health, oxygen time and stasis is displayed on Isaac's back, ammunition count on the weapon and inventory/video calls displayed in front. Unlike many 'over the shoulder' shooters, the camera is unfixed. The game has save points and a checkpoint system, however players can only start a session from the save points. Occasional quick-time events occur, where a single button must be repeatedly pressed to save Isaac from death.

For the most part the game is a linear corridor shooter. Necromorphs will attack from walls, floors and ceilings and are varied enemies, requiring different tactics. True to form, Dead Space 2 encourages players to aim for specific limbs. Mindlessly opening fire is inefficient and will result in no ammunition. Legless and headless enemies will still pursue the player, and sometimes fake their death to surprise attack. Enemies drop items when receiving damage after they have died (solving the Dead Space 1 problem of knowing an enemy was 'playing dead' because an item had not dropped).

There is no regenerating health, so health management is part of the gameplay. Isaac can carry 4 weapons (out of a total of 8) and each weapon has an alternative fire. The player can also mêlée attack and stamp on the ground. Isaac's RIG (his suit) stores breathable air and can survive for a limited time in space. Again, Isaac's Telekinesis or Stasis modules can be used for combat situations or puzzles; allowing him to manipulate small objects, or slow objects in time.

The Power Node upgrade system

Power Nodes are found throughout levels and can be permanently affixed to weapons or Isaac's RIG to upgrade power and efficiency. Power Nodes also can be used to open infrequent special doors that might contain secrets. It is impossible to get all upgrades in one playthrough and players can start a new game with previous upgrades (except hard core difficulty). The same Shop returns and is used to buy and sell unwanted items, as well as functioning as a bank. Finding schematics throughout the levels will unlock new purchases. Each RIG suit has a fixed inventory size and each item takes up one slot (except weapons, power nodes and money). Inventory space and defence is upgraded through discovering schematics for new suits, and then purchasing from the Shop but everything else is upgraded through Power Nodes.

There are three difficulty settings and a hard core mode. Hard core is unlocked after completing the game, and in addition to a difficulty increase the player can only save the game three times and there are no checkpoints. This is a nice addition for players who want a hard challenge but will not suit the majority. There are in-game rewards for completing this.

Isaac can move and sprint (no jump or crouch), but one of the big changes is the new zero gravity gameplay. In areas of no gravity, Isaac has the ability to float and fly in any direction, instead of the opposite-style jumping from the first game. This is a nice change and allows for new puzzles and innovative gameplay.

A Unitologist church

Music is only really used atmospherically to heighten emotion. The sound effects are very solid and the weapons feel that they have a lot of weight behind them. Unlike the first game, the mouse and general PC support is good. The art design is quite varied and is relative to the part of the space station the player is in. Unlike Dead Space 1 there are no graphical problems; this is a good looking game.

Wrap Up & Negatives
Although much better than the very bad port of the first game, Dead Space 2 still has some minor problems. Keyboard and mouse support is mostly fine (not perfect), but occasionally console relics will appear. Reading "Push B to cancel" does not break gameplay but will annoy PC users. Most of the launch problems were patched a month or so after release and PC users were awarded the DLC items for free as an apology.

The horror derived from the gameplay has been toned down in favour of more action, but psychological horror persists thematically throughout. Players after a strong terror experience may not be content, but there is enough to satisfy most. Unfortunately enemy's 'surprise' attacks can become quite predictable, as players learn to spot the signs but this just makes the game more action based and a little less scary - which seems to be a slight shift for this sequel in general.

This is possibly my favourite game of all time.

I also loved Dead Space 1 (you may need to force Vsync on; I use D3DOverrider for terrible console ports). My first playthrough of Dead Space 2 took about eight and a half hours, so an average length for a modern single player campaign. Isaac is a superb and believable character, who at times displays the emotional levels found in film and TV. A couple of intense moments may certainly stick in your mind. The focus on precision shooting, in a horror setting, is a nice combination and makes for satisfying gameplay. This is one of the games I have replayed the most.

If you are looking for a game just to terrify you, this may not be it. If you want an action game in a horror environment, with a story focused heavily on an excellent character - this is one of the best.

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