Friday, February 04, 2011

Review: Dead Space 2

Despite his rather undesirable circumstances, Isaac Clark wasn’t exactly one for words in Visceral Games’ original Dead Space. In fact, he’d much rather use limb severing plasma-powered weaponry as a means of gesture rather than employing the use of his own voice box. Clark also remained suited from head to toe for 99% of the game, thus, any slim chance we had of establishing any meaningful affinity between ourselves and him was all but nullified throughout.

With an intriguing premise and developing storyline in place it was a shame that our protagonist was such a faceless individual, and one that even the most psychoanalytical amongst us would struggle to strike up a connection with. Thankfully in the sequel, Visceral have decided to expand Clark beyond the ‘guy that murders necromorphs’ mantra with which he was lumbered with in his first outing.

Whilst the Ishimura of the original was undeniably atmospheric, ten hours of dim, metallic corridors at the very least bordered on the repetitive. In that respect, accompanying Isaac’s personal transformation, the setting design has predominantly been overhauled to give Dead Space 2 a widespread injection of character.

Three years after the original nightmare and Isaac finds himself in the ‘Sprawl’, a gargantuan space station in orbit around Saturn. However, his contact with the Marker (a religious idol connected with the necromorph outbreak for those without prior Dead Space knowledge) has led to the onset of insanity, his newly fragile mental state hardly being an ideal companion in the midst of a fresh necromorph onslaught. And so it begins; a more adrenaline fuelled, heart-stopping and downright brutal experience than the previous expedition.

First and foremost, Isaac handles slightly less cumbersomely than before. He’s still far from the complete athlete, but the greater fluidity of movement is a welcome addition - essentially he’s less robotic and more human this time around. It still unquestionably feels like Dead Space, yet the controls have effectively been tweaked to feel more refined and responsive.

So let’s touch on the Sprawl itself, a setting that infuses a much needed sense of variety beyond the walls of the USG Ishimura. As you’d expect there’s still an abundance of tight corridors, dark, foreboding hallways and an overbearing sense of claustrophobia - after all, this is a title that aiming to scare. Now however, we’re treated to a greater blend of architecture and more arresting examples of level design.

Areas of Dead Space 2 have that Bioshock-esque feeling of a once functioning society completely torn apart. Much like Rapture, parts of the Sprawl offer insight into what life was like prior to the current horror unfolding around you, adding a degree of plausibility to the game world.

From necromorph infested shopping malls to a chilling trip through a primary school, Dead Space 2 sustains the suspense with brilliantly crafted locations. The latter in particular is especially unsettling, with baby necromorphs still disturbingly reminiscent of their human counterparts both in appearance and through the child-like wails they emit. It’s the clash between the happy, bright decor of the school, the subsequent tension, and the inevitable blood-bath that ensues which makes this particular section so memorable. Toys and teddy bears litter the place, with audio and text logs charting the children’s disturbing shift in behaviour.

Sure, we could ill-advisedly write this off as gunning for pure shock value, but bringing the necromorphs out of deep space and into an altogether more human environment gives the sequel an extra-horrific edge that easily transcends its predecessor.

Perhaps the most striking and eerie of the environments that Isaac encounters is the Church of Unitology. Its candle-lit halls and cultic imagery on display perfectly set the tone for edge-of-your-seat trepidation and frenzied battles. Dead Space 2’s mostly varied (the middle of the game briefly lulls back into familiar metallic corridor territory) and detailed environments are a credit to the designers’ desire to limit visual repetition. The inter-chapter tram system from the original has been scrapped, which (bar from a quick disc change half-way through proceedings) provides a continuity to Isaac’s journey across the Sprawl. As a result, the pacing between chaotic enemy onslaughts and disconcertingly uninhabited sections doesn’t suffer due to breaks in play.

Amongst other tweaks to the formula, the sequel’s audio has also received a makeover. If you are lucky enough to have a sizable surround sound system within your gaming setup, then Dead Space 2 may well be the title to put it through its paces. Every bloodcurdling scream, shriek of terror or surprise attack is complimented by the panic inducing music score that will have you dismembering limbs or running for your life depending on how rife your ammo and health happen to be.

This sort of horror title is the perfect breeding ground for a well excecuted audio/gameplay hybrid, and the sound department at Visceral have obviously applied themselves in making that notion a reality. With lacklustre audio, the hard work that has gone into Dead Space’s otherwise finely crafted atmosphere really would suffer as a result. It’s a game that relies on quality sound usage to trigger the biggest scares, and in that respect, thankfully, it’s exemplary.

Although Isaac is slightly more satisfying to control and his surroundings more varied, Dead Space 2 plays very similarly to it’s predecessor. You’re normally tasked with getting from point A to waypoint B, whilst C,D,E and F attempt to disembowel you. Those familiar with the formula will know that dismembering limbs is the name of the game here, and besides the return of all the old favourites, there’s some new tools for doing so and foes to put them to use on. Particular additions of note in both cases are the javelin gun and the ferocious Pack adversary.

The javelin gun launches a spear, piercing necromorphs with the force to pin them to nearby walls. A press of RB/R1 will switch the weapon into secondary fire mode which electrifies the javelin and any surrounding enemies. It’s an incredibly satisfying new inclusion to the roster and one that can be employed to great tactical effect when overwhelmed.

The aforementioned Pack are a group of toddler-sized necromorphs with razor sharp claws, that swarm en masse at Isaac with the sole purpose of decapitating him. Suffice to say that having your back to a wall and a quick trigger finger are your best friends in such scenarios.

Other new arrivals worth mentioning are the detonator mines, either fired off grenade launcher-style or deployed on the ground for necromorphs to trigger with explosive effect. The seeker rifle is a long range addition to Isaac’s arsenal, which although in such enclosed surroundings you may expect to have a limited effect, is actually very useful especially in Zero G sections where there’s more space to operate in. They’re all minor inclusions, yet ones that make Dead Space 2 a more rounded game the first. No wholesale changes here as such in terms of gameplay, but this is the instalment by which EA are aiming to convert Dead Space from an IP with cult status, to a fully fledged force on the market. The foundations had been laid by the original and the sequel subtly builds upon it.

What sets it apart from the first Dead Space however is Isaac’s more involved role in the story line. Whereas previously he was completely emotion free and characterless, the personal nature of the narrative here works well, and renders you suitably gripped throughout. The original suffered in that you had virtually zero connection with the main protagonist. This meant that there was no substantiated relief from the borderline repetitive nature of ten or so hours limb dismembering. You didn’t know Isaac, therefore you didn’t care about him - now back to the killing. The sequel thankfully remedies this to a degree, and by the game’s conclusion (another ten hours on normal difficlulty) it’s refreshing to have formed at least some sort of relationship with him.

As is the case with so many games nowadays, multiplayer comes as part of the package. Where so many titles get it wrong however, is that MP often ends up being a substandard tack-on to the primary content. Dead Space 2’s multiplayer by no means does a disservice to the rest of the game, it’s entertaining in its own right, but in the same breath, it wont set the world alight either. It basically boils down to humans vs. necromorphs, with what are lauded as differing objective based scenarios essentially becoming deathmatch affairs.

Whether the humans are tasked with reaching escape pods or triggering off a bomb whilst fighting off the necromorphs, each game feels very similar to the last no matter what the ‘task’ actually is. It’s initially exhilarating taking control of the Pack and clawing the eyes of a human player out, yet there is not enough content here to warrant sustained interest. Sure, there’s a levelling up system for humans to unlock new weapons and purchase advanced suits, but with so many more in-depth online experiences out there, whether this offering can stand the test of time is debatable. It’s fun for a while, with plenty of potential to expand from, but the real substance lies in Isaac’s horror-journey through the expertly realised Sprawl.

It’s relentless, visceral and violent - in short it’s Dead Space. It subtly improves over the original in almost every field, from a more involving narrative, to varied and compelling environments. Fans of the original will need no pushing, but for Dead Space virgins there’s no better time to become embroiled in the necromorph nightmare.