Thursday, 4 August 2011

Dead Space 2

No.  Not a review.  More of a commentary.

So my game of choice immediately following Dead Space was its sequel...either you might consider this very boring or very predictable.  Nevertheless, I have some thoughts, but I feel like a thorough review isn't entirely necessary, since my opinions on the sequel, particularly those contrasting to the original game, can be compared to my review of Dead Space.

Right then, it's sequel time.  And I'm not talking Activision's 'herp derp let's pump 'em out Call of Duty style' idea of a sequel; this is a proper continuation of the Dead Space storyline, and is no cheap cash-in.  That said, is it comparable to the original?  Does it surpass it?  Many online reviews suggest Dead Space 2 is the superior game, if only by an overall small margin.  Personally, I'm not so sure one way or another.

See, this follows the give-and-take mentally displayed in Dragon Age 2, but in a more subtle, less detrimental way.  On Isaac's second outing, the adventure is more brutal, more difficult, and more intense.  In exchange, I found the overall experience less atmospheric, less immersive, and (generally) less scary.  Now, I want to touch on the point of scariness; Dead Space was creepy and jumpy as all hell, whereas its sequel isn't really that.  The fear factor comes from moments of insane, panic-driven chaos and an impending sense of doom.  Your standard necromorphs just somehow don't have the same terrible impact they had in the first game, but in place of that, there are moments that are genuinely heart-pounding terror, if only for your will to survive a seemingly doomed situation.  This time around, you'll find yourself ocassionally pitted against odds that range from extreme to impossible, forcing you to either run or think and fight unconventionally.  You will not be able to go toe-to-toe and defeat every enemy in this game.

Case in point is the opening sequence (if you don't wish to be spoiled, consider this your warning).  Isaac Clarke, our fearless (well not quite) hero, is found after the incident aboard the Ishimura, and immediately thrown in a straight-jacket due to his questionable sanity.  After being interrogated and simultaneously haunted by his dead girlfriend's ghost (OOPSPOILERS), he wakes up an indeterminate amount of time later and is under attack by everybody's favourite reanimated space abominations before he can even get his bloody straight-jacket off.  Yes, the 'tutorial' of the game involves you running for your life with absolutely no way to fight back (and yes, you can absolutely die within seconds).  Happily, the good people at Visceral Games are merciful and just.  Oh wait, they're not, because your first 'weapon' in the game is your standard telekenisis.  If you opted to skip over TK as a legitimate weapon in the first game (like yours truly), be prepared to unlearn your bad habit.  Thankfully, after some tough love styled learning, you will eventually be given your trusted Plasma Cutter, and from there, a whole host of interesting weapons, some familiar and some new, with variable ways to pick necromorphs apart.

This ugly bastard makes for one of my more memorable moments in recent
gaming history.
Another fantastic example of these intense, relentless sequences is a early-to-mid game boss battle against The Tormentor (dubbed "Kong" by the developers for reasons that become quickly obvious when you face this monster). The whole thing plays out like a roller coaster ride straight out of hell, while on acid, and with nothing to keep you restrained within the cart.  Admittedly, the battle crosses into the realm of absurdity, but the entire 'boss fight' is so incredibly well scripted, so cinematic, so terrifying, so thrilling, that it'll just leave you with a big, nervous, sweaty smile on your face afterward.

On top of these standout moments and events, the combat in Dead Space 2 just feels better.  The melee attack feels functional, the telekinesis has some real meat to it, the gunplay is as good or better (with some of the new weapons feeling quite satisfying), and the zero gravity sections have improved on an already cool concept by scrapping the Star Trek: First Contact-esque jumping around weightlessly with an Iron Man inspired ability to effectively fly on all axes.  Oh, and Isaac talks this time around.  I know that may not have an real direct relation to the gameplay, but it's definitely worth nothing.  Thankfully, it's well done, and while the transition is somewhat surprising, you'll almost immediately stop associating Mr. Clarke with the silent hero type.

So that sounds great, right?  How can Dead Space 2 possibly not trump the original with all this cool stuff?  Well, there are a few reasons, some nitpicky, some less so.

The first is perhaps the most glaring and most controversial.  And that has to do with this notion that the still-fledging Dead Space franchise is heading in a more action-oriented direction, abandoning (or at least reducing) its survival horror roots.  No doubts comparisons will have been drawn to Resident Evil 5, which was accused of a similar crime.  Now, while I enjoyed RE5, I won't claim for a minute that it didn't do exactly that; it is a 3rd person action game, and survival horror no more.  Dead Space 2 is not guilty of that, not to that degree.  Indeed, there are moments throughout the game (sadly these include some of the best moments, such as The Tormentor) that reflect a more gradual move in the action direction, where explosive cinematics start to become reminiscent of some of the more ridiculous portions of...oh deary me...the Modern Warfare franchise.  Now now, don't think EA is Call of Duty'ing Dead Space, because that's nonsense.  However, it is somewhat indicative of the current state of affairs when it comes to this sort of modern digital media and what the masses want.  And what the masses want, unfortunately, seems to be mindless explosions and special effects that are offensive to one's intelligence.  Again, I stress this is NOT the case in Dead Space 2, but there is a feel, perhaps only a mere whiff of it.  But the real threat is the fact that it did not exist in the original game in any capacity.  I'm absolutely pulling for a Dead Space 3, but I'm hoping that they keep the relative balance between action and horror that they managed with Dead Space 2.

Environments like this creepy church area look great, but feel out of place
in a science fiction setting.  It starts feeling very...Resident Evil-y.
Before this opinion article begins to delve further into social psyche, let me move on to reason number two why Dead Space 2 may not entirely trump its predecessor.  This one is a little more nebulous and subjective, but bear with me.  The reason has to do with story and setting.  The first Dead Space pretty much nailed it; a creepy and seemingly abandoned wreck of a ship infested with something absolutely horrible.  Perfect sci-fi horror material, firing on all cylinders.  The second game just somehow feels disjointed and confused by comparison.  I never forgot where I was in Dead Space; the Ishimura was a very well put together and memorable set piece.  The Sprawl, by comparison, sort of does as the name implies.  The variety in environments, while admirable, starts to edge away from sci-fi a bit too much for my tastes, including chapels and nurseries among more standard science fiction fare like engineering bays and bridges.  No doubt some will disagree with me, but I preferred the more traditional approach to sci-fi displayed in the first game to the more lived-in 'human' feel of some of the environments in the second.

The story suffers a similar problem, in that I never really felt like there was a clear, overarching goal.  Not to say that the original was perfect story-wise; the constant convenience of having yet another vital ship system fail immediately after fixing the previous one did get a bit predictable.  However, there was just more of a sense of progression towards something in Dead Space; you are an engineer, you are there to fix the ship, you are fixing the ship and uncovering the mystery behind what went wrong.  In Dead Space 2, there were times when I really had no idea why I was where I was, what exactly I was supposed to be doing, or why I should care.  It's not to say that the story is bad, as there are plenty of redeeming qualities, such as Isaac's constant struggle with his diminishing sanity and grasp on reality, but it doesn't fit the sci-fi horror element quite as well as the first game.  It probably doesn't help that Isaac is pulling some seriously ridiculous and reality-defying (albeit quite cool and satisfying) stunts in this game, such as going for a little swim through space at about 10,000 mph.

The third point is that of pacing and difficulty.  I did mention that Dead Space 2 is, overall, more difficult than its predecessor.  This is true, at least in my experience.  However, my issue is that it's not consistently harder.  Instead, you have periods of time where you're practically untouchable (depending on how good you are), having one or two or small groups of necromorphs thrown at you in a manner quite similar to the first game.  This is familiar territory, and shouldn't be a problem for any Dead Space veteran.  Of course, how predictable would the game be if that's all it was?  Naturally, Visceral needed to up the ante on what the necromorphs would be capable of, and they have indeed.  Does it work?  Sometimes.  Having a necromorph pop out of an elevator you've just called is something you thought yourself safe from after playing Dead Space, so it works. Having an absurd number of necromorphs pile onto you in a tiny room completely out of the blue is something that, in my mind, doesn't work.  It turns into a shooting gallery which quickly turns into a button-mashing, frustrating mess if you slip up slightly.  All this is only on normal difficulty as well.  No doubt at this point, any real hardcore Dead Space enthusiast would be looking to strangle me through the monitor at my utter incompetence with this game.  Well, I won't deny I'm not the best at survival horror games, conserving ammo and resources at the wrong times and conversely spending them in the same manner.  However, I had little issue with the first game, and felt that any deaths I experienced were my own fault entirely.  I didn't necessarily feel this in Dead Space 2.  It's not like I was dying often, but I was experiencing frustration at the notion of having too many health packs one moment, and the next discovering I have none at all.  Granted, some of this was caused by my own brashness, ignorance or lack of skill, but some encounters felt downright unfair, such as throwing unreasonable amounts of foes at you in an obscenely small area.  One particular moment in an elevator stands out.  Unless I was missing something, I was being hit by unpredictable damage.  That's not exactly my idea of good design in a survival horror title.

But pretty much it.  And yes, you can make some arguments against the first game as well.  Part of the reason it was so scary was because of things like shock value and cheap scares, such as something popping out and making a loud noise.  Those are present in Dead Space 2, yes, but the adrenaline-pumping moments of panic and intensity are more unique to the sequel.  They were there in Dead Space, but they were more forgiving and more predictable.

So there you have it.  A bit of give and take.  Which game then would I side with?  Well, as a survival horror game, the original is the classic.  Everything about it just worked.  As a game overall, Dead Space 2 may well edge it out.  The big, cinematic action sequences, borderline silly as they might be at times, are just too cool and too exciting to ignore.  There's also the fact that Isaac is a much more fleshed out and sympathetic character this time around.  There's also more of everything; more guns, more suit variety, more upgrades, more ways to approach combat.  The only thing it has less of is length, unfortunately.  Though the sequel is 2 chapters longer than its predecessor, it's certainly not any longer, and if anything, it's an hour or two shorter on a first playthrough.  That said, it's still an extremely solid 10 or so hours, and if you're a survival horror buff, there's good amounts of replay value.

As for the multiplayer, well, I can't comment, because I have no interest in it.  From all I've heard, it's completely mediocre fare, and an entirely redundant addition, much like the multiplayer in Bioshock 2.  There are better games to play with your friends.  Survival horror generally works best while you're on your own.

Crikey.  My "not a review" ended up being longer than my previous review I think.

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