Saturday, January 21, 2012

Gamegaddon: Dead Space 2.

I have resurrected my blog. Hurray!

Breakfastman’s Gamegadon: Dead Space 2
It is Uncharted meets the original Dead Space. But is that a good thing?
Note: This review is of the PC version of Dead Space 2. The entire game was played with the X-Box 360 gamepad.

Dead Space 2 is the sequel to 2008's Dead Space (duh). I played the original about a year or two ago, and really liked it. It had some great gameplay mechanics (the zero-g segments being among the most memorable), looked fantastic, and had a great atmosphere. It was not particularly scary, nor was it the most unique take on the survival horror genre (it took its fair share of gameplay mechanics from Resident Evil 4, and borrowed more than a few elements from The Thing, Event Horizon, and Alien), but it was an enjoyable and fairly interesting take on the genre nonetheless. So when the sequel was announced, I was interested and excited to see where Visceral Games would take the series. What I got was something that I did not I expect.

Dead Space 2 takes place sometime after the first game (it is unclear exactly how much time has passed between games, but it is implied of being upwards of a year). Isaac Clarke, the protagonist of the first game, has been driven mad by the events that occurred aboard the starship Ishimura (the location of most of the first game) and is being kept in an asylum aboard "The Sprawl", a space station created around the shards of Saturn's moon Titan. He awakens from his insanity at about the same time the Necromorphs, the hideous mutated humans that served as antagonists in the first game, attack the Sprawl. Isaac has to, once again, fight his way through the massive hoards of Necromorphs and figure out what caused the outbreak on the station. Along the way he meets a fellow asylum inmate that seems to know more than he will tell, a plucky pilot who is also trying to escape the sprawl, more Scientologists Unitoligists, and the space station administrator who wants Isaac dead for some reason.
                                                    Isaac knew he should have cleaned out his refrigerator sooner.

The story has potential, but most of it is pretty much wasted. Interesting plot threads and questions are introduced and left unresolved, which is very frustrating. The reason for unleashing the Necromorphs makes little sense and leaves too many questions. The Unitologists are given nothing interesting to do at all. The side characters are okay, but don't really have anything interesting to do or say beyond basic exposition and cryptic riddles. The motivations of the villains are never well explained, and the explanations given make very little sense. The plot itself follows the same basic structure of the first game: someone telling the player over the intercom to go here and fix that so they can make a modicum of progress to their goal. It is like the door quests from Half Life 2 stretched out to fill an entire game.

Making a character who was basically a "Gordon Freeman" in the first game into a fully voiced character with an actual personality seems like a mistake (it sure as hell didn't work for Other M), but it turns out much better than one would think. He never gets annoying or seems like he is whining. He is caring, empathetic, and helpful. He tries to save everyone he can, but he does not always succeed. He makes sacrifices to try and save all the people he can. Despite a few strange out of character moments (one near the end of the game that involves a gaggle of security guards and hoards of Necromorphs sticks out in my mind), his character is handled decently, and even has a number of interesting sub-plots.

Unfortunately, nearly all the sub-plots that involve Isaac's character are not as explored as well as they could be, and end up disappointing. There is some exploration of Isaac's guilt over getting his girlfriend to join the crew of the Ishimura, but none of it is resolved in any interesting way or given the full treatment it deserves. The game devotes a few moments to exploring the PTSD that Isaac acquired from the events of the first game, but like his guilt, is never given the proper attention to be anything more than a curiosity. The game seems to suggest at the beginning and the end of the game that this is all taking place inside Isaac's head and is his way of coping with the horror of the events in the first game, but given how the rest of the game plays out, I doubt this was at all intentional. It seems like the designers had a lot of good ideas for the Isaac's character, but did not have any idea on how to get it across. The game would have greatly benefited from having an actual writer on staff.
                                       A typical day in a Scientology church. Dietetics does weird stuff to you, man.

While the story may suffer, the gameplay does not. The main point of the game is to kill Necromorphs. The easiest and most effective way to do so is dismember them. Blowing off a Necromorph's legs and arms kills them much faster than just shooting them in the chest until they go down. To help the player outdo Jason Voorhees in their quest to mutilate as many creatures as they can, as fast as they can, a number of fun tools/weapons are provided. There is the Ripper, which functions like a buzz saw the can shoot saw blades at long range, the Javelin Launcher, which can impale monsters and then electrocute them, and the Line Gun, which takes out Necromorph legs better than nearly everything else. The player also gets a couple of useful powers. One, called "Kinesis", allow them to pick up and throw things, Gravity Gun style. The other, called "Stasis", slows down enemies so the player can dismember them easier. All the weapons and powers are fun and satisfying to use. Shooting out the legs of an advancing Necromorph, impaling it to the ground, then electrocuting it never gets old and is incredibly satisfying.

The player can also upgrade their weapons, armor, and powers with "power nodes" found scattered throughout the station. These items are fairly rare, so the player has to be very careful with what upgrades they do choose, making any upgrades they do choose more meaningful. There is a shop the player can purchase weapons, armor, ammo, health packs and nodes from, using currency found in the station or from dead enemies. They can also sell back or store unneeded health, ammo, or vendor trash and turn in any schematics found in the station to unlock better armor, health packs, ammo, and more guns.

The controls themselves work well. It is structured pretty much the same as Resident Evil 4, but with a few notable improvements. First, movement ditches the horrid tank-esque controls of Resi 4 for a more traditional, action game approach (e.g. pushing right makes Isaac move right, pushing left makes Isaac move left, etc.), which is a massive improvement in my book. The player is also allowed to move and shoot at the same time, which is also a great improvement. They can assign up to 4 weapons to quickslots on the D-Pad, press "B" when not aiming to use a healing item, or press "Y" to use an item that restores stasis power. All this results in spending more time in the game than the menu, having fun instead of raging about crappy controls because the player character cannot figure out that it is possible to move and shoot at the same time.
                                   What most people think teaching kindergarten looks like. Hint: It is actually worse.

The UI also deserves praise. Instead of following the regular, tired game route of having all the HUD items pasted on the screen like stickers, the game places all the usual HUD and UI elements onto the protagonist himself. His health bar is displayed on his back, the ammo count is displayed as a hologram on his weapon, the targeting reticule is displayed as a laser pointer coming out from his currently equipped item, the inventory and objective menu is displayed as a hologram projected from his suit in front of his body, and the objective marker is displayed as a hologram projected from his hand onto the floor. The store inventory and the upgrade bench's menu are displayed as a hologram projected from the front of a kiosk/bench. It is all very cleverly done and feels very natural in the context of the game world, something which most games should aspire too.

In addition, the game features some absolutely stunning level design. There are times where I just had to stop and stare in awe at what I was seeing. From racing after a train in nothing but a spacesuit to sky diving from a satellite unto the station, the game features some spectacular moments and amazing vistas. All the levels are perfectly paced, stringing together moments of tense combat with moments of quiet, zero-g puzzle solving. It all works together quite well and I never felt bored. There was always some interesting new environment or some fun new set-piece moment. It kept me going to see what they were going to do next and what awesome new sight was just beyond the corner.

The great sound design is worth a mention as well. All the monsters sound creepy, making all sorts of gurgles and terrible screams. The weapons sound real, and the squish they make against the flesh of the monster sounds convincing enough. The muted sounds during the space-walking elements are especially convincing, helping to draw the player into the mind that they really are floating around in space.

 Damnit, Isaac, I told you to shoot it’s weak spot for massive damage! Not to face the opposite direction and let it kill you!

Unfortunately, the fantastic set-pieces tie into one of my main complaints: the game just is not scary or subtle enough. Yes, the first game was not on par with Blair Witch Project it terms of subtle horror, nor did it lack its share of spectacular views and epic moments, but this game makes Dead Space 1 look like Silent Hill 2 in comparison. There are a number of the moments where the game seems to be banging the player over the head with its gore and jump scares, saying stuff like "OMG, THAT BABY JUST EXPLODED!!! ISN'T THAT GRUESOME? BOY, THAT SURE IS SCARY, HUH? BE SCARED DAMNIT, BE SCARED!!!" Sure, there are a few good moments here and there where the game decides to slow down, but they are few and far between. The game never gives the player enough time to really get into the atmosphere; it instead tries to distract the player at every opportunity with a shiny new set-piece gruesome new monster. It is like the developers are not confident in their ability to scare the player, so they opt to distract the player instead of trying to make him/her fearful.

Dead Space 2 also suffers from being overly linear, especially when compared with its predecessor. In Dead Space 1, the player was often dumped into an environment that had multiple paths and areas to explore. Yes, this resulted in a lot of back tracking, but it also allowed the player to get more into the atmosphere and made the ship feel more like a real place. It also allowed the developers an easy way to scare the player by placing monsters in already cleared rooms to induce surprise and panic in the player. Not so with Dead Space 2. The game is entirely linear, with nary a branching path or moment of exploration to be found. This really does not work in the game favor. It makes the Sprawl feel less like a real place and more like a Halloween fun house, which is a massive no-no for any horror game. The developers also lose an easy and effective way to scare the player and build atmosphere in the process. Linearity is fine in a horror game when it is done well and is coupled with a sense of subtlety. Dead Space 2 lacks that subtlety, which, when combined with the linear nature of the game, makes it feel more like Uncharted than the original Dead Space.

                                                         Chest vaginas: In the running for the worst idea ever.

In the end, Dead Space 2 is a fantastic action game with horror elements, despite the story problems. If you are looking for a good survival horror game or horror game with action elements, stay far away. If you just want great, gory combat with pretty environments and great level design, look this one up. I can't say I expected the series to go in this direction, nor can I say that I liked that it is going in this direction. I did enjoy the game as an action game, for what it is worth.

Breakfastman is an incredibly professional reviewer, and all around cool guy. Questions, comments, constructive criticisms, rants, rages? Feel free to post them below. All images blatantly stolen from Google images.