Monday, 21 February 2011

Game Review - Dead Space 2 (2nd opinion)

Formats: PS3, Xbox 360, PC

Back in 2008, software giant EA (better known for it's unrelenting barrage of sequential sports games) released a new IP, a sci-fi survival horror by the name of Dead Space. Featuring a distinctive holographic HUD gimmick alongside a unique 'shoot-off-their-limbs' gameplay mechanic, Dead Space wowed gamers and critics alike with its solid gameplay, creepy atmosphere and impressive presentation. This time around EA hands the developmental reigns over to Visceral Games. Can they improve on an already stellar title, or will EA pump out another unnecessary sequel?

Dead Space 2 rejoins the galaxy's most unlucky engineer, Isaac Clarke, three years after the events of events aboard the USG Ishimura. Awakening in the midst of a Necromorph outbreak, Isaac's urgent opening escape sets the tone for the rest of the game, which feels more frantic and immediate than the first. Swinging from moments of quiet, nail-biting tension to balls-out terrifying action, Visceral Games manage to craft an experience filled with thrills that doesn't shatter the subtle creeping fear of the original. While the sense of intense isolation aboard the Ishimura may have been abandoned in favour of the new setting within the Sprawl space station, a new kind of fear is introduced as you pass through recently inhabited areas filled with evidence of hastily constructed barricades and forsaken belongings. A real sense of panic rose in my throat as I saw the main shopping district of the Sprawl overrun by rampaging Necromorphs! The new setting also addresses the criticisms levelled at Dead Space’s repetitive structure, moving the player through various new areas rather than exhaustive back-tracking. The environments also look fantastic, and I was constantly amazed by the game's use of lighting and shadow.

The new setting is not the only change in Dead Space's narrative. Isaac, having played the role of the 'silent protagonist' in the first game, speaks for the first time, interacting not only with the small cast of survivors on board the Sprawl but also with the apparitions within his own mind. Upon hearing about this change during the game's development, I dreading Isaac turning into a clichéd action-hero stereotype, but Visceral Games did well to keep his dialogue in character, limiting it to brief, flustered exchanges and angry, spluttered expletives. Truthfully, if faced with an onslaught of horrifying creatures constructed from the decaying corpses of our recently deceased friends and relatives, I'm sure most of us would drop a few F-bombs along the way.
Dead Space 2 also tweaks the gameplay in a more action-oriented direction. Isaac moves with greater speed and finesse, and his melee attacks now have greater effectiveness. By introducing a greater number of movable (by which I mean pointy) objects in the game's environments and a new regenerating Stasis module, the developers encourage the player to get more creative with their kills, freezing enemies more often and using their own dismembered sharpened limbs against them. Of course it wouldn't be a proper sequel if they didn't add more weapons and armour too. While some are more forgettable than others, the new Javelin launcher is an instant hit, allowing you to impale enemies onto nearby walls before electrocuting them with the alternate weapon function.
The enemy roster, like an infected boil, has swollen and become more disgusting. The Puker symbolises a new kind of threat, pinning you in place with corrosive acid while other faster Necromorphs (such as the swarming Pack) close the distance. My favourite addition by far would have to be the Stalker, an enemy who signals its presence with a chilling echoing cry long before you can catch a glimpse of it. This Necromorph is different in its approach, as it hides in wait for its prey before springing out and charging headfirst towards you. These encounters stand out from the other more frantic battles, and really serve to add spice to the experience.
As well as some fairly clever engineering puzzles and zero-gravity segments (which, with the new thruster-suit, lose the disorienting wall-walking of the original, sadly) Dead Space 2 keeps things interesting by constantly pushing the player through spectacular set-pieces. Whether being dragged upside down by a giant Necromorph, sucked into outer space through a hull breach or engaging in some pretty shocking medical procedures, Dead Space 2 doesn't contain a dull moment for poor old Isaac.

Once you've explored the Sprawl, there's also the multiplayer component to tackle. On paper, the online experience sounds like a perk-based Left 4 Dead, with a four-man (or woman, this is 2011 after all) team of humans struggling to achieve certain objectives, such as activate a series of bombs or escape an overrun ship, all the while fighting back wave after wave of respawning human-controlled Necromorphs. Conversely, as the Necromorphs, it is your job to prevent the survivors completing their task, using a variety of boogie-men (or women I suppose) all with different abilities. Unfortunately, due to the confusing layout of the levels and the almost instantaneous respawn times, the few matches I played descended into the virtual equivalent of a group of strangers running around a darkened room flailing their arms and screaming 'AAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!'. Perhaps after a proper online resource is established which explains certain mechanics (such as how the various Necromorph abilities work or what the different objective markers mean), the multiplayer component will become less impenetrable to new players.

Dead Space 2 is all I could have hope for from a sequel. An adventure that builds on the experience of the first game, not only in terms of new gameplay elements and environments, but offers a change of pace and tone. If Dead Space was the video game equivalent of Alien, then Dead Space 2 is definitely Aliens, with a bigger cast, bigger guns and bigger thrills. As a bonus, the PS3 version also comes bundled with Dead Space Extraction, the excellent on-rails Wii shooter. There really is no reason to not buy this game. Unless, of course, you're chicken.

Lukao gives Dead Space 2 - 9 dismembered limbs out of 10.

Lukao, CeX UK Contributor.
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