Saturday, February 5, 2011

"In space, no one can smell the rotten flesh." My review of Dead Space 2

Holy cow it's finally here! One of my favorite survival horror science fiction games has finally come back! I am a die hard fan of Dead Space, it's a mix of all the things I love about science fiction and horror. The numerous inspirations for this game come from some of my favorite science fiction films like The Thing and Aliens with a bit of Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The result was a chilling, suspenseful, and terrifying game that would render me speechless for hours and kept me up for many nights (due to how fun it was plus I was afraid of the dark for a while). The story was both original and interesting with you playing space engineer Isaac Clarke ( whose name is a mix of the names Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, two of the most popular science fiction authors in history. The nods to previous works got me into a geeky tizzy!). Isaac was an unlucky soul sent to fix an old "Planetcracker" class mining ship called the Ishismura only to find it filled with corpses and relentless aliens called necromorphs who use said corpses as vehicles to spread their nightmare of death and destruction. Isaac was also looking for his girlfriend, Nicole, who was stationed on the Ishimura.
I wont go any further into the plot of the first game because I'm sure most already know what happened. Needless to say Isaac's quest didn't end so well.

Now, Dead Space 2 comes out and Isaac's ass is once again thrown back into the fire for some more alien smashing action! And I'm here to tell you all what I thought of the result. Once again, this is a SPOILER filled review and if you hate getting spoiled here's your chance to stop.

Dead Space 2 brings back all of the things that made the first game a success while bringing some new stuff for us to play with while never forwarding the narrative whatsoever. It's not completely bad when I say that because what you have here is basically Dead Space 2.0. The developers at EA and Visceral games knew that there was nothing completely wrong with the game mechanics. They definitely took an "if it ain't broke don't fix it" approach to making the sequel. If you've played the first game then when you start this game you pretty much know what to do: dismember everything that moves (and sometimes stuff that doesn't) and keep yourself alive. The dismemberment tactic from the first game still plays a big role in fending off the legions of necromorphs Isaac encounters on The Sprawl (the giant space station orbiting Titan and the main setting for Dead Space 2). There are some changes though with a new way of bringing pain to the enemy by skewering them with giant railroad spikes, pipes and even the mutant blades of downed enemies and pinning them to walls via your kinesis module (Dead Space's version of the Half-Life gravity gun) or the brand new Javelin gun which fires spears for some reason (my thought is space fishing or space whaling perhaps. These weapons are supposed to be improvised tools Isaac uses and not actual guns but I have no clue what a spear launching gun would be used for in a big space mining operation so I'm guessing the Sprawl also dabbles in possibly illegal space whaling operations. Somebody call Whale Wars!) Anyhow this new mechanic puts a new spin on the usual hack em up approach to killing necromorphs, however during my first play through I pretty much stuck with dismembering necros with my trusty plasmacutter and hardly ever used the new "spear fishing" mechanic (if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?) It's not that spearing things isn't useful in fact it saves you alot of ammo if you're willing to look for makeshift spears out of the environment. However I'm sure most players will settle with cutting the limbs off of necros through most of the game.

The traditional eerie atmosphere and foreboding ambiance is once again a critical factor in this game. It's chilling, and scary just walking through the corridors of The Sprawl. However, this isn't a mining ship, this is a place where millions of people live and work on, so it was nice to see the developers change things up with some mall-like areas full of shopping centers and daycare centers all of which bring their own sense of dread by the very fact they're so empty and devoid of life. So the atmosphere from the first game is definitely there and improved on. There's even a chapter where you go through the recovered Ishimura, which was a fun nostalgic romp that gave me a warm fuzzy feeling in between moments of anticipation and dread.

For a game called Dead SPACE there has to be segments set IN SPACE, and this is where Dead Space 2 really shines in its new and improved zero gravity segments. Instead of jumping from surface to surface like some interstellar chimpanzee you are given the ability to fly around using rocket boots and flight stabilizers like the ones used in Iron Man. These segments are fun, dizzying, and totally awesome. I would buzz around zero gravity rooms or outside the space station feeling like a badass astro-engineer. My only problem is that there are barely enough moments like this in the game, I can only recall four levels that had me flying around in space. I wanted more but instead I was usually called back to the Sprawl to do some more walking (ugh walking is so 23rd century!). There's hardly any combat in zero gravity as well, with only a few giant necromorphs in a fixed position on the outside that shoot stuff at you. I don't know if the developers tried to have more conventional enemies attack out in zero gravity (like in the first game) and only found the combat to be frustrating in those instances but I feel that it would've been awesome to fight some slashers or crawlers in the vacuum of space. So if there's a Dead Space 3, I want more zero gravity sequences damn it!

Enemies are pretty much the same, you're going to run into the classic slashers, leaper, and creepy baby-tentacle-shooting things, along with some new ones like the tormenter, stalker, and puker necromorphs. All of which require different tactics to take them down. For instance, stalkers like to sneak around and have a pack mentality, the best thing to do it find a corner and wait for them to charge you down. Pukers are more annoying than threatening as they simply puke on you and cause you to slow down as acid eats at your suit, simply hitting them before they hit you is the best tactic. Then there's the pack, these annoying little f**kers love to swarm you and flank you, once again, getting in a corner and letting them come at you head on is desirable so then you can give these little brats some disciplining they'll never forget! All in all, the monsters in Dead Space will provide enough challenges and scares to satisfy you.

Other gameplay mechanics include hacking puzzles that are supposed to utilize Isaac's skills as an engineer, however there is only one type of hacking puzzle and it's so easy that it becomes more monotonous and annoying because most of the time the door you're trying to hack is one that you have to go through, so it's not possible to lock yourself out if you fail (instead Isaac gets a little jolt of electricity for sticking his hand in the wrong place). I felt this hacking puzzle would've been better suited to doors that held secret loot and easter eggs because then I would've felt I had accomplished something. This isn't the case however as these special doors are held back by a power node like the doors in the first game. I felt this was a ridiculous thing to have considering the value power nodes have in the upgrading system and believe that this hacking puzzle would've served a better purpose here than as a simple break between combat.

Now, we have the story, or at least the makings of a story as it seems. This is where the game falls flat on its face. The story seems like it isn't really even there. The game starts off with Isaac in an insane asylum that's being overrun with necromorphs. Instantly the game throws you into action with hardly any development of a story. I found myself wondering why I was being hunted by the Sheriff of the Sprawl, a guy named Tiedmann. Why did he want me dead? Because I knew about the government conspiracy to rebuild the marker? I can buy that but Tiedmann never feels like a credible threat during the game. Most of the antagonism comes from the necromorphs but they are more like cannon fodder than anything else. However the biggest low part of the story is Isaac Clarke himself. In this game he is given a voice, which would've been awesome had he been given something worth talking about. For the most part he's just asking questions and cursing. When I heard that Isaac would be given the ability to speak, I was hoping that he would utilize his past experience dealing with necromorphs to lead survivors to safety, like Ripley in Aliens. Ripley used her experience to help the marines fight the aliens. Here Isaac continues to get jerked around by people on the radio, told what to do. Heck, he is even told how to kill Necromorphs, again, to which he just quips "I know, I've had tons of practice." It should've been the other way around. Isaac should've been helping people on the Sprawl, telling them that to kill necros you've gotta cut them apart. This isn't so however, instead Isaac is once again coerced into trusting the wrong people and is inevitably betrayed. He does find friends however, and by the end of the game he finally takes the initiative and does the smart thing by launching the escape vessel to save them while sacrificing himself.

One issue I had with these friends is that one of them is another inmate from the asylum, Stross, and he's crazier than Jack Nicholson in an empty hotel. Isaac begs another survivor, a girl named Ellie, to keep an eye on him until he can meet up with them. Of course, this doesn't go too well as Stross goes batshit insane and pokes one of Ellie's eyes out. This brought up tons of issues as when you first meet Ellie she isn't too happy about the idea of joining Isaac, believing she's better off fending for herself. However, as time goes on, Isaac manages to convince her to join him and help him destroy the marker. This would've been more believable had he told her something along the lines of: "You're better off joining me because I've dealt with these monsters before. I know how to kill them and I know how to stop them." Instead Isaac beats around the friggin bush about how he was on the Ishimura and never clearly tells her the truth. However Ellie is more than happy to trust this complete stranger who, oddly enough, seems to know a mental patient who constantly bickers with his hallucinations of his murdered family. If I were her, I would've asked more questions. When she's introduced we are given a character who is reluctant to trust anyone at this point, yet in a short amount of time she becomes trusting of a stranger and his insane friend to the point where she plays babysitter until the guy gouges out her eye. I would've put a plasmacutter to the crazy f**cker's head after he started to babble on about how he murdered his wife and kid. And Isaac should've known better than to leave the seeming important Stross in the hands of someone who sounded like she wasn't fond of trusting people.

The only high part about Isaac's character is his growing dementia caused by The Marker in Dead Space 1. He is constantly barraged by visions of his dead girlfriend, Nicole, most of which are not too benign. One of my favorite quick time events is when Nicole comes at you with a needle and when it's over you realize it's Isaac holding the needle. But these instances are few and far between and most of the time when Isaac does slip into his insanity you are barraged by so much white noise that you can't hear what the hell Isaac or Nicole are saying. (In fact, for the most part, the voices are difficult to hear over the ambient noises, I highly suggest using the subtitles which I forgot to do during my first playthrough). Ironically, however, Isaac ends up betraying himself (or Nicole ends up betraying him, or is it the Marker that betrays him. I don't know!) Near the end of the game Isaac comes to terms with Nicole's death and his nightmarish hallucinations turn into benevolent ones. Nicole turns back into a sweet little figment of his imagination and helps him reach the marker only to turn on him and tries to imprison him in his own mind! Isaac can't get a friggin break!

This brings us to the biggest disappointment for this whole game: the final boss.

I can't even say it's a boss battle even. It's just another fight scene, and a dull one at that. When Nicole takes you into Isaac's mind you have to shoot her until a giant f**k-me-here button appears behind her and then you shoot that until it blows up. Then that's it, the game ends. Isaac manages to fly out of the Sprawl thanks to the help of Ellie.

That's it. That's how the game ends. The story is barely expanded upon, relying more on action setpieces and scary atmosphere to carry the game. What about the fact that the Markers we've seen are all man made, based on an alien marker we found years ago? What about that? What happened to that? What are the markers? Why do the unitologists believe they are the key to humanity's salvation? Why do the unitologists utilize brainwashing techniques to achieve their goals? Why does the government want the power of the marker? All it does is drive people insane and creates nightmare creatures from hell, what kind of power is that? Is it really worth it? All of these things could've been utilized to create an awesome story to go with the awesome game. Story-wise, this game falls short to the point of being disappointing.

Now, don't get me wrong, this game is fun to play. It's awesome, it's just the story I had a problem with. It has solid gameplay, some awesome additions, and just enough unlockables and secrets to keep you interested. But the problem is that the gameplay is pretty much the same from the first one, it's almost a carbon copy. In many ways Dead Space 2 feels like an expansion pack than a full on sequel. All of this stems from a very empty storyline. For a game that plays just like it's predecessor it makes you wonder what the developers where doing when they were making it, twiddling their thumbs? They had the gameplay mechanics, graphics, and atmosphere already established, all they needed to do was flesh out an actual story to expand upon what was established in Dead Space 1. That was all they had to do it seems and they managed to fall short.

I hate to say this about a game I really enjoyed. I loved playing this game. It's a good game, but it's not a great game. If you've played the first game you will enjoy it, for new comers you will be somewhat lost at first but soon understand what needs to be done to play the game. However, if you want to play a game with a good story play Dead Space 1, Dead Space 2 has a plot so mind numbingly simple and devoid of intrigue that by the time you finish it you will wonder just what the heck you accomplished by beating it. It's more of a mindless action game in terms of story, but it's action is good action. Why did they find it prudent to give Isaac a voice? He hardly ever takes the initiative, never stands up to take charge of the situation, which is what should've happened. The final boss fight isn't a boss fight, and the things that made this game an original evolution from the first game are hardly utilized to their fullest.

It brings back everything that was good about the first game, it does add some new twists to the formula, but the narrative is stagnant and gets nowhere very fast. I still liked it, don't get me wrong, but I could've been so much more.

Which is why I have to give Dead Space 2 three dismembered limbs out of five for solid yet very similar gameplay with some interesting additions, the same chilling atmosphere, but falls short because of a story that isn't fully fleshed out with characters whose goals are never clearly revealed or understood and a very serious lack of a giant tentacled monster to fight at the end.

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