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Dead Space 2: I am still scared

I was a huge fan of the original Dead Space.  Visceral Games put together a true survival horror game instead of the action style games with creepy looking enemies that seemed to call themselves survival horror in this generation.  It was moody, brooding, and most importantly, had a great atmosphere.  So Dead Space 2 has pretty big shoes to fill.  Luckily for us, it absolutely keeps the high standard set by the first game.  There is no reinvention of the core gameplay, but a couple of shifts in philosophy and small refinements make Dead Space 2 not QUITE as scary as the first, but it’s also prettier, has better controls, and a more compelling story.  And trust me, when I say not QUITE as scary, I don’t mean its become Hello Kitty island adventure.  The scares are still delightfully disturbing.

Something that had most Dead Space fans worried, including myself, was Visceral saying they were going for a game that contained some crazier action, and they used the phrase “Modern Warfare moments”.  I’m a fan of CoD, but these two genres should not be mixing.  CoD is one insane set piece after another in quick succession, but Dead Space keeps these “moments” somewhat rare and in doing so, they become highly effective.  I hesitate to use an example because they are meant to come as surprises, but these more action oriented moments generally deal with something crazy in the environment being utilized by returning protagonist Isaac Clarke, or by the returning creepy as hell fleshy things, the necromorphs!  It was a poor phrasing choice on the developers part, but I get what they were trying to say.  Dead Space 2 retains the crazy good atmosphere, while adding those “WOW” moments that the first game didn’t really have.  So one potential stumbling block out-of-the-way.

The second change is that Isaac Clarke, the heroic engineer who strategically dismembered his way through the first game, now speaks.  In Dead Space he was the silent hero, in true Crono fashion.  I’ll be honest, I’m not sure why this trend caught on in so many games.  My theory is that by having the main character never say anything  it lets the player  more easily step into the shoes of the hero, so to speak.  To me it’s almost dirty pool though.  Instead of making a blank slate so we can project ourselves, just make the character relatable and interesting in his OWN way.  Isaac succeeds in both those respects.  His personality pretty accurately reflects how a person would respond to the events of the first game.  Namely, he’s freaked the hell out.  The opening of the game, which takes place 3 years after the events of the first Dead Space, finds him in a mental health institution still dealing with his horrific experience on the Ishimura in general, and the loss of his girlfriend Nicole in particular.  To say that Nicole haunts him could mean he feels guilt about not being able to save her or that he misses her dearly, both of which are true.  But I mean Nicole HAUNTS him.  The fun thing about playing is Isaac is that he’s sort of insane.  He has visions of the marker (giant creepy obelisk thing responsible for turning normal sane people into demented lunatics and in some cases, the aforementioned Necromorphs)  and sees and hears Nicole constantly.  Isaac doesn’t have time to dwell on how to fix his psyche though, because in very short order he goes from talking to a doctor to literally running for his life as Necromorphs pour out of the walls around him.  Isaac (and us as players) has no idea how this happened, as he destroyed the marker back on the world in which it was found, Aegis VII, in the first game.

Isaac Clarke is one of the more human game characters I've run across. Sure he can fight necromorphs and win, but it's not without some mental consequences.

Speaking of setting, that is another welcome change.  Isaac is now not drifting through space on a big ship, but on “The Sprawl” which is a giant city located on the largest of Saturn’s moons, Titan.  The game still contains plenty of dark vaguely industrial corridors much like the first, but also contains some fantastic new settings.  Having necromorphs unleashed on a self-contained space ship with a crew in the hundreds is bad enough, but unleashing that same hell on a city is absolutely brutal.  Destruction is everywhere, as is blood.  I loved the little touches of making the city feel “lived in”.  An early section of the game takes place in an apartment sector, and as Isaac you traverse through many now abandoned homes.  Dead bodies, notes written for loved ones, or even someone still alive holed up inside his apartment, yelling that he will shoot anything that comes through the door, all give the impression that this isn’t just Isaac vs. a bunch of monsters.  Though the actual NPC’s you meet are few and far between, the feeling is there that this is a city.  Two of the more memorable settings the Sprawl lets you traverse through are a church and a school.  The church is one of the most visually impressive things I’ve ever seen in a game.  Maybe it was just because everything else is so modern and technologically sterile (appropriate, given the setting, but still) but the church in its full on gothic architecture and stained glass windows were a different thing altogether.  A whole religion exists around the marker (it’s a long story fleshed out in the Dead Space animated movies and comic books) and it’s suitably disturbing.  This religion actually predates the events of the first game.  This isn’t as crazy as it sounds, as the number of people who actually know what the marker really does (ie; turn living things into monsters who want to rip you in half) are quite limited.  The church actually contained my favorite moment of the game, which was a face off between Isaac and about 4 necromorphs.  Most beasties in this game once they see Isaac will run at him full-bore until they’re physically unable too anymore.  It’s creepy sure, but the tension comes from them getting to you, not where they actually are.  The creatures I battled in the church took a more….sneaky approach, and seemed more animal than human like.  The battle was 70 percent insanely high tension and 30 percent bursts of action that had me gripping the controller until my hands hurt.  Dead Space 2 has a more than few of those kind of moments.

Seriously, if you are planning to play Dead Space 2 and you don't have a giant HD TV, get one first.

The aforementioned non human like necromorphs touch on something else Visceral did well, which was the logic of their game and the details.  The setting of the first game being a large ship left little room for what biological things you could turn into necromorphs.  Dead Space 2, being in a city, seems to lend itself to showing what would happen to all of the denizens.  Animals I just talked about, but the school setting was another matter altogether.  I won’t spoil anything, but suffice it to say, a school is usually full of children.  Freaking creepy.  The details come out in good old standard necromorphs.  This time around, as disturbing as this is, I could usually tell the gender of most of them, as Visceral did an excellent job of the models.  Some are so weird to be unrecognizable as ever being human, but it really struck home that you could literally see the men, women, and children aspect.  It was a creepy and small detail that kept the atmosphere tense.  Make no mistake though, necromorphs are TOUGH.  I used the telekinesis ability Isaac’s suit has to fire a large metal rod at the head of one of the animal style necromorphs at one point, but missed.  After some more frantic running and shooting, I managed to bring him down with my old trusty plasma cutter.  I went to loot the body, when I noticed oh, I DID NOT miss.  The metal rod was through the top of the beasts skull, it apparently just didn’t give a shit.

I’ve spent so much time on atmosphere and characters because the actual gameplay is largely unchanged from the first game.  Over the shoulder view, good gun controls, buy new suits and weapons, use power nodes to upgrade everything, you know the drill.  I don’t need to explain the mechanics of Dead Space here, but know that a couple of things changed from the first game make the pace better and using resources easier.  My favorite change was the stasis ability.  Being able to slow down moving machinery, or more importantly, necromorphs was an important ability from the first game.  However, you were limited in the number of shots you had unless an item was used or a stasis recharge station was found.  Both of those still exist in Dead Space 2, but stasis also recharges over time.  The time is long, probably over a minute, so in the heat of battle the reliance remains on items.  That being said, the self charging thing frees it up for stasis to be used more liberally, which makes combat feel more varied.  The other small but very welcome change was the mapping of items.  Stasis recharge is Y, health pack is B (or triangle and circle, as it were, for those playing on the PS3).  Bringing up the item menu is still a real-time event, meaning Isaac can be eviscerated while searching through his inventory.  The first game had you trying to run and hide in a corner to quickly navigate inventory to get to a health pack, but no longer.  Health can be used at the press of a button, while running, or even reloading.  The same goes for stasis.  This makes combat a bit more fast paced and exciting.  It puts the focus on fighting the necromorphs and not the controls.

Necromorphs are serious business.

Quick shout out to the sound designers for this game.  The music is solid but mostly absent, which lets the real star of the show shine, the ambient noise.  Constant noises, from the mundane to the screeches of approaching necromorphs, are loud and scary.  Hearing a growl will make you bring up the gun and turn.  The sections that take place in the more populated areas of the city have an almost constant human presence far off in the background, be it screams…or worse.  Remember also that Isaac Clarke is going insane and is starting to have hallucinations.  Whispers of “Isssaaaac” come floating in during the less chaotic moments, keeping the tension and atmosphere appropriately scary.

Dead Space 2 actually surpasses the first game.  The winning gameplay formula remains, with a few positive additions.  The graphics are out of this world (GET IT) beautiful, if by beautiful you mean ultra disturbing.  However, the infusion of personality in Isaac, wrapped in a tighter plot with a better script than the first game, make it a more immersing experience.  As Isaac yelled “how is this happening again!” after his first few skirmishes with necromorphs, he did so out of despair.  I was thinking the same thing, but out of delight.  Dead Space 2 confirms that this franchise is the reigning king of the survival horror genre, but forget the categorization.  Provided one can handle the subject matter, Dead Space 2 is one of the more engrossing experiences to be had in gaming.

Oh yeah, Isaac also picked up a few new tricks. Like dumping his clunky engineering suit for a razor-sharp new model.

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