Sunday, February 14, 2016

Dead Space 2 review

    Dead Space was a really enjoyable game to me. It was a wonderful homage to Alien, The Thing, Event Horizon, and just about every other good science-fiction horror movie made during the Eighties. The game suffered for the fact there were too many killable monsters and after slaying your 60th or 70th Necromorph, they're not really all that intimidating. Despite this, I was entertained and decided to pick up the remaining two in the trilogy.

    The premise of Dead Space 2 is Isaac Clarke has spent the past three years completely off his rocker in a Jupiter Space Station insane asylum. His doctors seem less interested in curing our demented protagonist than trying to extract whatever information he might have gleaned about the Necromorphs and the mysterious Marker which created them. So, of course, one day a new Necromorph outbreak occurs within a major metropolitan area in the same system as Earth.

The straight-jacket section neither lasts too long nor is too short.
    Despite this promising premise, I was skeptical if lightning could hit the same spot twice. Horror games are a different sort of genre, science fiction or not, than action adventure games. Isaac Clarke, silent protagonist or not, was a very good lead for the first game but how would the game cope with him confronting Necromorphs for a second time? Surely, the monsters would be less intimidating now that he can and has dealt with them before?

    If they wanted to do a horror game then shouldn't they have done what they did in spin-offs by having a new protagonist? Perhaps another one with a funny name derived from science fiction authors or actors? Howard Phillips? Sigourney Hamilton? [note: Howard Phillips actually shows up as a dead NPC in this game.] Isaac Clarke's return was a welcome one but he couldn't react with newcomer's eyes this time around. No matter what, Isaac is an action survivor and knows how to deal with the situation.

The Church of Unitology is one of my favorite parts of the game. Creepy and atmospheric.
    Alas, this turns out to be the case and Dead Space 2 has a dramatically different pacing than the original. This isn't really a horror game but a over-the-top action horror game. More Warhammer 40K and Doom than the original Dead Space.

    It is an extremely fast-paced adventure where you're constantly shooting enemies which have the potential to overwhelm you at any moment. Things never let up in the game so there's not an easy break between chapters the same way there was in the original game. You never get to catch your breath in Dead Space 2 as one disaster invariably leads to the next and this has both its highs and lows.

I hate, hate, HATE the monster kids.
    Ironically, the game makes several changes I suggested for the original installment to be better. The opening of the game has Isaac Clarke in a straight jacket where he doesn't have any ability to fight the Necromorphs and must simply run from them. Even when he gets out of it, it's still some time before he gets his plasma cutter. Ammunition is scarce and diverse so you're constantly switching between weapons just to have something you can throw at the much-more numerous enemies.

    Isaac Clarke is also a voiced protagonist now so he no longer is silent during ridiculously perilous scenes like when he's covered with monsters trying to rip his body apart. Admittedly, a large portion of his vocabulary is exclamations of surprise or profanity but that's pretty much how most people react to constant unexpected disaster.

My other favorite part of the game is where you visit an elementary school.
    Another area of the game which is improved is the addition of a larger supporting cast. While the original game had Kendra and Hammond, both of them felt as invulnerable as Isaac himself until the very end. Here, we get a more rotating cast with quite a few switches as well as surprises making things more notable. I'm particularly fond of Ellie who is a British EarthGov pilot who has managed to survive the worst of the station by herself. I also liked the character of Dana and find it a pity she and Ellie never got to interact because it would have been nice to have a science fiction game pass the Bechdel Test.

    The villain is nothing to write home about as the EarthGov Station Commander wants Isaac to be killed and it's not until halfway through the game you even get an inkling as to why he's expending massive amounts of force to get at our protagonist. Even then, I find his motivations weak as Isaac is every bit as devoted to stopping the Necromorph threat as he is. This is compensated by the addition of Ghost Nicole, who exists to torment Isaac with accusations of letting her die as well as reminders that he failed to stop the first Necromorph outbreak from spreading. She wears out her welcome but I think the fact the game avoids forgetting about Nicole's existence like so many others would have to be a plus.

The action is fast-paced and lethal.
     As stated, Dead Space 2 is a fast paced action game which is constantly sending Isaac from one perilous situation to the next. One minute he's hanging from the ruins of a destroyed subway tram, unable to move, and the next he's in the middle of a completely dark laundromat which is filled with a dozen Necromorphs he can't see. The game is a bit ridiculous as everything which can possibly go wrong to prevent Isaac from reaching the Marker in order to destroy it does but that's video games for you.

     Besides, it's not exactly easy to cross a space station full of literally millions of monsters. The situation was tense and claustrophobic the first time around onboard the Ishimura but this feels outright apocalyptic. Wandering through familiar seeming places like apartment complexes, food courts, shopping centers, and offices adds a sense of groundedness to an otherwise space opera-esque setting.

Ellie is a great character, even if I was distracted by a badass Brit in pig-tails.
    The enemies are more diverse from the start as well. They have all the classics from the first game plus running monster children as well hideous new variants. There's even the addition of Necromorph velociraptors. No, seriously, they act and sound exactly like the monsters from Jurassic Park and are some of the most dangerous ones you encounter. You even get an achievement called, "Clever Girl" if you defeat a room full of them.

    The world's background gets a good deal more development as we come to understand the role of Unitology in the setting, its influence, and a little bit more about what the Markers want to achieve. I also give props to the developers for creating many well-designed levels with a minimum of backtracking. 

    The aforementioned Church of Unitology is a great place to fight monsters in and so is the creepily traumatic elementary school level. They don't shy away from the fact kids are murdered and turned into monsters in this game. I also loved the zero-g sections which are fun and not at all tedious, unlike the previous game. There's also an unexpected benefit of everything being silent in zero-G, so you can't hear the monsters coming. Jump scares are replaced with gore as Necromorphs explode in spectacularly splatterpunk fashions.

The best possible weapon against vampires is a solar satellite weapon.
    Those sensitive to such things should note Dead Space 2 is spectacularly more violent than the previous entry of the series which had a sense of restraint about such things. Corpses are violently dismembered on screen and weapons do all manner of brutal things. Isaac's death scenes are rendered in a grand guginol glory which are as oftentimes comical as they are horrifying.

    In general, none of this offended me because the violence was rarely against people and Isaac is usually in his Iron Man-esque suit. Still, you get to see a human being dismembered from the inside out as he turns into a necromorph in your first five minutes of gameplay. The game might have benefited from dialing it down a notch.

    So, was it a good thing or a bad thing to change up the game? Well, it's a different sort of game but certainly not worse. I also think it improves in several respects. I also respect the transition in genre as similar to the one which happened between Alien and Aliens. As a result, I'm going to heartily recommend it.


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