endlessly creepy, chitinous foes lumber towards you out of the dark – looking like cast off concepts designs from John Carpenter’s The Thing
As the January 25th release date approaches, we get an early look at some single player levels from Visceral’s Dead Space 2.
It all starts with very little fanfare – a plain loading screening leading to a nondescript room with nothing more than the subtitle ‘Chapter 2’ to indicate that the earliest scenes are being kept from us at this stage. It’s something of a disappointment in a game that’s clearly heavily built around story to be thrust unceremoniously into the middle of a mission but if nothing else it avoids unnecessary spoilers.
Returning lead character Isaac Clarke is looking a little better (read: less insane) than the last time we saw him and is being ushered via radio commands through a shattered section of The Sprawl by a woman called Daina. She has promised to help you escape the rapidly disintegrating station, while at the same time a tenacious team of mercenaries close in, intent on putting you out of their misery. And then, naturally, there are the necromorphs.
Little changed from those of the original game, these endlessly creepy, chitinous foes lumber towards you out of the dark – looking like cast off concepts designs from John Carpenter’s The Thing. Their convoluted limbs and piercing screams show mere fragments of the people they once were, leaving the player with little to do except blow them away into gibbering hunks of meat. As before, dismemberment is key to survival in Dead Space. Enemies can easily soak up a hail of casually fired lead – instead you’ll have to choose your shots carefully, targeting extremities and using the environment to your advantage. It’s a simple refinement to the third person action genre but one that adds masses of tension – particularly as hordes of horror-movie foes bear down on you while you wait, with a single round left in the chamber, for that perfect shot.
Stasis and Kinesis powers are back to help you survive just a little longer. The first gives you a few more seconds to squeeze off that vital shot (perfect for enemies with explosive limbs – surely not Darwin’s finest moment) while the second can be used to gleefully impale necromorphs with their fallen allies limbs or to solve some simple puzzles. All of these powers can be upgraded at work benches using power nodes, as can each of your newly bolstered arsenal of weapons. The plasma cutter makes a welcome return and its solid balance between accuracy and power (plus that sense of coolness as you rotate its targeting sight) means it’s bound to still be a favourite for players. The much mooted Javelin gun makes a great impression, pinning enemies to the walls, while we also got some time with a buzz saw weapon and a spray and pray assault rifle which made short work of weaker enemies like the Pack.
Happily, melee attacks have also been improved considerably since the first Dead Space – smacking things upside the head actually stands a chance of causing damage this time around and nimble players will be able to kneecap an opponent then rush in and stomp on their head to save bullets. Or just to revel in the squelchy sound it makes. Ranged weapons now also have an alt-fire mode – some toss handy explosives while the Javelin electrocutes everything nearby. The plasma cutter just rotates – it doesn’t need a snazzy alt-fire mode to still be the pick of the bunch.
It’s hard to get a grip on the story of Dead Space 2 – it clearly follows on from Clarke’s terrible loss in the first game with a number of apparitions and also deals with the Church of Unitology – a cult that worships the mysterious objects known as Markers. Our run through Chapters 2 to 5 culminated in one of their churches, where our attempts to reach Daina were hampered by a particularly nasty, many limbed brute who seemed so intent on wrapping his gaping maw around Isacc’s nether regions that even the chill of outer space couldn’t deter him. Transitioning to zero g is a suitably freeing experience in Dead Space 2 – simply click in the left stick and you’re free to move in any direction, courtesy of all new jets installed in your suit. Flying and firing are smooth and graceful, with nothing of the clunky point to point jumping of the first game. In this final encounter, we ended up in space after a frenetic action scene which expertly draws the player through with a series of minor interactive moments as your character gets pummelled in a corridor chase. It’s thrilling stuff, and a wonderful counterpoint to the relatively considered shooting and exploration of the rest of the game.
The new enemies are inventive and force you to constantly rethink your strategy – the teeming masses of the child-like Pack force you to keep your distance and take them out as quickly as possible while we had a memorable encounter with raptor-like enemies who hide completely from site before charging and knocking you down. You’ll need to use all your powers and weapons as cleverly as possible and even then there’s little doubt that you’re going to die quite regularly in Dead Space 2. Back in 2007, Dead Space was a joy to behold on next gen consoles but the new location of the Sprawl has given Visceral even more freedom to create a pin sharp futuristic nightmare. Familiar dank and destroyed corridors give way to almost jovial shopping malls with the whole place simply dripping with atmosphere. The later church-based levels give the artists scope to go wild with the gothic imagery – the convoluted architecture reflecting back Isaac’s fractured mental state as his hallucinations begin to cross over more and more into everyday life. The sound design is also exemplary, creating a constant sense of tension and subtly muting in zero g.
There’s little doubt that Dead Space 2 is a highly polished sci-fi horror title – the presentation is superb and the slightly clumsy and unresponsive controls of the first game have been refined and tightened to make it even more accessible.
And that superbly engaging HUD also makes a return, projected out from your suit and overlaying the world – forcing you to never break contact with the game. Even the highly useful locator (which showed a blue line leading to your next objective) has been improved – a flick of the d-pad lets you also highlight the nearest shop, bench or save point. If there’s one criticism we have at this early stage, it’s that the game seems to stick a little too closely to the requirements of the horror genre.
There’s some repetitive corridor crawling featuring enemies placed for obvious jump scares. This doesn’t mean they aren’t effective but you can often tell when it’s been a few minutes since the last screech of a string solo from the soundtrack, and a misshapen thing bursts from a wall on cue. The game is a haunted house, traps spring at precise locations at certain times and often in ways which are fundamentally unfair to the player (such as behind you or in the dark). It doesn’t hurt the game hugely because the real joy is found in taking your enemies apart in inventive fashion but Visceral would want to be careful with the pacing, perhaps with a few lighter sections as well as the above mentioned action moments, to really keep players engaged for the single player campaign.
It’s just a brief glimpse of a hopefully sprawling game but Dead Space 2 already looks like a massive improvement on the original in every department. If the story can remain compelling and the developers can avoid some pacing pitfalls, this will be the sci-fi horror title to beat when it comes to PS3 and Xbox 360 on the 25th of January