Saturday, February 5, 2011

REVIEW - Dead Space 2.

Let's get this out in the open. Allow me to be bold, but clear: Dead Space 2 is one of the better games of the current generation and possibly the single best console title operating under the horror banner. It's gorgeous, with excellent overall presentation, great art direction and remarkable sound design.

Games of such quality usually appear as exclusives - backed by untold millions from console manufacturers - but can, much more rarely, be the product of a well-moneyed publisher with faith in a talented team. Dead Space 2 is the latter. In that, it is exceptional, and EA's Visceral Games may now step up and stand among such legendary multiplatform developers as Rockstar North, (the now-defunct) Infinity Ward and Ubisoft Montreal.

More than that, Dead Space 2 stands apart from those great names by way of its chosen genre. Come now, let's be honest - there are no more real horror franchises left - or at least no good ones.

Except one. This one. Dead Space 2 is a very special game.

One could (accurately) say that it is, at all angles, an incredibly thoughtfully-designed fear engine - never allowing itself to suffer from repetition by playing the same scare card twice - but that may seem to ignore that it's thoughtfully designed across every facet.

Well... there is one thing that could use a tweak - but it's a mechanic that I actually really, really like. When you kill an enemy in Dead Space 2, it doesn't shoot out a few space bucks or some ammunition on its own. You have to shoot it again, or throw it around with kinesis or - more likely - stomp on it.

Again, I like this mechanic. It guides the player to behave as their character would - to inhabit Isaac Clarke's hatred of the necromorphs - by smashing a foot into the corpse of their monstrous, defeated foes. Isaac speaks simply and forcefully to his enemies with this final, insulting, violent act. "Fuck you," he says.

Now, because the player desperately wants all that loot, they say it too - again and again and again. Wham. "Fuck you, necromorph!" Isaac and the player are, for that moment, emotionally joined. I love that aspect of it.

I dislike that, should you fail to stomp an enemy and more show up, the defeated enemy may de-spawn, and you will lose that item forever. The game tries to balance itself for a certain amount of ammo and items required for survival - and this mechanic risks tipping the scales in favor of death, due to so much potentially lost loot.

Having covered that single caveat, Dead Space 2 is just fantastic on all fronts.

The title is seemingly designed for those back-of-the-box blurbs that make a game sound far better than it could possibly be - the problem is, in this case, those quotes are likely accurate. Here, let me try one:
"...grips the player like an over-cinched straight jacket and flings them down a rollercoaster of thrills, chills and action..."
...and it does. This game's opening is an absolute stunner. The following minutes are brilliant, as it takes its time placing familiar tools back in your hands - forcing you to rely on mechanics you didn't know you could trust to keep you alive. You certainly couldn't in the first game - but that's the point, isn't it?

Things are different this time around. Everything is useful, considered, and - true to the developer's new moniker - visceral.

I admit, once I got my mitts on the plasma cutter, I largely ignored the refinement of Isaac's kinesis in favor of the old three-tap: two in the leg to drop them, one in the arm to finish them off - but this was an error on my part.

The one-tap is the new three-tap: one shot to blast off a necromorph's arm, then snag the sharpened limb out of the air and fire it through the chest of the approaching fiend, sending them flying and stapling them to the wall beyond (it's very satisfying).

The system will always favor grabbing an item which can be used as a weapon - if there are a few credits on the floor next to a three-foot spike, Isaac will never accidentally grab the credits instead of the weapon, and leave himself helpless.

Kinesis 2.0 - designed from all sides to encourage offensive use - is a reliable, pleasing, bloody addition to the Dead Space arsenal, and a vast improvement over the original game's mechanic.

Improvements really are the name of the game, here. The title consistently throws dramatic, thrilling set piece moments at the player - one sequence basically takes a similar scene in 2009's Wet, cuts away the crap and turns it into a straight-up adrenaline rush.

The new enemies are all winners, but perhaps the greatest change is one of pacing. Dead Space 2 really does (box blurb!) "grip the player tight and shoot them off on a rollercoaster of thrills, chills and action." You are seized by need and narrative and funneled, tumbling, down the rabbit hole, with briefer moments of quiet to catch your breath.

This isn't to say you must entirely abandon your well-honed gamer sense of checking which way you need to head before promptly setting off to explore the opposite direction - you'll always be rewarded with a trinket when you do - but such tangents are much shorter trips this time. The game just clips along, with time slipping out of mind as you grit your teeth and survive, against all odds.

It's such a fun ride that - even more so than the original - Dead Space 2 begs for repeat playthroughs, and never feels any less rewarding for the familiarity (four playthroughs as of this writing).

At this point, it would be fair to think I'm actually talking about a straight-up action title, and a game that has stepped too far away from the slower, considered pace of the outstanding original - a game more interested in being successful in the marketplace than successfully realizing the kernel of inspiration which lies at its center. That's not the case.

While Isaac comes across as much more human, he also feels much more capable - let's be honest, more badass - this time around.When he first emerges from a store unit in his classic engineering RIG, a little smirk on his face, the player is hit with a wave of grim "hell yeah!" confidence - but this doesn't weaken the effect of the horror on display.

Neither does the breakneck pace - which one may worry focuses too much on sock-rocking gameplay, and not enough on building a sense of tension, and breathing shuddering disquiet into moments of eerie stillness. No, Dead Space 2 is a horror game, first and foremost - everything, everything is in service to this.

When the door to this room sweeps open, the player is struck by the sight of a clutch of raised, sharp arms - so like the creatures that hunt you - and a fleeting instant of panic.

It's so... thoughtful.

The world is crafted from glistening metal and glass, but nothing feels quite right about it, and one never feels quite safe within it. Every form has a function - but the function is either just broken enough to give one the sense of a world in decay or operating so well it's a lethal threat. Light dances and flickers across blood-streaked walls. Video displays only seem to just barely work, and machinery will obliterate you with one missed step. The world is bent to the task of your doom.

Cries and gutteral calls echo through the vents, but every now and then, I swear I hear someone whispering my name. The scream of venting steam sends a chill up one's spine, and when you access a B.E.N.C.H. to upgrade your RIG or weapons, the work table unfolds with a growling roar, like some hungry nightmare creature.

The workbench.

The game is constantly playing with and riffing on fear - but always careful to never repeat itself. If it ever plays the same card twice, it is only with an added twist on what came before that toys with your expectations - faking left only to swerve right, and dazzle you again.

Dead Space 2 is the rarest of games - a modern horror classic - the likes of which we haven't been graced with since the original, three years ago. At first blush it may suffer from familiarity, but every part of the game has been improved, every facet buffed to a shine.

The story is more involving and more intimate, with a script that wisely knows when it's best to say as little as possible. No environment outstays its welcome - the variety allows for some major payoffs - and no addition to the formula is a missed step (save, arguably, for the stomp-reward mechanic).

It looks fantastic and plays beautifully, with fast, growling combat that benefits from an added dose of strategy thanks to reworked weapons and the viable option of turning enemies' own severed limbs against them. Games of such uniformly high quality don't appear too often - and almost never as a multiplatform release from a third-party developer.

It's excellent.

-it's a thoughtfully-constructed fear engine
-excellent production values
-incredible sound work
-very strong visuals, art direction and enemy design
-additions to the necromorph lineup are all winners (particularly the Stalker)
-a more involving, intimate story
-visceral, pleasurable combat with deeper strategy
-very well-realized world
-gorgeous lighting
-pacing that drives you ever-forward
-great "big action moments"
-no load screens
-the ending is absolutely brilliant

THE BAD (arguably)
-when an un-stomped necromorph de-spawns, it should drop my loot!

2011's first Game of the Year contender.

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