Visceral's space-action horror sequel Dead Space 2 has been out on PC for a few days now, so I thought it might be time to put a tentative toe into the vacuum, step out, and tell you wot I think.
Something is nagging at me. It's a thought, lurking at the bottom of my skull. It's shouting up at my lofty far away higher brain with reminders of How We Should Be Behaving. It's the feeling that perhaps I should react with more concern for the victims of Dead Space's supernatural mutations. The opening scene, in which your would-be rescuer is brutally transformed into a kind of prolapsed screaming flesh-skull noodle dish, just made me laugh. That can't have been the reaction that anyone was supposed to have, but the truth is that I find the game to be almost hilariously gory, so over-the-top are its man-to-meat moments.
Then again, perhaps I over-estimate how people approach these games. I am sure there's a section of the audience who are genuinely terrified of the bending-metal noises and tube-monsters popping out of metal cupboards, but could the reality be that the desensitized mass of gamers are actually doing what I did, and pushing onward through the game purely to get to the really strong bits - the inspired moments where the experience offered by the game crests a wave of inspiration and stands out from the sea of its action-game equals. Because it does have a couple of those.
Okay, let's rewind a bit and talk Dead Space: a third-person action game set aboard a spaceship. You blew the limbs off enemies – the mutated, dead humans called Necromorphs – and you stamped on them, punched them, and upgraded your suit and weapons at convenient shops or upgrade benches. There were some mighty boss battles and some handsome-lookin' scripted sequences. Mostly, however, there was wandering about in the semi-darkness with a gun and a flashlight, through a few hours of looking for the next corridor, the next fight with Necromorphs, the next bit of loot to suck from the gloom. It was okay.
There were a couple of other axes of interaction along which the action unfolded, too. There was the gravity gun telekinetic glove thing, and the stasis gun, which slowed down enemies and, conveniently, fast-moving things, like big ventilation fans and haywire doors. All this is back in Dead Space 2, and the game quickly equips you after the opening ten minutes of helplessly running about in a straight-jacket. That's almost a shame, because there's then a couple of hours of feeling like an armoured badass with a plasma-gun, which, well, you are. The jack-in-box predictability of the first few waves of necromorphs left me feeling a bit bored, and it wasn't until a couple of chapters deeper into the game that the tension began to return and the spectacle of the game delivered what I was looking for.
That said, the technical proficiency of Dead Space 2 never wavers. The continuous level (there is no loading, just one seamless experience with occasional cutscenes) provides a weird kind of momentum. I still love the interface being “in the world”, with the health on your suit's spine, and the pop up floaty screens remain convincing and shiny. The vacuum of space is thrilling and threatening, and all too brief, and the environments are pitch-perfect sci-fi corridor. Gone are the wonky bugs from the first game (such as the v-sync weirdness EDIT: apparently this issue is still appearing for some people, although not for me) and the mouse-keyboard control is just fine. Of course you are still constrained to the over-the-shoulder camera, which gives you a weird feeling of being trapped behind your own head, but if you can recalibrate your consciousness to accommodate that queasiness you should get along okay. The audio and visuals are all solid and rich: triumphantly spooky, brilliantly lit, with only occasional level design confusion (which is pasted over by the game's built in “this way for more stuff” objective-locator feature). There's also some genuinely beautiful architecture work, such as the space cathedral of chapter 4 (I think).
(As an aside, I noticed that one of the Dead Space 2 devs was saying that games need better stories, and he's right. This game needed a better story, too. There were a few individual moments that really stood out, and the team are clearly brilliant at depicting specific scenes - some of the hallucinations were splendid and unexpected – but I still have zero interest in the ongoing tour of protagonist Isaac And The Space Horrors. I think the move to move Isaac to a speaking role was an attempt to make the story a little more rounded, but it also feels like an admission that the team couldn't handle the Gordon Freeman condition and still be happy about their drama. Not sure how I feel about that.)
Anyway, there are occasionally crescendos of action that make it all worthwhile: either battles with monsters that have you shooting and flailing and stamping your way to a wounded victory – backed up in corner and wading out of what seems to be a heap of balloon-physics meatparts - or big flashy sequences where you are blasted out into space wrapped in a nightmare tentacle creature the size of an elephant. It's definitely worth pushing through the game on a slightly higher difficulty level, too. Normal provides you with too much ammo, and you are seldom motivated to take the higher road of repurposing severed limbs and environmental objects as telekinetic weapons. This physics combat is almost always the better option: more satisfying, more entertaining, and more spectacular than the conventional weapons.
In fact “more satisfying, more entertaining, and more spectacular” seems true of Dead Space 2 as a whole. While there was something incomplete about the original, this is the fully-fledged work of linear space-biff. There are problems with it being B-movie predictable in places, and I hate that you can only save at “save stations”, but the vision is all there. I also can't enjoy the quick-time events (the key for which was off-screen in my first couple of encounters, but soon turned out to just be hammer "E", whatever happens), but the production is something you can't really fault. I am no great fan of scripted sequences, but when they're done as well as a couple these are, it seems churlish to complain. I suspect that if there's something lots of people will fault, it will be that Dead Space 2 has such a strong genetic resemblance to Bioshock and the rest of the recent wave of linear action games. It's a sort of beautiful obviousness that leaves you with that faint synthetic residue of formulaic blockbuster in your mouth. Some of us no longer have a taste of it.
In conclusion, then, better than the original. But if you actually want to be scared you should buy Amnesia. Dead Space 2 is so competent that I wouldn't worry about recommending it, but there's nothing much here that I'll be talking about in arguments over the legacies of great games a few years from now.
[I've not taken a look at the multiplayer yet, but I shall do so later in the week.]