Dead Space 2 PS3
25th Jan 2011 | 17:00
The scariest thing in Dead Space 2 is a sprinkler system. It doesn't spew out blood, or introduce a boss monster, or cause a blow-out in a water tank - it merely covers a dank, dark corridor in case of emergency.
Monsters could come from anywhere, so you shuffle forwards slowly, reflex aiming at every single flicker. Nothing. You continue to inch forwards - then there's the great thunk of cavernous pipes, reverberating through the surround system as you frantically look everywhere and see... just water.
The original Dead Space was a classier breed of horror game, merrily combining the mechanics of Resident Evil 4 with shocks and scenarios from the movies. Dead Space 2 sticks with this template for the most part, but it's a crazier beast - the setting of The Sprawl, a giant space station, lets Visceral come up with twisted places that would never have worked on the Ishimura.
Isaac's more of an action man this time around, his heft and capacity for violence wedded to an arsenal with explosive possibilities.
The stars of the show, however, remain undimmed. The necromorphs, gross spiked and spitting beasts re-assembled from human corpses, are even more horrific than first time around.
Their distended silhouettes are frightening enough - when they sprint headlong from every direction, hiding their limbs and pouncing from dark corners, it's outright terrifying. Dead Space's limb-lopping targeting system is as thrilling as ever - slice off a necromorph's head and it continues to scuttle forwards, oblivious to the loss of something that isn't used for attacking. And hardly any of them collapse from losing a single limb.
Getting that into your head is easy enough - picking out the shot among a forest of spiked arms and hooks heading your way is quite another.
The creature's movements and shapes mix it up superbly, twisting exposed tendrils away just as you line up, barreling forwards with arms tucked away and forcing a leg shot. But it's how you're controlled that's the genius here: if there is any situation with necromorphs you fear, don't buy Dead Space 2, because it puts you in all of them.
"Hmm, this corridor's a bit narrow and there's no exit, I'd be in trouble if... " Right. Time and again, Dead Space 2 forces a new tactic or different weapon, hits from a distance then gets up in your face.
Combat is still a question of balancing firepower with stasis and kinesis - the first a rechargeable bolt of slowdown juice that makes limb-lopping easy, the second used to pick up and throw stuff at enemies.
Stasis is a godsend strategically, letting you escape from rucks and conserve ammo with shots that rip through multiple limbs - so much so that all of our power nodes went into upgrading it to maximum duration and efficiency. Nodes return, and are kept rare: there's a useful option to 'de-spec' an item and get all your nodes back for 5,000 credits (peanuts, relatively), but you'll still be hard-pushed to get more than two fully-upgraded weapons.
This scarcity is what makes Hard mode work. The necromorphs certainly up their game, managing to be even more ferocious and deadly in their sustained onslaughts - but the real killer is waste.
There's less ammo and health around: every shot counts, every blow hurts. It's where Dead Space 2 really shines, when you begin to appreciate the detail packed into every corner while scavenging them to stay alive - and when the necromorphs show just how vicious they can be.
Alongside this, the new necromorphs play on your habits. The lovely Puker doesn't do much damage, but its goo slows Isaac down - and in Dead Space, if you get surrounded, you're dead meat. A hint of their distinctive retching and you're scanning in a panic, desperately trying to maintain mobility.
Other times you're locked in a packing-crate maze with velociraptor necros straight from the Jurassic Park school of behaviour (so much so the Trophy is called 'Clever Girls'), watching for the tell-tale bulge of a nose from a crate's side, when suddenly there are bellows in both ears as its companions charge.
The single-player campaign follows Isaac from the moment he wakes in a straitjacket, through fifteen chapters - and, though it doesn't have the shock of the new anymore, it at least has the decency to bring the house down with epic spectacles along the way.
Dead Space's world is industrial science fiction, a universe where space has been conquered through the ideas of engineers and exploited by the greed of corporations; its environments reflect this. The huge clanking gears, whirring turbines, and slamming pistons take centre-stage for some of the best-looking set-pieces, but the rest of the time the dull hum of machinery is the backdrop.
A big part of the ambience are the hisses of steam and dull bangs of industry, which are no presage but still make you jump twenty feet. On that note, a word for the audio design. The Dolby surround effects do more than anything to foster paranoia - as Isaac moves through the station, skittering noises seem to follow him, stopping when he does. Weird groans ring out from rooms that you know are empty.
Someone on the periphery of your hearing keeps muttering "Isaac... Isaac..." It's freaky stuff, but the genius touch is how it alternates between set-ups and fake-outs: at times you're utterly convinced Isaac is surrounded, they're all just waiting to burst out, and your hands are clenching the pad so hard they're white. That's when the sprinkler system comes on.
SOUNDS OF SILENCE
This surround design and industrial chic owes a lot to the original Dead Space, but the sequel goes other places too. Most memorable is a children's centre with rubix cube patterns on the walls: the former inhabitants turned into wide-eyed Gollums with vicious claws, the babies little more than heads dragging pouches of pus.
Isaac Clarke doesn't have much of a character, but he does have defining characteristics: first among them is guilt over the death of his girlfriend. These locations are the closest DS2 gets to the Silent Hill territory it so admires, where the world itself is torment.
Other sections put you inside the machine, guiding Isaac through the guts of huge factories or outside the station in one of gaming's greatest visual representations of space. Tiptoeing through the headquarters of a cult, you're ambushed by its former priests, their tendrils splitting through their robes' embroidery. Caught on a fully-lit stage facing a darkened audience. Cornered by EarthGov agents with a switch that'll... (we won't spoil).
There are less successful experiments. A rogue computer called Anti is barely explained, and doesn't seem all that threatening, before you're ripping out her mainframe. Gaming isn't short of loopy AIs out to gitcha, and this is a poor addition to the pile.
The story is no great shakes, bopping around from bit-part character to Isaac and, if anything, light on detail. Often you'll realise what's happening only retrospectively. But for its part it propels Isaac from scenario to scenario quickly and with an absolute minimum of downtime.
There are other grumbles: adding a low level of sound to the vacuum sections removes a truly creepy and singular aspect of the original (where they were silent) for no good reason - though it is more of a pleasure controlling Isaac in the absence of gravity this time around.
There's a hulking boss monster who turns up a few times too many, and who's ridiculously simple to defeat when you've twigged his weak point. Strangest of all is the corpse-stomping: you can stomp on dead enemies and they'll explode into goo and possibly extra items and ammo.
So, of course, you go corpse-stomping after every fight - occasionally, it can be cathartic (indeed, Isaac's soundbites suggest this is Visceral's intention), but it's a bit too silly to sit comfortably, and undercuts its most tense engagements. Dead Space is amazing at making gore scary and sinister, unlike every other action game - surrendering this for a few extra credits and plasma blasts seems a poor trade.
But these are minor bumps on an otherwise beautifully-executed survival horror: few games move you from challenge to challenge, from scare to fight, as smoothly as this while still keeping your antennae permanently twitching.
It's pacing, of a sort, but it's also a tribute to the content: Dead Space 2 has very little dead time. There's no awful level, or crappy vehicle section, or misjudged difficulty spike. DS2 just doesn't let up. If Dead Space announced Visceral as a top-class studio, then Dead Space 2 cements that reputation with more of the same.
Next to a game like Resident Evil 5, it looks even better - in terms of polish, sleight of-camera tricks and even quality of ideas, it's in a different league. In-keeping to the original's template there was always the risk of over-familiarity, but a judicious jazzing-up of the armoury and environmental design that's often stunning (not to mention the new necros) gives DS2 its own flavour - less classy but a little crazier, a game that values tension but isn't too precious to occasionally throw the kitchen sink.
Dead Space 2's multi-player is asymmetric: a team of four humans battle against four necromorphs, with a sprinkling of AI necromorphs in each arena. There are five missions total, and each one has objectives the human team must accomplish to win - stand here, carry this here, destroy this, run here.
The necromorphs just have to kill the (suited and armed) humans and let the clock run out. It's a weird one. Our first games were chaos: players just ran at each other, the human team were all solo gunners, and every necro was spawning as the Gollum baby. The necromorphs won every game.
After the alien concept of teamwork was explained to our fledgling team, things changed. The humans moved as tight-knit group of four, a formation that covered all the angles instantly dropping any low-health necro who dared poke their face out.
When moving like this the necros have to use more disruptive tactics to break up the group - slowing down one human with the Puker, sniping from a distance, dropping from the ceiling - and pick their moment before moving in. So it works better when you play like you're meant to: no surprise there. But is it a contender? Sadly not.
In our four hours or so of multiplayer, the five arenas quickly proved a meagre allowance: clearly there's DLC on the way, but for an upfront £50 five multi-player maps feels a little bit shabby.
A level set on the Ishimura (the iconic ship from the first game) has you trying to get the escape pods up-and-running again before sprinting for those very pods. We were branded a traitor for abandoning ship (even though it won our team the game) at the right moment, leaving our erstwhile companions to drown in necromorphs.
In the Marker Labs, meanwhile, the humans have to dash through while destroying Markers (Big Rocks) - time your leaps for their reloads. Other locations see you assembling bombs, standing still while holding X, and picking up an item so heavy it manages to slow your movement to a walk.
Level variety aside, the objectives are different, of course, but they don't feel different enough to keep things fresh - and each level only lasts between ten to fifteen minutes, meaning you'll see everything in one short session.
It's not at all a bad extra: think of it like a bonus mode rather than full-fledged multiplayer and you won't end up disappointed. To be fair, the special edition package - available only through play.com in the UK - comes with a HD version of on-rails Wii shooter Dead Space Extraction, the great solo game and multi player in one package and, as such, is superb value.
Multi-player is more of a bonus than an essential feature and, unusually, the special edition is arguably better value as a package thanks to including the excellent Dead Space: Extraction.
But if you want to forget the accoutrements, the extra modes and pack-ins, how does DS2 measure up as a survival horror? It's beautiful, that goes without saying, and a relentless beast in combat.
But more than that, it understands how players play - what they look for, listen to, and most of all what they expect. That's why, and this is a considerable achievement, it can genuinely scare you with a common sprinkler system.
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