Monday, February 28, 2011

REVIEW: Dead Space 2

Electronic Arts
Platforms: Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 3
Price: $60
Rated: Mature

Content descriptors: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language

ESRB Rating Summary: This is a third-person action game in which players assume the role of an engineer (Isaac Clarke) who must fight his way through hordes of aliens aboard a space station. Players use futuristic weapons (e.g., plasma guns, flamethrowers, electrified spikes) to kill a variety of mutated creatures—attacks generally result in cries of pain, dismemberment, and large spurts of blood. Some cutscenes depict close-up views of characters getting stabbed in the face by blades and needle instruments. Several environments depict mutilated bodies, as well as blood-splattered floors, walls, and ceilings. The words 'f**k' and 'sh*t' can be heard in the dialogue.

I've already smacked around EA for their childish "Your Mom Hates This" Dead Space 2 ad campaign. I guess they assumed there was some need to gin up a fake controversy to get this one on people's radar. Frankly, though, the first game was pretty popular, the sequel was generating good buzz, and there was already a lot of anticipation. 

And really, the game stands on its own merits, even if those merits are completely, undeniably, and inescapably gross. The core combat mechanic is based on dismembering mutants and killing them with their own limbs. Blood sprays, flesh flies, bones crunch, and icky-gooey sounds crowd the soundtrack. At some point, not too far into the game, the sheer excess of it all tips over into high camp, like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail spouting streams of blood from his severed arm sockets.

There is a point at which gore ceases to scare or even horrify and simply creates a kind of giddy-nervous reaction. Think of the fire hose of blood in Evil Dead 2. Dead Space 2 manages to work both sides of the line, mixing bursts of absurdly over-the-top-violence with some genuine scares, a bit of psychological terror, and sustained tension. It is not a mix that will appeal to everyone, and it is most certainly not for children or even teens, but it is a well-crafted horror/sci-fi romp.

The Return of Isaac Clarke
You play as Isaac Clarke, an engineer who finds himself on a disabled mining ship populated by “necromorphs.” The result of some kind of alien virus, these necromorphs are a kind mutant alien/human hybrid, and the mutations move at a rapid pace. Since their physical structure is stretched out of place, it’s hard to know just where to shoot them. In fact, conventional weapons don’t work all that well, since many of the mutants can function just fine without a head. If one part of a creature is damaged, it may just attack with another, or it may sprout a new limb, or simply dissolve into a swarm of smaller, nastier creatures.

Thus, the Dead Space games are based on the idea of “strategic dismemberment.” You have to take the necromorphs apart piece by piece, and different critters require different kinds of dismemberment strategies. Since Isaac is an engineer, his weapons are almost all some kind of practical tool, like a plasma cutter or a rotating saw. New weapons can be purchased along the way, and upgraded at various work benches. The result is a heavily-customized set of weapons/tools specially crafted for an individual gamer’s fighting style.

Isaac also has the ability to pull objects and then fling them back. This creates one of the signature attacks of the series: cutting off a creature’s limb, pulling it towards you, and then shooting it back. Successfully executed, it’s an oddly satisfying move.

The original Dead Space was a tense, claustrophobic third-person action game. Dead Space 2 ramps up just about everything, largely dispensing with the quieter moments and tension in favor of an all-out action assault. The first game centered on a strange alien artifact called “The Marker,” which is a sacred relic to a religious cult called the Church of Unitology. The Marker is connected to the alien hive mind that controls the necromorphs, and the first game ends with Clarke returning the Marker in an attempt to stop the attacks.

Dead Space 2 picks up three years after the events of the first game. Clarke awakens in a hospital on the Sprawl, a huge urban development on one of Saturn’s moons. He has spent the last 3 years in an induced coma, and wakes to find the Sprawl overrun by necromorphs. The fight begins all over again, but this time on a much grander scale. The more spacious location, persistent hints of the horrors that caused the present problems, various narrative threads, and the use of recordings and journals to fill in the story are all techniques reminiscent of Bioshock, although without the extra layer of intellectual depth.

There’s certainly more heft to Dead Space this time around. The character of Isaac Clarke—who was silent in the original game—is significantly fleshed out in the sequel. The game spends a good amount of time with Isaac struggling to retain his equilibrium in the face of betrayal, guilt, emotional scars, and terrifying hallucinations. The narrative itself manages a few interesting turns, but none of them is particularly surprising. Instead, we have a game that plays like a funhouse ride, with periods of mounting tension punctuation by incredible (and fairly challenging) acting sequences.

DS2 also expands the world with a bit of multiplayer, and although the offerings are slim they’re satisfying. First, the negative: you’ll need an account and online pass for multiplayer. The pass is free if you bought the game new, but the process is a bit annoying. If you’ve bought the game used or merely borrowed it, there’s a one-time, $15 fee for playing online. Let’s hope it’s not a sign of things to come.

The multiplayer comes with 5 maps for teams of 4 humans against 4 necromorphs. Maps are objective-oriented, with the humans tasked with running to various waypoints to accomplish specific tasks while necromorphs try to the prevent them. Humans play as a character similar to Isaac Clarke, which means the real treat is the addition of player-controlled necromorphs.

There are 4 different types of playable alien. The Pack is small and fast, the Puker has a flailing attack and vomits a substance that slows you down, the Lurker can walk on walls and fire projectiles, and the Spitter is your basic melee fighter. Their sole goal in multiplayer games it to slow humans down long enough so they can’t accomplish their objectives. Players trade off roles: one attacked (humans) and one defender (alien). It’s a nice mix similar to that found in a semi-obscure action game called The Singularity.

This is an adult game and is rated as such. Children not only shouldn't be playing it, they probably shouldn't even be within a 100 yards of anyone else who is playing it. It's pure survival-horror, and it works on a number of levels, delivering funhouse shocks, straight gore, intense action, moments of suspense, and even a touch of psychological horror. And blood. Oh yes indeed: plenty of blood.


Anonymous said...

Thank you. 17yo son asked (asked! he's so polite) if he could get his first M-rated game. Just judging by the covers in the store, I didn't like any of them. But the Dead Space 2 commercial actually made me laugh, and then your review of the commercial promised an upcoming review of the game. I'm glad I waited for your review. Son can now just wait a while longer until he gets an M-rated game...maybe his 30th birthday.

Thomas L. McDonald said...

I'd say the Halo games probably aren't too gross for a 17-yr-old, but every kid is different.

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