I’m on record as repeatedly saying that Dead Space is–how do I usually put it–”not only one of my favorite horror games but one of my favorite games in general” or something like that, but I’ll confess something: I usually say that with a fairly academic and detached tone. I don’t know why, but I tend to view the game as an object d’art to be studied and admired rather than loved–or, as the case may be, feared. Part of it may have something to do with the fact that the spinoffs in the series–the rail shooter Extraction, the puzzle game Ignition, and the motion comics–are fairly awful and pointless. They’ve tainted it somewhat. And so, while there were a few jump scares in Extraction, it was mostly a slog, and the other bits I didn’t find scary at all–perhaps, I sometimes think, the first Dead Space was just a mildly disconcerting game that happened to be very well made.
Well, whatever the case may be, I can say this much: In the first five minutes, in the first room of Dead Space 2, I died twice, not because the room is particularly challenging but because I was whimpering, crying, and panicking too much to play properly. Several times afterwards I needed to stop and take a breath because everything that had happened was bad and everything that would happen next would be bad and I couldn’t handle this. All this and I’m about one hour in.
Chapter 1 is devoted to the best tutorial I’ve seen in a while–I’m actually considering writing up a scene-by-scene breakdown of it, so I won’t go into too much detail, but they manage to address both fans of the first game who know the controls backwards and forwards and want to get to actual gameplay as fast as possible as well as people who are playing their first Dead Space game and need to have abilities parceled out so they get their bearings. I don’t normally count Isaac Clarke as one of the iconic heroes in gaming–he’s a mute Everyman in the first game–but, okay. You spend the first roughly half hour out of the RIG–the armored suit with the matching helmet pictured on the cover–and when you finally get it, when you emerge from the vending machine with the suit on and the helmet unfolds from it and seals shut over your face–well theres something so right about that moment: This is Visceral Games declaring, yes, he belongs in the pantheon and giving us a scene which earns that distinction.
One of the things which mildly surprises me is the lack of chapter names–when you enter a new chapter, the simple text CHAPTER 1 appearssuperimpose over the corner of the screen; both Dead Space and Extraction gave formal names to each chapter. As an extra bonus, the first letters of each chapter name form an acronym which gives away a somewhat significant plot development (“NICOLE IS DEAD” in the first game and “THIS GAME SUCKS” in Extraction). It works because the games are not very heavily plot based (as far as I’m concerned, the plot of Dead Space is simply “escape from a ship filled with monsters” and everything else is just explanatory noise), because it’s a clever novelty I’ve never seen any other game do, and because those who figured it out without being told got to feel very smart. But by this point, I think everyone knows about the acronyms–I know I started to look carefully for the chapter names because I wanted to figure it out this time–and they were unwilling to make it a cliche.
The chapter breaks area bit more organic this time. The bulk of the first game takes place on a single ship that’s divided into distinct regions; similar to Bioshock, you’ll finish a level and then take a tram to the next. (You revisit a few areas over the course of the game.) If I remember correctly, just about every single chapter ends with Isaac reaching the tram, and then a formal screen appears congratulating you for completing the chapter and asking you if you’d like to save. Again, I’m only on Chapter 3 and I won’t be shocked if they change the formula, but so far everything’s been about forward motion–which makes sense as you’re in a citylike space station this time. The different chapters seem to be different areas or neighborhoods of the city. So while it’s somewhat obvious when you’ve finished one chapter–there’s a big battle or a setpiece and the environment then changes–they aren’t sharply-defined breaks. I could go either way on this one–it feels much more contiguous than episodic this time around, but episodic can often be a good thing. For one, explicit chapter breaks give you a natural place to stop for the night and attempt to go to sleep.
So far, the game is a fairly literal Part 2 in that there’s not much more that it brings to the table–it’s just like Dead Space, but more. It’s scarier, there are more setpieces, the enemies are harder and faster than I remember, and things seem like they’re going to be a lot more brutal this time around. But I haven’t seen any new enemy types, I’ve only got one new weapon, and the new environment is still made up of dark, claustrophobic industral metal corridors. However, I think I said that even if Dead Space 2 was just More Of The Same, I’d be pleased with it–and I very much am. It’s a lot like Mario Galaxy 2 in that respect–the first game was very well-done, but there was still more to do with the elements of it. And so it doesn’t matter, because it’s very clear that Visceral has spent the past couple of years figuring out how to please their hardcore fans while still keeping them scared. If things continue along these lines, they’ll definitely do that.
And who knows what I have in store for me? After all, I’m only an hour in.
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