The original “Dead Space,” released back on Halloween in 2008, remains one of this console generation’s few true frights. While it’s true that many of the game’s most alarming moments are of the “monster jumps out of the closet” variety, the game pulled off the cheap scare as well, if not better, than anything that came before it. And, for those willing to look around and let their imaginations wander, it had plenty of messed-up, psychological scares, too.
“Dead Space 2” picks up the story of Isaac Clarke, who was adrift in space after going a little crazy while trying to find out what happened to his former girlfriend, Nicole, a medical staffer aboard a mining spaceship on a mission gone awry. In the sequel, Isaac is recuperating on The Sprawl, a massive, densely populated space colony, when another necromorph outbreak occurs.
The necromorphs, the enemies from the first game, are the result of an alien life form that can manipulate and reanimate dead tissue. Essentially, it replicates by reanimating dead tissue as lightning-fast, lethal zombies who kill everything in their path so that it can be reanimated into more necromorphs who kill everything in their path… (You get the idea.)
Based on what I saw at E3 and this week’s Electronic Arts studio showcase, Visceral Games is poised to scare the snot out of gamers all over again when “Dead Space 2” releases on Jan. 25 for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The studio essentially showed the same portion of the game at E3 and the studio showcase. The only difference is they actually let folks play it this week. So I’ll skip the E3 presentation and talk about what I played.
The PS3 running “Dead Space 2” had more people crowded around it than any other game at the showcase, but I wouldn’t be deterred and waited around an hour for a chance to play. With quite a few people lining up behind us, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Erick Wong and I tag-teamed the demo in the interest of keeping things moving along. While one of us played and listened, the other one chatted with associate producer Shereif Fattouh. We switched off a few times, so that we each got to play.
Just like the developer-guided tour at E3, Tuesday’s demo took place in a Church of Unitology set in The Sprawl, a massive, densely populated space station. Once again, players will be taking control of Isaac and using industrial tools to dismember the necromorphs, the only way to stop them.
The best thing about the first “Dead Space” was its knack for pulling off horrific surprises. So many shooting games follow a pattern of having you walk down a narrow hallway or canyon to an open area where a big mess of bad guys awaits. “Dead Space” (and, from what I saw, its sequel) toys with players used to taking a breather, attacking them in traditional safe zones such as in hallways, on stairwells, at ammo vendors and even in elevators. Even though you’re not fighting nonstop by any means, you’re forced to always stay on your toes, especially with ammunition at a premium.
Speaking of ammunition, I noticed both at E3 and at the showcase that Isaac never seemed like he was in danger of running out of firepower. I assumed this was because the developers didn’t want us journalists to spend all our time scrounging for ammo, but I figured it was worth asking. After all, I didn’t want my precious “Dead Space” to dumb itself down and go the “Rambo” route by giving every player virtually unlimited ammo so that he could use his favorite awesome gun ALL THE TIME.
Fattouh confirmed my suspicions that the bounty of ammunition was just for the demo. “You’ll have a lot less (ammo),” he said. Fattouh explained that quite a bit of testing goes in to striking the proper balance of making sure the player has enough firepower to get the job done against the necromorph threat, but never has quite enough to feel comfortable or to just start plugging away at groups of enemies with anything less than surgical precision.
I was also a bit curious about Isaac’s loadout, given that he’s sporting a similar getup and carrying many of the same weapons he had in the first game. I was relieved to hear the plot in “Dead Space 2” will explain why Isaac has many of the same tools in the Sprawl. Fattouh couldn’t discuss that plot point, but just hearing there was a reason for reusing Clarke’s loadout beyond the fact that “He had all that stuff in the first game” was enough for me.
I had a chance to try out a number of weapons, including the Pulse Rifle, Line Gun and Plasma Cutter from the first game, as well as a new javelin-shooting gun, which pinned enemies to the walls of the church. The Line Gun still has that handy secondary fire option where it drops a mine on the ground, and it saved me more than once.
The controls are tweaked from the first game, but the changes seemed largely incidental. The biggest hurdle I faced was trying to play on PS3 after playing “Dead Space2” on the Xbox 360. Most shooting games on the PS3 use the shoulder buttons, rather than the DualShock’s poorly designed triggers, to fire weapons, and it requires an adjustment for 360 gamers. Luckily, the final version of the game will allow players to reassign functions to different buttons.
Perhaps the biggest change for “Dead Space 2” is that Isaac, largely mute in the first game, will have a much more expansive speaking role. Fattouh explained the team thought this was the best way to make Isaac easier to empathize with. I agree. While certain games have pulled off the mute protagonist well, it can often feel dated in an era where just about everything features full voice acting. Some of the most jarring moments in “Dead Space” came when characters would speak directly to Isaac but he wouldn’t answer them back.
One thing that won’t change are the first game’s epic boss fights, which pit Isaac against a massive, room-filling enemy that jerks Isaac all over the place as he frantically aims for a vulnerable point. Though the battles can feel a bit cheap when you keep dying, as Erick and I did for the final boss of the demo, it’s a tense twist on the quick-time button presses of games like “Heavy Rain.” Instead of pressing a button during an on-screen prompt, you have to aim and shoot during a narrow window of opportunity. Fail, and you’re ground to paste.
In addition to tooling around with “Dead Space 2,” I got to try out “Dead Space 2: Ignition,” a collection of three minigames that will release on Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network sometime around December. By completing the game a number of different ways, you’ll unlock some new equipment in the full sequel when it hits a month later. I’ll try to post impressions of “Ignition” in the next day or so.