Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dead Space 2.

Bare with me with this, 'cause I haven't written an actual review of much of anything in ages.

In 2008, Electronic Arts released a game called Dead Space. Developed by Visceral Games, Dead Space was a horror game in the same vein as the Resident Evil series with a high emphasis on jump scare tactics, dread inducing confrontations, and very little in terms of provisions and what not. The sub-genre is called "survival horror," a label that Capcom created for it's Resident Evil and Dino Crisis games. At around the same time, I had just about given up the hopes that anyone would make a truly great horror game any time soon. Something that would instill a sense of immediate dread and not just rely on the jump scare routine that has populated Hollywood horror films since its inception. But Dead Space was different. The first lure that got my attention with the game was that Warren Ellis had worked on the story aspects of the game, followed by Antony Johnston. Two comic book writers whose work I am familiar with and fond of.

Playing Dead Space came with a new sort of precedent in interactive horror that I hadn't experienced before in a game. Dread was always there, always present. Even with the somewhat predictable jump scares they used, they never really prepared me for what was coming next, or, even worse, what COULD come next. The end result was the best horror related experience in video games that I had participated in.

Dead Space 2 is a different creature altogether. I relate the two games to Ridley Scott's Alien and James Cameron's Aliens. Dead Space was the introduction. It was often a slow burn sort of horror to establish the world it takes place in and the characters that populate it, including the character you play as, Isaac Clarke. You don't know what's going on, and a lot of the focus of the narrative is spent on figuring out what's going on. By the time the sequel comes around, you already know what's going on, and it becomes a different sort of narrative. Dead Space 2, like Aliens, is about closure, but from a different perspective. Where Sigourney Weaver's character is slowly coerced into going back to LV-426, Isaac is just dropped into the mess (so to speak). One of the main differences between Dead Space and its sequel is that Isaac now has a voice. He can speak his own mind, and his reactions to what's going on are now something he possesses. In the original game, by not giving him a voice, they're essentially giving you that voice. Isaac's reactions are your reactions. In Dead Space 2, Isaac becomes his own character, and he's someone you don't mind following around and pushing through the meat and viscera of the problem. The other main difference is that in Dead Space, because it's an introductory sort of chapter, you do wonder what happened to the Ishimura, and you put into narrative induced situations that revolve around the answering of those questions. In the sequel, the answers are already there from the get go -- for the most part, there are new questions to be asked, however -- and instead you're provided with a new narrative aspect on the game, which is to get out alive, to survive, and reach that ultimate climax for Isaac and find closure.

Fear plays a pretty decent role in horror, but it isn't the end all, nor begin all aspect of it. Fear is also an entirely subjective thing. That's why I, as a 34 year old guy, am terrified of spiders while other men my age may or may not have a problem with them whatsoever. The intention of Dead Space 2, at times, may be to scare you indeed. A lot of what makes Dead Space 2 (and the first one for that matter) has little to do with fear. The guys and gals at Visceral Games have attempted to instill the sense of dread in you from the get go. They never want you to be able to play the game casually, to shrug off what's going on, or to not let if effect you. They're trying to emulate what all good horror does and should do: disturb you, set you off balance, emit emotions that are often best left in that dark space in your brain that you really don't want to think about. Throughout the first game, I was never calm. Dread was always present 'cause I never knew what was going to happen next, what I was going bare witness to next, or what sort of monstrosity was just waiting around the corner to do very, very nasty things to me. That's where the gore comes in. I've never been too big of an admirer of gore-less horror fiction. I don't like the philosophy of leaving it to the imagination of readers/viewers because that nulls the point of even trying to write, paint, or film horror to begin with. As a reader of horror fiction, I want the author to use his imagination to try to disturb me, not for you to try to get me to use my imagination. That's why I write horror myself. Nevertheless, the gore in Dead Space is there for a reason. Gore isn't a natural thing to behold in the landscape of the human condition. It's there, but not for the majority of the populace. Not everyone works in an abbatoir or as a forensic pathologist. It's stuff we do not see, and the mere idea of seeing what's inside us -- or another living creature for that matter -- is a repulsive, revolting act. In horror, it's often there to unsettle you, and weaken your immunity so that the presenter of the fiction has easier access to the psychological aspects of the horror. Dead Space is rife with it, as is the sequel. The sequel out does the original in terms of gore, and it has that aspect to it. There is a lot of psychological stuff going on in the game (from red herrings, to being hunted by men and monster alike, to the main character literally going insane), and the gore is there to keep you vulnerable to it. It's never the same kind of gore, either, in terms of the presentation of the fiction. In the action sequences (when the monsters are attacking you and whatnot) it's always the same, but in the cinematic, plot-driven sequences of the game, it's really threatening to your psychological make up in terms of how you consume fiction. There is a lot of stuff in Dead Space 2 that is truly unsettling, even to my experienced eyes. The plot elements present in Dead Space 2 are much more frantic and quick paced, while not lessening the horror elements from the first one at all. It's very, very, very much like the transition from Alien to Aliens, but not losing anything in between. Alien was pure horror, while Aliens was more sci-fi action with horror elements. Dead Space 2 is pure horror with some sci-fi action elements here and there that create a much more pulse-pounding pace. Another really key storytelling aspect of Dead Space 2 that was established in the original is paranoia -- which goes hand in hand with the dementia that plagues Isaac. You don't know who to trust, especially because of the original, and in this one it's taken a step further so you don't even know if you can trust Isaac. Especially towards the game's conclusion.

Another aspect of the story element of Dead Space 2 that really gave me a unique feeling was how seamless the plot unravels. In the original -- and with most other games -- there is a bridge between one level and the next. In Dead Space, the bridge was riding the tram from one location to the next, and while you're riding the tram the game goes to a loading screen. Other games use this same method as well. Dead Space 2 did away with it, and I, personally, felt that it was quite an innovative way to present a game that is heavy on storytelling. There aren't any loading screens in Dead Space 2, there aren't any moments where you ride a vehicle from point a to point b and don't get to enjoy the ride because the game is loading the data. There aren't any smoke breaks for Isaac while the game installs the next level (sorry, Snake, but I gotta poke fun at the smoke breaks). It was one of the reasons I finished the entire game in one sitting because not having those chapter breaks between levels and whatnot worked towards immersing you in the fiction better. I think that the guys and gals at Visceral Games took cues and notes from the folks at Naughty Dog and what they've done with Uncharted, to present you with a storytelling method that's not only immersive, but seamless.

Unlike a lot of gamers, or anyone who writes a review of video games, I don't rate or rank the graphics or visual presentation in any sort of normal way. I genuinely gave up caring about graphics as a focal point of gaming towards the end of the last generation of consoles (the PlayStation 2, GameCube and Xbox). I base my appreciation, or disgust, with the visual aspects of gaming depending on how it serves the game's story. So, with that in mind, Dead Space 2's graphics are very, very impressive. Just like the original, Dead Space 2 manages to create tension, dread, and anxiety through atmosphere alone. Be it in darkened cafeterias, dimly lit corridors, brutally ransacked shopping areas, and even a brightly lit school-like district. The game takes place on the Sprawl, a massive space station near Saturn, which differentiates it from the previous game in a very distinct fashion. These were normal people that got all mutilated here, not engineers and the rest of the crew of the Ishimura. It was actually that section of the space station that disturbed me the most: the School district location. It was very brightly light, with lots of color... and lots of children monsters. There was a level of creepiness there that I hadn't seen in a long time in any sort of horror, but there was some levity there, too. The visuals in Dead Space 2 fit the fiction they're trying to tell almost perfectly. The in game menus are all holograms and fit nicely into the world they've created, the technology seems well thought out and has practical uses for everything you see (from plastic cups, to the more high tech gadgetry) and everything is animated very well. It doesn't hurt at all that Visceral dedicated a lot of effort in providing as much detail as possible. At lot of the environments reminded me of putting stickers on G.I. Joe vehicles when I was younger. There's a lot of detail to the point where you see warning stickers everywhere and they're clear and readable. The sound is also on par with the fiction they're telling. There's lots of creepiness provided through sound alone, whether it be through the music, the noises the monster's make, creepy children's songs, insane gibberish being spoken by one character or another. There are times when the sound drops out completely, which only fuels the dread. In the zero gravity sections of the game -- much like the first game -- they really hammered home the tag line from Ridley Scott's Alien to a very believable and frightening reality. In space, no one can hear you scream, indeed.

The meat of the game, as with all games, is the gameplay. Through my three play-throughs of Dead Space 2, I couldn't find a single flaw in the game play whatsoever. It's tight and fluid, just like the original. I think they may or may not have switched up a few button pushes here and there, but for the most part it plays identical to the first game, which is the way sequels to games should play. If you go into the sequel of a game and it plays drastically different than the original, then you're playing against the learning curve and it can take you out and away from the experience. I don't know if I had an unfair advantage in Dead Space 2 or not. I played the original a lot, and when I picked up Dead Space 2, there was no learning curve to be learned for me. I knew what did what, and I knew how to move fluidly throughout the environment. Of course, there were still plenty of moments when I was overwhelmed by the game and was reduced to a panicking little feather of a man just trying to get out of the chaos. But that's a perfectly acceptable in a game where horror is the main theme.

The replay value, something that is also a very important part of gaming, of this game is tremendous to me. I gotta stress that part of it. To me. The Dead Space games put me in an environment I'm quite comfortable with due to my love and adoration of horror, and replaying them never lessens the quality of the fiction they're giving me. It's to the experience I have when I re-read Clive Barker's the Books of Blood or re-watch many, many different horror films. I enjoy it thoroughly. And the dread, I'm happy to say, is always present -- even if I'm going through with all weapons maxed out and I can dispatch enemies with the greatest of ease. The atmosphere they've created is one I enjoy to experience again again. That said, however, unless you have the same particular fascinations that I do with horror, I'm not so sure one would find the pleasure in subjecting themselves to the atrocities that are present in the game on more than one occasion.

Dead Space 2, like the game before it, isn't just a good, quality made game. It's a good, quality made horror experience rife with shocking, jaw-dropping, and uncomfortable experiences. This kind of horror works its way into your bones, settles in your nerves, and shakes the very core of your humanity.

Just like all good horror should.

...fuckin' needles...

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