Before it was released, I was very skeptical about Dead Space 2. The original Dead Space was a masterpiece of survival horror that excelled in maintaining tension through incredibly smart pacing, good lighting design and a brilliantly ominous soundtrack. That, and the fact that you were all alone on a spaceship full of monsters.
When Dead Space 2′s details started coming together, I was concerned. Isaac, the silent protagonist of the first game, would return, but now he was going to talk. He wouldn’t be alone for the entire game. The publishers wanted Visceral Games to make it more of an “action” series and less of a “horror” series. They were going to add multiplayer. Oh boy.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I started the game and discovered that they hadn’t turned it into Uncharted on Spaceships. The pacing is still great, and Isaac is still very much alone for most of the game. He doesn’t speak unless it’s necessary, and when he muttered “fuck” after one particularly grisly battle, I realized maybe I like the talking Isaac better.
The gameplay hasn’t changed much. The necromorphs are still basically just a collection of various grotesque things you need to shoot the limbs off of, and Isaac’s weapons will be very familiar to anyone who played Dead Space. The atmospheres vary from dark spaceship interiors to dark building interiors that look kind of like spaceships, and you cower your way through them, leaving a trail of pointy arms and legs in your wake.
Visually, the game is impressive, if also horrifying. Pretty much everything that happens is brutal; even collecting ammunition for your weapons requires you to stomp on corpses until something (health, bullets, some money) pops out. When you die — and oh, will you ever die — myriad horrifying things can happen to you, and some of them take a long time. Screw up, and you’ll be stuck watching a good 15-20 seconds of horrible monsters ripping off your head, or sticking a bladed tentacle down your throat, or whatever.
Puzzles aren’t really a Dead Space thing, so generally, you never have to worry about where to go. With a magic blue navigation gadget that tells you where your objective is, the only time I got stuck for a while was when a door wouldn’t let me through, saying that only members of the security team could pass its DNA scanner. The security team was all dead, of course, but it turned out that I could get through the door by carrying one of their corpses with me. Apparently the door is capable of remotely scanning and matching DNA samples, but not capable of telling whether that DNA comes from a living person or a severed torso. This strikes me as poor design for a security door, since any security door becomes bypassable as long as you’re willing to murder the guard.
(In the game, you don’t have to murder any security guards, because they’re already dead, because everyone is already dead. But you do occasionally have to track down their corpses to move on to the next room.).
Far and away the best part of Dead Space 2 is one of the (few) new necromorphs they added to the game. Unlike the explosive baby monsters and naked children monsters — oh yeah, classy — the “velociraptor” monsters are both challenging and fresh. I have no idea what they’re actually called, but they’re clearly based on the raptors from Jurassic Park; they hunt you in packs, are adept at hiding and diversions, and are generally pretty fun to fight when one of them hasn’t snuck up from the side and bashed your head in.
Unfortunately, they don’t show up too often. Near the end of the game, this sort of challenge is abandoned entirely in favor of the “kill a million monsters” type of challenge. And that’s where things get terrible.
With about an hour left in the game, you’ll run into your least favorite enemy from the first game, the invincible necromorph. You can shoot the arms and legs and head off this guy, but he re-grows everything within ten or fifteen seconds and keeps on coming. The only way to deal with him is to shoot off a couple limbs, freeze him temporarily with your stasis thingy, and then run away. (In the first game, you eventually kill invincible guy, but apparently in Dead Space 2 he’s even invincibler, so he never dies).
This would be a fun challenge if sprinkled lightly throughout the game, but instead it’s totally absent until it ruins the last hour by pursuing you everywhere. Each room inevitably contains invincible guy, and the further you get, the more other monsters it contains, too. Shooting them all becomes a huge drain on ammunition, especially since you can’t always stick around to stomp on all the corpses and collect your goodies. Invincible guy will have regenerated and murdered you by the time you’re stomping the jawbone off the second one.
After fighting through several of these rooms, retrying sometimes dozens of times as I was killed over and over again, I realized there was an easier way: run. This, to me, is a marker of the worst kind of game design. First of all, it shouldn’t really be possible to avoid a game’s challenges by just running past them. And second, well-designed games — even the difficult ones — make the player feel like there’s something they can improve upon when they die, so that they work at it rather than giving up and bolting. But after the tenth invincible-guy-plus-seven-extremely-fast-and-deadly-bad-guy rooms, I didn’t feel like there was anything I could do differently (aside from have more health or ammo, but there was no way to backtrack) and I wasn’t having any fun. So I bolted.
Probably, it’s possible for more skilled players than I to get through that segment without running, but I’m not bad at the game and I was playing on the normal difficulty setting. The problem is that Dead Space isn’t a twitchy shooter like Call of Duty; everything about the game right down to the controls is designed to reward methodical, almost surgical, precision and discourage running around and firing off bullets in every direction. But by the end of the game, it’s nigh-impossible to survive with the ponderously slow controls because you’re being attacked by nineteen different monsters from every direction, all at once. Most of them are incredibly fast, and the slow-and-steady-wins-the-race approach that got you through the game’s first eight hours just doesn’t work unless all your shots are perfect (and you have enough ammo, and you don’t have to reload at the wrong times, and something doesn’t sneak up behind you, etc.)
I ran basically to the end of the game, where I encountered what passes for the game’s final boss fight. You can watch it here; essentially what happens is you’re put into some crazy dreamworld where the screen is covered with weird crap and shadows murder you (if that description makes no sense to you, we’re on the same page, because the level itself makes no sense). You “win”, apparently, by shooting the Marker that’s in the background. Instead of doing that, I pranced around the stupid dream world for ten minutes, fighting off shadow children before inevitably being overrun by them and having to restart. Here’s why:
There is NOTHING in the game that indicates shooting the marker in the background has any effect the first couple times you shoot it. You might as well be shooting randomly into the air, or so it seems. And given that, why the hell would anyone keep shooting at it? Ammunition in the game is so scarce that you’ve been systematically trained over the course of the game never to fire at something unless you know it’s having an effect. So I took one or two shots at the Marker, and when nothing changed, I assumed I had just wasted some of my precious, precious ammo, and turned to the impossible task of fighting off what I now assume are probably endless waves of shadow monsters.
Then, after about 45 minutes of that, I said “Fuck you, Dead Space,” and looked up the ending on Youtube.
I understand the need to “switch it up” every now and then, but why do so many developers cap their games off with final battles that fly in the face of what you’ve been trained to do over the course of the entire game? Until the last hour, Dead Space 2 teaches you to proceed cautiously and conserve ammunition like you’re never going to get another clip. Then, to beat the game, you have to spend the last hour sprinting around invincible enemies and firing wildly at some shapeless blob in the background of a super-blurry boss fight? What the fuck!?
In conclusion, Dead Space 2 is sort of like a giant chocolate cake with a dead rat in the center. Sure, you really enjoyed the first twenty bites, but when you bite into that dead rat at the end, it ruins the entire experience retroactively.