torstai 7. heinäkuuta 2011

REVIEW - Dead Space 2 (2011)

GENRE(S): Action / Survival horror
RELEASED: January 2011
DEVELOPER(S): Visceral Games
PUBLISHER(S): Electronic Arts

Alongside Resident Evil and Silent Hill 2, Dead Space is one of the most important individual games of the survival horror genre. A year after its release, EA announced the sequel and many skeptics voiced their opinion on the game long before even finding out what it was about. How can one blame them? Dead Space was loved for its horror elements and suffocating atmosphere, and we've all seen what's happened to the two biggest franchises in survival horror as of late - they're survival games, but hardly horror. Many believed that in this golden age of the action game, Dead Space would take a turn to be an "all-out action game with some monsters" instead of another bone-chilling walk in the terror zone. Well, I'm glad to say they were wrong - for the most part. Dead Space was freaky, but imagine that game in an urban environment, with kindergartens and churches, babies turned into Necromorphs, and pitch-black hallways in which your only solace is your flashlight. I know what it sounds like - and you know what it sounds like. I don't mind, I don't mind it one bit. Is Dead Space 2 as much of a masterpiece as a game as its most obvious influence? No. In Dead Space 2, most mistakes that were made with Dead Space are not repeated; with Dead Space 2, new ones are made to prevent it from reaching the absolute top.

Silent Hill 2511... almost

Gunner Wright : Isaac Clarke
Tanya Clarke : Nicole Brennan
Sonita Henry : Ellie Langford
Curt Cornelius : Nolan Stross
Lester Purry : Hans Tiedemann
Tahyna Tozzi : Daina Le Guin
Rick Cramer : Foster Edgars
Leila Birch : The Sprawl Computer
Matt Kaminsky : Kaleb / Hedrick / Microstore Computer

Isaac Clarke is alive, but insane, and treated in a hospital in the metropolis of The Sprawl. He has absolutely no memory of the three years he's spent there, but he remembers everything that happened on Ishimura, the Marker and what happened to his girlfriend Nicole. An outbreak of Necromorphs in the hospital and across The Sprawl makes Isaac come to his senses from his catatonic state and make a run for it. Isaac desperately tries to escape The Sprawl with the help of a few other survivors including a fellow patient, and at the same time, deal with the ghosts of the past playing with his demented mind.

First, let me briefly recap this one more time. Three years ago, on Christmas, I gave my sister a choice: LittleBigPlanet or Dead Space. I got LittleBigPlanet. In January 2011, I had two choices: LittleBigPlanet 2 or Dead Space 2. What a coincidence, huh? Well, as all of you most dedicated readers know, I ended up with LittleBigPlanet 2, but I swore to get Dead Space 2 as soon as possible. Bills and debts took good care that I couldn't do that. Then I got the 360, many games for it, then another friend came along and gladly borrowed me half of his game library, a half that also included Dead Space 2. I felt conflicted. I definitely wanted to play it, but on the PS3. Then I thought: what's the difference? I've got to play that game! I slapped the game in, took a deep breath, and not a moment's regret slipped into my mind from that point forward. I couldn't stop playing before reaching Chapter 7. I didn't even realize I'd played that long during one session. Dead Space 2 was such a captivating, but also deeply disturbing game for over a half of it. Visceral Games went to incredible lengths to make this game even scarier than the first one - it looks similar on the surface, but believe me, Dead Space 2 is very different from the last game. It's also even more frustrating. Based on the first eight or nine chapters, I was ready to nominate the game as the best survival horror game in history. Really. Then it just threw a plasma uppercut 'cross my face. A few of them, actually, which eventually forced me to start the game over when I had almost finished it. No game has done this to me in years.

Praise be to the writers of this game. I'm still waiting for a good explanation for Isaac's silence in the first game. "Making the game more personal by shutting Isaac up" is definitely not it. I am extremely glad that they finally gave him a voice, which improves his character almost by 100%. Not only is it good for him to have a voice, Gunner Wright also does a job that earns him a nomination for the voice actor of the year in my opinion. At first, I was a bit disappointed that they didn't exploit Isaac's insanity by making him sound like a nutcase throughout the game, but then again, he speaks so much (to cover for Dead Space, I guess), even to himself, that he would probably get on your nerves sooner or later if his voice was constantly cracking and twitching. There was some cursing in Dead Space, in Dead Space 2 "fuck" is common language. It's the modern way out, like it or hate it. I definitely like it, 'cause that's just the way people talk. Especially people that have hundreds, if not thousands of hideous creatures hungry for their flesh on their backs. I love Isaac's "DIE, MOTHERFUCKER!" screams when he's stomping grounded enemies. He doesn't need to talk all crazy to demonstrate the state of his mind - you'll see it. In his character, and definitely in his several hallucinations.

Baby turned real ugly.
Necromorphs are truly not the only danger out there. The danger is with Isaac all the time - so you've cleaned the area, nothing to worry about? How about a vision of your dead girlfriend trying to kill you, behind the next corner? After button-mashing your way out of that situation, you'll see it was actually Isaac trying to kill himself. If you played the demo, you surely remember the huge freezer in the research lab, with all those corpses in the tubes that suddenly started screaming to Isaac. Even without the Necromorphs or Isaac's extremely sudden thoughts of suicide, the atmosphere of Dead Space 2 is so God damn thick I think Vatra Games (the Czech developer making Silent Hill: Downpour) should really take some notes. There are scenes in this game that literally take your breath away. Remember in the first game, when you made your way to Kyne's lab, and in the lobby, a haunting voice suddenly started singing "Ring Around the Rosie" on an endless loop? Did you think what I did; that perhaps that song choice was a little too obvious? After all, it is the creepiest song in the world. Well... imagine a suddenly illuminated corpse whispering an off-key version of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" to your face in otherwise perfect darkness, attacking you, and then just vanishing. I never realized how creepy that song is.

The supporting characters are so much better than the bunch of annoying assholes in the first game. Nicole has a different actress, and her face is also remodelled. She speaks a whole lot more in this game, or to be more precise, her apparition does - she's only a fragment of Isaac's confused mind, which is perfectly clear to us from the beginning, so it's not a spoiler. Besides, if you finished the first game, you know what happened to her. The character of Nolan Stross is exactly what I thought Isaac's character would be based on the demo, a long-time resident of the funny farm. His continuing presence proves that if they had made Isaac completely batshit crazy, his character wouldn't work; Stross does. You never know what that guy comes up with next. The two major female characters (besides Nicole) inevitably remind me of Kendra, especially when they start messaging you every five passing minutes, but they're not nearly as annoying as... eehhhh... Kendra. The worst lines in the bunch - and their delivery - belong to the apparent main antagonist Tiedemann. The actor's not getting into it as the others are. 

Dead Space 2 follows the graphical guideline of the previous game; not polished to the final edge, but very detailed, stylish and God-damn-bloody. The death animations are back, better than ever, but to be honest, there were some very frustrating cases in the game when I actually yelled at the game to stop juicing it up - if I have to die, kill me already!!! Even when a Necromorph's on the receiving end, the animations take up valuable time you don't have to spare. Even though there are some real cutscenes this time - seamlessly tied into the game - you still can't skip them, death animations included, and I guarantee you: you're going to see more of those than cutscenes. The game is full of lethal surprises, I'll get to them soon enough. The style of the game brings Dead Space 2 even closer to Silent Hill than the first game was; the first chapter out of 15 is PURE Silent Hill, from the beginning to the end. A detailed explanation as to why would give a little too much away, but you'll see it once you play the game - you WILL play the game. The first nine chapters, at the very least, bring Silent Hill to mind on numerous occasions, since the Sprawl is more or less a futuristic town, with "usual" urban environments. Of course, there are also two very common threads between the towns in Silent Hill and Dead Space 2: someone has not paid the electric bill, and even the kindergartens are overrun by spooks. Then, we have Isaac's hallucinations. Of course many Silent Hill protagonists have suffered from them as well, but in Dead Space 2, it is clearly stated that they are hallucinations caused by Isaac's contact with the Marker, and nothing more. Be that as it may, they still do a pretty good job of mindfucking you to half-death.

And then we get to the sound. If you can't get hold of Akira Yamaoka, Jason Graves is the guy you want to make the soundtrack for your survival horror game. Just like in the first game, there really isn't any notable, prominent music. Music does play in the background from time to time, but usually very quietly, which is excellent since in this game, your ears can save you just as surely as your eyes, mainly thanks to the introduction of a whole new enemy called the Stalker - an ultra-fast runner who literally stalks you behind dark corners. If you're in a large room with a lot of large containers or columns, you can be 99% certain that there's a group of Stalkers waiting to ambush you and rip off that precious head of yours. Anyway, the sound effects take the lion's share just like last time; there aren't really random noises, this time most noises are accompanied by something concrete. For a quick example, if you hear the sound of running water break, there's usually a source for it nearby, it doesn't just blow out of the blue. It's still creepy.

Back in gear.
Compared to the first game, Dead Space 2 has superb voice acting. I touched the subject a few times already, so I'll keep it brief. Gunner Wright is indeed very devoted to the moment, and his character. A few friends preferred Isaac when he was completely silent, they felt the game was much more immersive and Isaac's silence made you feel you were part of the game, and I don't understand that at all; Isaac gains so much as a character from having a voice that I can't even start to explain it. Especially when the actor knows what he's doing. All of the guys and gals on board are unknowns, perhaps once again hired for their faces rather than talents, but nearly all of them do a much better job than the cast of the first game. The dialogue has much authenticity on paper, and dedication from the actors' side. Well done. Dead Space 2 is one of the best-acted survival horror games in history, perhaps second only to Alan Wake.

On to the good stuff? No, actually this time around I'll do it differently. Everyone who's reading this review with even a hint of enthusiasm knows the basics of Dead Space, and while I do concur that some of the core elements have improved a lot, the basics really haven't changed that much. So, first I thought I'd go over the ugliest parts of the game, many people will want to know them first, because the first game was very frustrating at times on the first playthrough. So is Dead Space 2. First off, there's a lot, I mean shitloads upon shitloads of Necromorph activity in this game. The first game was really scary, but my friend said he didn't perceive the game as too scary because it was too action-packed; towards the end, the game lacked the element of surprise. I disagree completely. Just because it was an action-packed game didn't mean it wasn't scary. Dead Space 2 has a lot more fighting in it, and especially near the end it does lack the element of surprise when it comes to Necromorphs, a lot of the real horror comes from somewhere else than the monsters on your ass throughout. The monsters are literally on your ass; they jump at you from the back, in almost every single fight that has more than two Necromorphs. At first, it freaks you out just like it should, but when it starts repeating in every fight, it's nothing more than enfuriating. I must admit that in the end, there are way too many tough enemies from every possible perspective, in comparison to the available ammo and health.

Second, this game has many varieties of enemies that will simply drive you insane... with their attacks, yes, but also their small size. Small buffs are way more annoying and sometimes even more dangerous than big, bulky creatures such as Brutes. There are these Necromorph children, spiders, those Lurkers and Divider Spawn that were there to annoy you in the first game... a lot of them. Yes, they also jump or shoot at you from the back. Being so small and fast, they're hard to hit and you're going to waste a lot of good ammo on them. They are able to do a surprising number on your health, so you're going to waste health packs because of them as well. Check two more, real essential nuisances.

The thing that absolutely grinded my gears from the beginning of the game all the way to the fifth or sixth chapter, is that the button mapping's changed. Not for the better, not for the worse, just changed to fuck with players who've grown used to the Dead Space mapping. Most of the actions in the game have been changed to the next button. For example, in the first game, L1/LB was used for aiming, and R2/RT was used for running. In this game, it's the other way around. Similarly, R2/RT is used for shooting and delivering haymakers, while R1/RB is the stomp button. Why the change, seriously? There's no real explanation to it - in my opinion, it's not any more or less comfortable, and for a long-time (and recent) player of Dead Space, it feels impossible to learn at first. The functions of the action buttons have changed in the same, inexplicable way, but I'll let you make your own judgement.

Kids these days!
It should come as no surprise to the travelers of Dead Space: the quality of the checkpoints varies in all the wrong places. Let's paint a picture, here; you're playing at a volume that prevents you from hearing low-pitched sounds. The way to spot a Cyst (a Necromorph "geyser", very fatal) on the wall, floor or ceiling is to keep your ears open for the noise they make. I have one tick of health left on my RIG, I have just survived the worst Necromorph onslaught ever; I never want to do it again. I know there's health and ammo waiting for me behind that door on the other side of the room. Well, as I reach the door, I suddenly explode into pieces. There was a Cyst on the ceiling, just above that door. Well, no matter, that previous fight was so climactic that the game can't possibly force me to do it again. YES, IT CAN. And it will. As I have said before, fighting a truckload of enemies all over again is not bad. Waiting around is. My friend said "waiting's for suspense, it's a horror game". What suspense, if you're already simply waiting around for the same God damn sequence to begin for the 20th time in a row? You know exactly what's going to happen, and you know exactly how to start off, it's the reloading of Isaac's weapons and enemies that suddenly begin to absorb every single bullet from your every single gun that are the problems.

I can't really say which game is more generous with the fabled Power Nodes, but I can safely say that upgrading your weapons and equipment to top shape needs a HELL of a lot more of them. It's actually pretty damn sick. Fine logic tells you to upgrade your RIG and Stasis Module to the hilt from the beginning of the game, ignoring the weapons for the time being. You pretty much must do it, but that does not work the way you'd expect it to. If you choose not to upgrade your weapons, you're going to be in serious trouble once you make it near the halfway mark. You have to be very careful with the use of credits, too. I reckon you cannot beat this game if you buy every single weapon on the first playthrough. You NEED those credits to purchase ammo and health instead, just to survive. How do you know which weapons are decent? You just have to try 'em out! Things like this left me no choice but to start the game over in Chapter 13, it was a total stalemate. It's like my first "playthrough" was a test run, on the second time I knew what I was doing... but is it any surprise that my enthusiasm towards the game had somewhat decreased?

To not beat around the bush any longer, I'll tell you what happened. Once again, I was taken by five to six surprises (to the back!) on my way, and ended up with zero ammo, near-zero health. There was this room in which my objective was to figure out the pattern and speed of a rotating laser that spun around the room, and take every opportune gap to make it to the next room, until I could ascend upstairs and stop the laser, then continue on. Well, I did, and was greeted by the worst swarm of Necromorphs, ever. Standing in the doorway to dodge their slashes, punches and whatever did not help; bullets I shot at them from the other side of the door had no effect whatsoever, and these few bullets were the only ones I had. I tried to break away through the mass, it didn't work. Well, there was a save point next to the door, so I figured: hey, I'll play a bastard with 'em, lure them right to the door, blast them to oblivion, loot them until I get my fill, and then save. Well, I didn't get my fill, but I got an amount of stuff that could've helped me, especially since I had cut their numbers in half. Then I saved the game. Guess what happened. Yep, the whole bunch respawned. Change of strategy; I remember there was a store not too far back. I have a decent amount of credits, so I'll backtrack my way to it and spend all of my currency to stock up on ammo and health, it's the most reasonable thing to do right now. I go back to the room with the laser, and guess what now? I can't move the laser. I CANNOT return to the store. The game might as well say "fuck you" to my face. It's a stalemate. Either I rely on the myth of the miracle and spend the next 12 hours trying to get through that one room, or start the game over. It's my "choice". Chapter 13. Nearly ten hours into the game. My face was not fit for the young ones to see. There's a fine line between being difficult and being downright unfair. To be a little more optimistic about it - although I personally find it hard - it's great that in these golden times of audiovisual masterpieces with stale gameplay and effortless levels of difficulty, someone has the balls to do a video game that is so difficult, that it requires complete concentration.

I think I've went over the worst parts of the game, so now it's time to bring out the (extremely) good parts, as well as some new ideas. Dead Space didn't really have a traditional introduction or tutorial sequence, it pretty much cut straight to the chase. It took you something like five minutes to get into the action, that's when you found your first weapon. In Dead Space 2, it takes a little bit longer and the first chapter notably differs from all the rest, it can't be referenced when we start hacking the gameplay to pieces. When the chapter reaches its end, it's all classic Dead Space from there on out, complete with dialogue instead of monologues. This time, the game is one solid tube run - which means you don't have to backtrack your way to a tram and use it to travel to your next destination to start a new chapter. You simply go forward, backwards and sideways, and the game informs you when a new chapter begins. No breaks for Isaac.

Well, at least the kids stay down after getting
Stasis and Kinesis are used less often to fix things. Stasis is absolutely essential in combat since there are enemies whose absolute forte is speed, and this time, using Kinesis is a semi-fine way to conserve ammo; you can pick up claws ripped off enemies and hurl them back at them, to stab them to the wall. Instead, Isaac's natural skills as an engineer are utilized in a hacking/re-wiring minigame that kind of resembles the code decryption sequences in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Speaking of minigames, they left the retarded basketball game out and everything like it - props to Visceral. I kind of miss the shooting gallery, though. There are not any real minigames, or those "may luck be with you" space shooters. It's just Isaac on foot, dealing with all sorts of shit, all the way.

All of the weapons from the previous game are carried over, and there are three new ones. I have to comment the already familiar weapons first; the Ripper, my favourite weapon from the first game, is nearly useless on low levels. Isaac's very basic Plasma Cutter is also surprisingly weak, especially against those hard-shelled enemies which become standard towards the game's end. The game forces you to resort to indirect attacks from time to time, and besides the Line Gun mines, the new weapons are the way to go: the Seeker Rifle, the Detonator and the Javelin. The Seeker Rifle is, simply put, a sniper rifle, which doesn't have that much use since most enemies show up once you're close to their spawning area. The Detonator makes some dastardly damage, even on low levels. You can shoot its proximity mines straight at enemies, or lay traps for them. It should come as no surprise that ammo for it is relatively scarce. With its alternate attack mode, you can disable and pick up any active mines that you have laid down, to save them for later use. Finally, I'm sure the Javelin has many fans as one well-placed shot on a low-level Necromorph can hurl the bastard all the way across the longest hallway and stab him to the wall, just like any Kinesis claw shot.

I think I've pretty much said everything there is to say! ...Except a word about the whole new zero gravity engine. No longer will you be jumping from point A to point B, you can "fly" freely by using the thrusters on Isaac's boots. Way more comfortable than jumping around the floors, walls and ceilings, but the zero gravity puzzles are a bit more confusing because of this freedom - sometimes, you will have a hard time simply figuring out your actual goal, and the waypoints are quite hard to spot in open space. There are also a few free-flying sequences, in which you must dodge obstacles coming at you while making your way to another part of the Sprawl - quite like Kratos' flying sequences in God of War III, not nearly as frustrating, though. There are also some very surprising, freaky sequences and stipulations which usually require you to shoot at enemies from a less comfortable position, or mash the A button for your life. Dead Space 2 might not be perfect, but it's far from boring. It can't be accused for lacking tension, that's for sure, in better and worse.

Dead Space 2 is most definitely one of the hardest games I've played in years - for right reasons, but an equal amount of wrong reasons. A video game of this generation cannot end in an unwinnable state, especially not this suddenly, on the final lines to cross. The big rulebook of video games says: "always go prepared", but you simply cannot be prepared for everything this game throws at you in the end. It's pure massacre. It's almost like you need to know from the very beginning what to and what not to buy. It's advisable to make at least two save files, because there really are moments that will give you the assrape of a lifetime and there's simply nothing you can do about it, except for starting the game over! "Better luck next time" and all that. Well,  finally getting to the end credits is rewarding and most of the Trophies/Achievements are perfectly possible to get on the first playthrough. To my very nice surprise, there are no Achievements exclusive to the whole new multiplayer mode. If you disagree with me about the game being overtly difficult, feel free to try out the Hardcore setting. In this mode, ammo and health are extremely rare, there are no checkpoints and you can save the game for a total of three times. There's challenge for you, and a big Achievement waiting for you if you can finish this near-impossible task.

Because of my fear of needles, this has got to
be the most disturbing scene in the game.
Dead Space felt better on the second round because you could transfer all of your equipment over to the new file - in other words, the second round was as difficult as an average, modern video game, and it was comfortable to play. Dead Space 2 follows the same rule; the second round is better. So, it's a game with lifespan I'm very grateful for. But, is it better than its predecessor? Not really, nor is it any worse. The audiovisuals and storytelling are worked a lot better, the Silent Hill atmosphere of the first few chapters works like a charm, but in the end, the enemies just shower down on you - there's no end to them. At some point the fun stops, and you're no longer scared, you're no longer tense, you're just plainly pissed off. It seems like the game's determined to make you waste your health and ammo in some way or another. They could've at least tried to keep the initial atmosphere intact from the beginning to the end. The game begins as an incredibly strong, captivating, true survival horror experience, but ends as a half-brained shooter you'd just wish to come to an end. I hope Dead Space 3 - if it's ever made - finally brings balance to the franchise. 

SOUND : 9.3


GameRankings: 86.47% (PC), 89.87% (PS3), 89.71% (X360)

Unlike in the first game, you can use the Flamethrower even inside a vacuum, which is impossible in reality.

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