Visceral Games has done some interesting things with Dead Space since the announcement of the original game’s sequel. Some of these are typical for big video game series (and perhaps particularly for EA titles). In the wake of Isaac’s return, there’s been announcements of several further Dead Space spin-offs, including a new animated film and a comic book-style companion game, to name a couple of examples.
Dead Space 2’s multiplayer component, however, came as something of a surprise to a lot of fans (myself included). Don’t get me wrong, I like the concept, but the series’ penchant for moody atmosphere and isolation (Extraction, the Wii’s intense one-off installment notwithstanding) didn’t exactly scream “good multiplayer setting” to me. Needless to say, hearing about what I could only imagine would be a Modern Warfare-esque deathmatch mode left me somewhat skeptical about whatever Visceral had cooking up. Though I wasn’t sure how the mechanics might work beyond a Left 4 Dead-style zombies vs. humans idea, it had to be better than the entirely forgettable multiplayer component in Dante’s Inferno, right?
Now that I’ve spent some time both blasting necrotic beasties and ripping hapless engineers limb from limb, I can safely say that not only does the Dead Space 2 multiplayer erase any memory of Visceral’s abortive Inferno, it’s actually a pretty fun addition to the sequel. And it plays exactly how you’d expect from playing single-player. Only you’re wasting other people online rather than disturbed AI monsters in a carefully constructed solo affair. Frankly, I’m surprised at how well the developers have re-appropriated Dead Space for a deathmatch construction; although, much like Extraction, the name of the game here is action, the series’ intensity and trademark dismemberment make for some bloody, gruesome fun, even without a spooky feel. Scares are effectively replaced with violence, or the ongoing quest for it—you’re unlikely to jump at all during a multiplayer match, but the quick-respawn pace of the frenzied encounters between man and necromorph make for a chaotic climate that’s just as entertaining.
Compared to a lot of other multiplayer games, Dead Space 2’s single class-based team play mode might feel a little lacking, but there’s a depth here that seems to take its cues from other popular multiplayer games, incorporating levels, perks, and customizable weapon loadouts, to name a few. The beta offers just a taste of this, placing you in the combat suit of a member of the Sprawl’s security detail on the human side while letting you choose between three of the four necromorph classes when on the opposing team. The four-on-four matches alternate between which side you play as, although it’s unclear whether or not you’ll have the option to choose games with fixed sides when the game ships. As a human, you can customize your two-weapon loadout, if only minimally—the beta only allows access to the line cutter, pulse rifle, and the new javelin gun. Similarly, unlocking additional perks and other items here seems to be locked for the moment, but gives you an idea of how things should work in the final game.
Of course, what everyone wants to know is how the necromorphs play, and, for the most part, it seems that Visceral has done a good job adopting everyone’s favorite horrific alien plague into some solid deathmatch classes. That being said, the feel is unsurprisingly and vastly different when playing undead-like alien over human. The security detail essentially play like Isaac clones (which is fine, frankly), complete with access to stasis and telekinesis, not to mention the protection of high-tech combat armor and the ability to pick up dropped ammo and supplies from corpses. The fleshy necromorphs have none of these perks. In fact, the first time playing as a necromorph you may balk at how unbalanced the game seems—these monsters break apart so quickly it’s like they’re made from paper-maché stuffed with beef and viscera. With little in the way of natural defenses, strategy is vital to survival as part of the necromorph hordes, though a good team will be able to trump enemies using the range of available classes. The Pack, the creepy demon-children seen in the Dead Space 2 demo shown at E3 and PAX, are a short-range melee class who can move quickly with talon-like claws; the small, baby-like Lurkers can attack or spew projectiles from their prehensile retractable tentacles, and can crawl on walls and ceilings; while the Spitter has a long-range acid attack and can charge humans, attacking with their dual spear-like arms. Necromorphs also get a special attack which let them theoretically overtake a hapless human; The Pack and Lurker classes can lunge onto someone’s back or chest, savagely tearing or beating them until their vitals are depleted (just mash the special ability button), while Spitters can grab an enemy while charging, trapping and skewering them with their arms. Of course, the vulnerability of the necromorphs still make any enemy encounter risky, but their abilities can be harnessed effectively with some finesse, and if you can get your teammates to travel in groups you can make short work of a group of humans. Unlike the security detail, necromorphs can also spawn wherever there is an open vent or shaft, which adds a little strategy into the mix while getting you back into the action quickly.
Interestingly, the game keeps a running of both dismemberments and kills. The beta doesn’t provide any information on what the difference is—dismemberment still results in dead necromorphs—but you can only get experience with kills, which are far more difficult to pull off. There are some other kinks that need ironing out, as well (aside from how ridiculously easy it is to get slaughtered as a necromorph). When on either side of a special grabbing necromorph attack, it seems to be a crapshoot on whether or not the attack will be successful, since hitting the x button repeatedly to either attack or wrestle free seems to have little noticeable effect. More often than not, I would spring on to an unsuspecting person’s back as a Pack class, only to see my little guy get torn into shreds after several seconds of attacking inexplicably yielded no real results. Though the single map in the beta had an interesting idea (humans have to assemble a bomb to stop a necromorph outbreak in some mines on the Sprawl), Visceral may also want to consider adding a mode or two, or at least maybe a few new maps (there’s reportedly only five at the moment), following the game’s release.
At this point, Dead Space 2’s multiplayer holds a lot of promise, though—I’m especially looking forward to seeing how the heavy class Puker plays—and if the dev team can fix the balancing and add a little more variety into the proceedings, it could wind up a very solid companion to the sequel’s fear-driven single-player experience. In any case, all will be revealed when Dead Space 2 hits early 2011.
Out of the Frying Pan…
When Game Informer first revealed Dead Space 2 to the public late last year, it was the subject of much skepticism and debate among many gamers. Dead Space, after all, was arguably one of the best original survival horror IPs to come along in years, so naturally, a sequel would have a lot riding on it.
However, among the first details revealed about the game were that many people had found the original Dead Space “too scary,” and Visceral was taking steps in response to reach a wider audience because of it. Phrases like “more action” and “evening the odds” were tossed around by the developers, who promised Isaac would have more firepower at his disposal to take on the necromorphs this time around. This, in particular, was worrisome to a lot of horror fans (myself included). Sure, Resident Evil 5 was a good game, all things considered, but its emphasis on action made it a non-survival horror entry in the series. Would Dead Space 2 follow the same trend?
After this year’s E3, I was less skeptical of how things were developing. Issac may be a veteran of the Ishimura incident, now sporting a sexy new anime ninja-like suit, but this is still Dead Space through and through. The non-playable E3 demo took him through a frozen underground catacombs section of sorts, in an underground Unitology church (a quick primer on Dead Space 2: it takes place three years after the events of the first game, on a massive space colony known as the Sprawl). Throughout the level, Isaac had to do battle with new types of necromorphs (among them a puking beastie, a new breed with insect-like appendages, baby necromorphs with razor talons as well as a typically hulking monstrosity reminiscent of some of the boss battles in the first game), make his way through the church, and finally escape said monstrosity, or so the demo makes it seem. Although the demo, which lasted roughly fifteen or twenty minutes, had a lot of action in it, it was handled with atmosphere, tension, and intensity at the forefront of the proceedings. The classic Dead Space style seems to have been retained, and perhaps, even added to, given the camera seems tighter for a heightened sense of claustrophobia. Though watching a demonstration feels different than playing it yourself, it was a huge comfort to know the mood of the series was still very much intact.
At this year’s PAX, I got to try Dead Space 2 out for myself. Surprisingly, it didn’t matter that the demo was the same that had been shown behind closed doors at E3; all I can say is there is a noticeable difference from watching something being played and actually doing it yourself. Although it had been at least a year since I had played the original, picking up the controller instantly felt natural again. That being said, the controls in Dead Space 2 are pretty much the same as in original, with a couple of new additions. First, thanks to small jets on his boots, Isaac can move around in Zero-G, which is smooth and controls perfectly. Impalement is also a new mechanic in Dead Space 2, as Isaac is able to pin necromorphs to walls either using the powerful new Javelin gun or, thanks to improved kinesis abilities, even the dismembered limbs of the monsters themselves. Using health has also been streamlined by mapping it to one of the controller’s face buttons, making firefights slightly less stressful. The camera and movement were two things I was most worried about (though admittedly less so since I’d seen the game in action at E3), but thankfully, Visceral has kept the weight and heft of Isaac’s suit intact, and the camera is as tight as ever, never giving you a full view of the action.
Needless to say, that heart-in-your-throat intensity the original Dead Space excelled at is back in full force. Isaac actually encounters no small number of necromorphs (probably about twice as many, on average, as in the first game) throughout the demo, so combat remained an intense and anxious exercise. Even though I knew more or less what was going to happen next, my short time with the game was still nerve-wracking, and a member of the dev team assured me the demo section was actually one of the milder segments of the game in terms of intensity and scare factor. It’s also clear Visceral now has EA in their pocket, so to speak; the publishing giant has obviously just thrown money at this project, which is far more cinematic than its predecessor, even to the point of integration into gameplay. Much like Uncharted 2, this new Dead Space seems to heavily involve set pieces, and if the demo is anything to go by, Visceral isn’t slouching in this department.
Over the course of the demo, Isaac winds up in a series of harrowing situations where the player is given control over the situation, which usually involves Isaac either pinned down by a hideous mutated necromorph or about to leave the mortal coil due to some powerful outside force working against him. Either way, you’re briefly given control enough to either desperately shoot your way out by hitting a beastie’s weak point (they glow yellow) or follow some other on-screen instruction to survive. These kinds of moments were present to some degree in the first game, but Visceral looks to really outdo themselves with Dead Space 2. Even with more “action,” though, the game feels well-balanced with the odds still against you, exactly how a survival horror game should feel. After the last intense scene, which has Isaac running or his life from a huge monster before ending the demo midway after blowing it to kingdom come in the cold vacuum of space, January 25 can’t come fast enough.