Dead Space 2 (Xbox 360) review
"Storytelling aside (those are two words that this narrative-heavy game can't afford), Dead Space 2 is a serviceable two-trick pony. The main trick is the contrived dismemberment mode. Headshots are so passe. So the Dead Space approach is to encourage severing crab-like limbs, conveniently extended as if the monster was going to make a snow angel. They're loud, they writhe, they splorch out a lot of blood, and when you fail, they treat [sic] you to an elaborate animation of the lead character gruesomely dispatched."
To get loot in Assassin's Creed, you gently pat the pockets of the dude whose throat you just sliced. In Bioshock, you open a corpse in much the same perfunctory way you'd open one of the game's crates or desk drawers. But in Dead Space 2, you stomp something to get the medkit, credits, or ammo out of it. You stomp it with a screenshaking ferocity, a fleshy splurching sound effect, a manly grunt, and a spray of blood and often profanity. It makes curbstomping in Gears of War look like pattycake. Dead Space developer Visceral is bound and determined to live up to the name.
After a while, you want to tell them to relax, to stop trying so hard, that they're maybe coming on a little too strong. Once the fiftieth shrieking thing has rushed at you, limbs flailing obligingly so you can shoot them off, it wears thin. All the production value in the world -- and that seems to be about what's been put into the flat-out gorgeous Dead Space 2 -- won't make for an interesting game without the game part. It won't make for an interesting story without the story part. It won't make for interesting characters without the character part. Dead Space 2 is the absolute triumph of production value over content. What a beautiful empty shooter, as vacant and majestic as space itself.
The story picks up nicely from the first Dead Space, and this is actually one of its strong points. Previously, Dead Space mostly took place on space ships. But now it jumps to a populous colony on one of the moons of Saturn. The level design offers Bioshock-style glimpses of a society before the rubble. On your lonely way to the obligatory space dungeons via space ducts and space elevators, you visit space apartments, a space shopping mall, a space school, and a space church. You're still locked onto a linear rail ride along the bright blue line of your objective marker, but some of the places it passes make you think that someone at Visceral might have an interesting story to tell one day. And the view outside the windows is considerably more spectacular for its Blade Runner cityscapes and Ridley Scott palettes. Granted, this is mainly a matter of production value, but at the least the level design has more ambition this time around. And Dead Space 2 deserves kudos for one of its "oh no, we have to turn the power back on!" missions. The solar panel one. You'll know it when you get there.
As Dead Space 2 goes on, the story pushes more and more into the forefront, as if it doesn't realize how ridiculous, overwrought, and embarrassingly juvenile it is. It's tough to make a game about someone in love (hat tip to Shadow of the Colossus and the Minerva's Den DLC for Bioshock 2). But Dead Space 2's treatment of the subject has all the sophistication and emotional resonance of a dopey teenager mooning over a past girlfriend. Or God of War, which is pretty much the same thing. There's a brief feint towards a commentary on religion, but it passes quickly. The subject at hand is lead character Arthur Asimov's four-step process for getting over the bitchy girlfriend who keeps showing up for some silly in-game hallucinations.
The greatest sin of Dead Space 2, ostensibly a horror game, is that it doesn't understand horror. It can only ape it, providing predictable jump scares (not an oxymoron, ironically enough) and what it supposes is a scary ghost (protip: bitchy exes aren't scary). Because of the monsters' penchant for emerging magically from closets usually located behind you, they're just as annoying as the bitchy girlfriend ghost. Just cover your six with a mine from time to time and you'll be fine. From the monsters. For the girlfriend ghost, you're just going to have to power through the relentlessly inane in-game cutscenes.
During the last few "levels", or whatever you want to call the final hour or so of Dead Space 2, it's as if Visceral stopped even trying to make it a game and instead figured they'd string together a long succession of ponderous "gotcha!" after ponderous "gotcha!" It does get props for ending with the exact same line as Birdy, Alan Parker's before-its-time movie about PTSD. But it won't make any sense unless you played Dead Space all the way through and happen to remember the forgettable ending.
Storytelling aside (those are two words that this narrative-heavy game can't afford), Dead Space 2 is a serviceable two-trick pony. The main trick is the contrived dismemberment mode. Headshots are so passe. So the Dead Space approach is to encourage severing crab-like limbs, conveniently extended as if the monster was going to make a snow angel. They're loud, they writhe, they splorch out a lot of blood, and when you fail, they treat [sic] you to an elaborate animation of the lead character gruesomely dispatched. Again. Also, if you thought demonic alien zombie kids were edgy, wait until you see the demonic alien zombie babies! They explode, because that's edgy!
The multiplayer counts as a half-trick. Electronic Arts requires a code before you can play it, so if you get a used copy of the game, you have to buy the code. It's essentially paying a used game tax. Don't sweat it, since the multiplayer is a bald unimaginative rip-off of Left 4 Dead with a Call of Duty leveling system to unlock weapons. And given the pitifully low number of maps, I'm guessing multiplayer is the target of Dead Space's new DLC strategy. New space suits in the first game must not have sold well enough.
The other half-trick is the new weapon upgrade system, which gives Dead Space 2's gameplay a much-needed RPG kick. Remember how the Power to the People machines in Bioshock presented you with fewer but more meaningful upgrade choices? Dead Space 2 is the opposite, giving you more choices for less effect, and also throwing in choices that are absolutely empty. I suspect this is Visceral's version of balance. But given that the game is called Dead Space, I can't think of a more appropriate way to make an upgrade tree than to fill it with empty choices. But it creates a sense of attachment to the weapons, it lends the combat some variety, and it actually encourages replay by letting you keep your upgrades.
Furthermore, the weapons are distinct and they fit nicely into the weird limb-severing combat model, or they circumvent it entirely by just letting you set stuff on fire or blow it up. As a shooter, Dead Space 2 will skate by on its good looks for plenty of people. If you're the kind of guy who just wants to shoot stuff that looks really good, then you'll be happy to know Dead Space 2 is the best game production value can buy.
Freelance review by Tom Chick (December 21, 2011)
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