This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Dead Space 2.
In case you were wondering, because I certainly was, "dead space" is a physiological term referring to air inhaled by the body that doesn't take part in gas exchange. So, for example, when you gasp with delight at the prospect of a new Dead Space game, some of the air you intake will not be absorbed by your alveoli and will be exhaled again when you sigh with irritation because a spindly sausage monster has jumped out of a vent for the seventeenth time that day.
I shot my torch around inside one of those vents once and saw that there were no ways in or out, so either monsters grow in there like a fungus or the monster carefully replaced the cover after climbing inside, perhaps to have a little sleep. Perhaps what I interpreted as a hostile attempt to ambush me was in fact someone waking up in a panic and realizing they're late for work, which makes sense, because if they were trying to ambush me they could at least try hiding inside some other kind of vent once in a while!
Three years after the events of Dead Space 1 Iain M. Vonnegut has taken the standard route of horror story survivor aftermaths and wound up in the loony bin, still haunted by visions of that one lady he couldn't save rather than the several hundred people whose corpses he desecrated, the selfish twat.
In my review of Dead Space 1, I mocked it for trying to tug my flinty heartstrings by inflicting personal tragedy upon a character with no voice, no personality, and a bucket on their head, which was like trying to make us feel sorry for a floor lamp because someone knocked it over. Well, Visceral Games took this on board. Isaac now lifts his hat more often than a Victorian gentleman in the lingerie department and has a voice and a personality. It's just that they're completely generic. Not that I expected him to be voiced by Orson Welles, but I find it hard to coalesce Isaac's bland, predictable responses with the mighty thunderous figure roaring with triumph as he stomps on a cardboard box.
Anyway, necromorphs break loose on the station and Isaac must discover why. Chances are good it's something to do with those pesky
Scien Unitologists, the infuriatingly widespread space religion whose central tenets are human unification and unrelenting denial.
Another thing about Dead Space Uno I mentioned was that the USG Here Are the Juicy Humans Yum Yum didn't look like it had ever been a nice place to live and should be thankful all the blood and corpses have thrown some colour around. That's another thing Dead Space 2 meets head-on by setting its first half, BioShock style, in a lovely residential area full of colourful, cheerful decor, so it can be extra poignant when the blood gets everywhere. To a rather unrealistic degree, unless everyone immediately got a nosebleed the moment the alarm sounded.
The thing is, though, it seems like the population of Titan Station was about 75% under the age of twelve. Maybe life just gets really fucking boring every nine months or so. It seems like early on for a while you go from one children's bedroom or elementary school to another. It's for poignancy points, obviously, all music boxes singing plaintively to themselves and bloodstained crayon drawings saying "I love mummy and being alive." And, of course, killer children are one of the new monsters. They flock around you like you're the fucking Wiggles, and I'm pleased to report the circular saw weapon is just as overpowered as before and now all the carpets in Titan Elementary are going to need a lot of fucking shampoo.
Since world-shaking innovation has been a bit dry in the games industry lately, Dead Space 2 's gameplay is very similar to the first. There's even a level unapologetically copy-pasted from Dead Space 1, perhaps to demonstrate eco-friendliness, and combat's still mostly things jumping out going "Boo!" and you congratulating them on their prank by sawing all their arms and legs off.
So let's focus on the differences. In zero gravity now, instead of leaping from wall to wall like a flying squirrel in body armour, you get to free-float around with jetpacks. And I think I've implied before that there are very few situtations that can't be improved by jetbacks, except perhaps dense clusters of extremely flammable objects. This leads to one or two of those Space Harrier-style minigames where you fly or fall towards something and bank around to avoid the debris coming off it, which is becoming curiously endemic to action games. I remember it being in God of War III, Shattered Dimensions, Force Unleashed II, Wet, Wolverine - that's the game Wet and the game Wolverine, not a game about a wet wolverine, no such thing exists.
It seems like there's every reason I should like Dead Space 2. It's horror, it's set in space (which is the best setting besides the Land of Chocolate Lesbians), and now there are jetpacks in it. So why am I still not particularly moist? Well, another thing I said about Dead Space 1 was that it was about as subtle as a clown with his cock out. You start the game, and just when you think it's pacing itself and building the tension a bit monsters pop out going "argle bargle wargle" and wiggle their shredded bums under the spotlight.
Now, if I were a paranoid man - which I'm not, whatever people have been saying about me - I'd say Dead Space has started deliberately trying to provoke me. The very first thing that happens in Dead Space 2 is a bloke turning into a necromorph, fully illuminated and literally six inches away from your face. Then it grabs you by the lapels and screams at you while his eyes pop out. This is the horror equivalent of a small child banging its head on a wall so you pay it attention. "Hey, look at me! Are you scared yet? What if all the skin rolled off my face? Are you scared now? Aaaaaaaahhh, doing this really hurts, actually. Aaaaaaaahh, I currently represent threat in an extremely unspecific way. Aaaaaaaaaahh!"
Dead Space can startle, but it doesn't horrify me. It pushes the horror so hard that it comes right around and starts being silly. There's no sense of weight to any of the gore. Everyone's about as attached to their limbs as that mountain-climber bloke. When a body gets mangled or hacked apart, there's no sense of effort or that the flesh is resisting or even that it hurts much. The necromorphs seem to be able to hack off your knees by brushing past you in a narrow corridor. And do you know how hard it would be to sever a leg by stamping on it? You'd need to wear an ice skate, and even then the bone is going to take a few whacks. And the process by which a human turns into a necromorph is so fast it's meaningless. If it happened over time like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly and they could see and react to it happening, that would have carried emotional weight, but here it's stab, plop, away we go.
All of this would be fine in a silly gore game, like Resident Evil 4 or Splatterhouse, but Dead Space is trying to be taken seriously. You can't have it both ways, EA. Either stick everyone together with masking tape and dog food or make evisceration actually mean something. Chopping my pinkie finger off in Heavy Rain got to me a million times more than anything in Dead Space 2 did, and the guy didn't even pull his own face off.
- Only survivor of the incident: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I really can't stay creeped out by corpses when the game demands I make them into little festive puppet shows to fool the DNA scanners
- What the hell kind of cutting tool fires in a short non-continuous burst