17 September 2013

Post thoughts: Dead Space 2

I’m actually – perhaps surprisingly – a fan of Dead Space. I felt it was mostly a great game that was very enjoyable and had very few things that detracted from the experience (I’m looking at you, asteroid section!). So why did I hold off on Dead Space 2 for so long? It’s been sitting in my Steam inventory for at least a year now. Having played it recently, I’m not sure why either! Maybe it was reports of EA tinkering with what made the first one work (i.e. the progression mechanics vis á vis what items you can obtain) or whatever... maybe it was just that I wasn’t in the mood for an atmospheric “scary” game. Who knows! As it turns out, it’s good! (See below)

As always: spoilers!

It's dark (relatively) in space...


Dead Space 2 isn’t particularly complicated. I do feel that the opening could spend a little more time explaining what’s going on and who you are for players who didn’t go through the first entry in the series but I guess that’s we can’t all be “Aliens”. Speaking of which, this game benefits from cribbing from that story a lot. Okay, the main plot elements – Ripley’s daughter/abandonment issues, marine rescue force, androids (do we hate them?) – are not present but the general story beats match up almost exactly. 

If I think about it too hard, I kind of wish they had cribbed a little more from Aliens’ answer sheet because there are some missed opportunities here where explanation would have been useful to those new players who weren’t familiar with certain characters and story elements. The section on the Ishimura especially was very eerie for me because of the first game but if I didn’t have the idea of what the planetbreaker was like in my head it would have been inseparable as an experience as the rest of the generic “space station” that the game is set on.

Similarly, there was no “normal” experience of the station for the player like there is in Aliens so there’s no way for them to frame the experiences of the game’s action and I think this diminishes the potential impact of the story and setting somewhat.

I felt that the focus of the story on Isaac’s coming to terms with the loss of his wife was very well done. The hints given through Nolan Stross' dialogue and the internal conversations with the apparition of Isaac’s wife set up the pay-off quite nicely... as well as the twist. Interestingly, there was not just one twist in this game but at least two or three. The first was your betrayal by the Unitologists – a nice little piece that began with a cutscene capture (annoying!) but luckily ended with you being free once more (very refreshing!). The second was Nolan Stross finally going crazy. Maybe some people had seen this event coming but I was unsure as to which direction Nolan Stross' story would go. He seemed like he might have been killed by one of the monsters or by Ellie Langford... or even kill himself like Isaac almost did a few times.

There were three things that I didn’t really understand or, perhaps appreciate, in the game. Ellie and Isaac – despite spending no real time or conversation together – ended up being really “pally”. The second was how Nolan Stross knew what Isaac was seeing in his visions and the key to “activating” the giant marker when it was clear that Nolan Stross had his own separate mental demons to excise. The third was why Nolan Stross wasn’t needed to activate the giant marker like Isaac was, especially since apparently they both built it and the creator has to be assimilated into the unity to fully reach activation/release (whatever sinister event that would result in!).


We all stand together! *Bum Bum*

The space station itself is largely forgettable as a piece of the game world with, I felt, one exception: The Unity Cathedral. The architecture and design in this space was really interesting and a very fresh experience compared to the utilitarian nature of the rest of the environments that Isaac has to navigate. It was also quite scary to read/hear about how far the Unity church movement had infiltrated every aspect of human society – creepier when you think how closely something like this resembles certain “sci-fi” cults. What is interesting to me is that, despite being functional from a level design perspective, the game world also appears lived-in; with apartments and living areas, recreational and shopping areas. It’s a fully encapsulated world that the player gets a chance to explore – along with the requisite engineering back ways and ducts that the common person would not get a chance to see.

Isaac himself is a pretty good character. In both games the player learns something about him and the forces that drive him. We also see him grow as a character emotionally and through experience. Dead Space 1 was Isaac coming to terms with the loss whereas Dead Space 2 was the resolution of him accepting the loss. As a character he also straddles that difficult line between being a silent protagonist or a character we play: Isaac doesn’t talk too much but neither does he just acquiesce to every request, demand or threat. I think the writers have done a good job of giving him just enough personality and the right responses so that the audience will be in the same headspace as the character at the right moment when he does issue an opinion.
Daina Le Guin (the first woman you talk to) is a great echo of Isaac’s wife: she’s soft and cooing to the freshly-woken and confused player and (I didn’t see it coming, okay?!) the betrayal makes a mockery of that mask she wore to achieve the Unity’s goals.

Similarly, in contrast to Daina, Ellie Langford is instantly aggressive and tough but softens up very quickly. I don’t know if it was the purpose of these two characters to mimic or reflect the schizophrenic nature of Isaac’s wife’s apparition but this might be an unconscious theme running throughout the game... and I’m not really sure what that says.

Ellie isn’t really written all that well – at least as character arcs go. She’s very distrusting of Nolan Stross but somehow lets him get the jump on her multiple times, even losing her eye on the final occasion, despite her saying she’ll shoot him if he acts too erratically and her previously being shown as very capable with regards to survival and combat. Her switch of personality also extends to her interactions with Isaac as well and, though it fits in with the beats of the story, there’s little reason for her to care so much about him as they go through no bonding process.

Tiedemann! Damn, that's hard to spell... Wait, what's your motivation again?! I mean, I haven't even really been coming "after you" the whole game. As far as I'm concerned I've just been trying to get off this damn rock!

The final character (that I can remember!) is Hans Tiedemann. While he isn’t a particularly effective foil of an adversary for Isaac, at least I remembered his name without having to resort to Wikipedia. I also think he is a little absent throughout the game’s story and that, along with his shallow motives, may be why his interferences were nothing but theatrical appearances of the dame in any Christmas pantomime. I found it very hard to connect with and understand Tiedemann's position because he never served any purpose other than dropping obstacles in the player’s way and, though his actions and motives were hinted at in voice logs and diaries, the game never really delivered on him as a character.


I think this game operated on a “what ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” philosophy and I think that was the right call. The basic mechanics of shoot limbs/stomp/reward work well and didn’t need to be adjusted or messed with to make them any better.

The big, interesting changes were immediate and free access to a number of weapons and suit types and a lack of “timed events”. The first did well to accommodate different play styles through player choice with the suits having various bonuses or attributes applied to them which I thought was a very clever decision. The second was also a correct decision which reduced frustration with those particular encounters (e.g. the tentacles). While I generally enjoyed the variety these gave to the first game they could be frustrating due to the control changes necessary to create a chaotic and challenging event. It also allowed the developers to trick the player with the hallucination of the tentacle attack when returning from the Ishimura.

The upside-down horde mode section also made an appearance in this game and was brought more to my attention due to the event’s inclusion in both Tomb Raider and The Last of Us. I actually didn’t mind these particular encounters as they were quite tense and interesting to play through, though I know some people dislike them for their difficulty. It makes me wonder what the inspiration was for this sort of encounter and which game did it first; was it possibly Dead Space 2? I haven’t played another game that did this that came out before it was released.

Some other small aspects that I don't remember in the first game were the breaking-glass-to-vacuum mechanic where you have to hit the target to close the shutter before you're sucked out into the vast emptiness of space and the telekinesis module that allowed you to throw items at your attackers. 

You don't say? I thought it might cause chocolate cause it's so brown outside!

In my (very honest) opinion, I don't think that these added anything to the game and, when encountered, detracted a little from the experience. Firstly, the shutter mechanic was so rarely used that the second time I accidentally triggered it I died, not remembering what I had to do! Only once I reloaded (and failed to trigger it!) did I remember that I had to shoot the target. It was potentially interesting but not really needed.

Similarly, the telekinesis module was useful for all of ten minutes: mainly because once you got a weapon you generally were okay. Otherwise the module was problematic for moving around the ship because whatever you were wielding at the time would have clipping issues with the level geometry and, since those physics-enabled objects that were most lethal (i.e. spikes) despawned after a really short time period, there wasn't much chance to use the ability because it was just more efficient to aim and shoot with a weapon in the close confines of the station instead.

Technical issues/bugs:

I had no crashes during this game and it appeared to be very stable with no graphical glitches that I observed.

This isn’t a bug but I yearn for the days of manuals again because I encountered an issue where I was unable to stop aiming my weapon on a couple of occasions. The first time it happened the only recourse was to force-quit the game as I couldn’t save at a save point (though I could use the vending machines). The second time, frustrated, I hit the caps lock key by accident and it sorted itself out. It turns out that the key is an aim toggle – though why you’d want this is beyond me – but the game had made no mention of this (that I had seen) during the tutorial section for me to know about this functionality. If I’d had a manual I would have flicked through it to see if there was a setting that did this and discovered the answer.

I guess this is just one of those instances where it might be a good idea to have an indication of what all assigned keys/buttons do or not assign them unless the player desires the functionality to be utilised.


The only game in recent history where people recover from massive trauma to the eye within seconds!! (But they can't cure a little bit of schizophrenia given years!)

Once again, I enjoyed the different pace of the Dead Space series and the relatively good self-contained story. I’m left feeling really interested in Dead Space 3 now (supposed lack of survival horror elements aside!) though I’m not really sure what else can be done with Isaac’s character now that his issues are “resolved” or that the markers and monsters are destroyed or at least neutralised. My gut feeling is that Dead Space is almost literally following the Alien quadrilogy in its trajectory; with the third instalment being a bit of a cop-out compared to the previous two but still an entertaining endeavour on its own merits and the fourth instalment being a jolly dance on the graves of the underpinning ideas of the series and irreverent silliness all around!

Prove me wrong, EA... prove me wrong. :)

Backseat Designing:

Right, time to listen to ME!

There isn’t anything that I’d change in this game, mechanically speaking, but I would love to flesh out Ellie, her relationship with Isaac and Tiedemann specifically. These two are the weakest parts of the game and I think the story would be stronger if Isaac and Ellie interacted more often within the same space (not escort quests!) and if Tiedemann did something other than drop obstacles in the player’s way for no real reason.

Story-wise, I’d also add in a section prior to your release – where you were hallucinating horrors and events from the Ishimura in the mental ward while under observation as well as seeing the marker and Isaac’s dead wife, etc. perhaps set during a transfer of patients to a new holding facility where Isaac escapes and rampages around before realising that he was just imagining everything. 

This would introduce these elements for new players as well as remind players of the first game of those events. It would also give a sense of the “normal” and bring the hallucinations more emphasis and power throughout the game by making the player question whether everything they were experiencing was real or just Isaac losing his mind.

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