Saturday, February 21, 2015

Impressions #25: Dead Space 2

Some time ago, I had written about my experiences while playing Dead Space 3 with a partner. At the time, it was free on PlayStation Plus, so I had no monetary loss from the experience. Going on record, I said that the game was so terrible that no matter how good the franchise may or may not have been before it, any interest I had for the series was irreparably destroyed. In more recent history, a couple of conversations with friends of mine, who were fans of the franchise, convinced me to give earlier games a try. So, when Dead Space 2 went on discount during a sale, I bought it. Now that I have had the chance to start going through games on my backlog, I went ahead and played it from start to finish. This week, I talk about my experience with it.

The first thing I noticed when playing Dead Space 2 is how the game benefits from the inclusion on specific ammo types. Due to how Dead Space 3's weapon crafting system was implemented, ammunition was universal. Every weapon took from the same ammo pool. Assault Rifle or Plasma Cutter shots could just as easily be used in a rocker launcher. This gave the player no incentive to switch weapons over the course of the game. I had one weapon that I built in the first 3 hours, that I kept using until the end.
Going back to Dead Space 2, I noticed an immediate difference in way weapons and ammo contribute to the overall experience. Unlike its successor, Dead Space 2 gives every weapon in the game its own distinctive ammo type. Plasma Cutter shots cannot be used for the Line Gun, and vice-versa for each pairing of weapons. Furthermore, ammunition for any one weapon was fairly scarce, even if, as a whole, there were more than enough bullets to go around. As a result, the game frequently demanded that players change weapons and tactics to both suit the necromorphs out on the field and the weapons which they have ammo for.
An element of resource management is created as a result, and not just in ammo conservation. Though money to spend on equipment is plentiful, at least on Normal difficulty, it is no less finite. Wasteful spending will get punished later on. In the event that a given player wanted to stick with one weapon for longer, it was still possible to purchase more ammo for it. However, this would mean that money is not spent on purchasing Power Nodes and armor. Power Nodes have two uses. First, they can used at workbenches to upgrade both Issac and his weapons. Second, they can be used to open locked doors that contain large supply caches and schematics which unlock new items in the store. Each of these resources feeds into the other resources in some way. The need to constantly balance the use of equipment, Power Nodes, and money is a large source of the game's tension, which was lost in the translation to Dead Space 3.

Back when I played Dead Space 3, my partner and I talked through almost the entire game. With our constant bantering, to both coordinate our movements and comment on the game, any attempt to raise tension was completely lost. Furthermore, if either one of us died, the other was quick to resurrect them, reducing the game's ability to provide any form of challenge. It felt more like an action-heavy third-person shooter than a game attempting to play with my emotional state. Neither one of us felt like the game was particularly scary or difficult.
Now, while I would hesitate to call Dead Space 2 scary, it is an extremely tense game. Enemies can, and often will, come out of nowhere. Even after a player defeats all of the necromorphs in an area, more will begin to spawn if they linger too long before proceeding onward. As a result, the player is rarely ever truly safe unless they are near a save point and/or vendor. Even when opening a locked door with a Power Node, the player will often be ambushed on their way back to the main path. When the need to carefully use resources, this further compounds the tension of the game. The player knows that they need to collect resources, but spending too much time doing so will require them to spend what was just gathered. This generates a delightfully nerve-wracking balancing act between the player and the designers.
Even better, the enemies both demand that the player is both swift and accurate. As many people are already aware, the primary enemies in the Dead Space franchise are the necromorphs. Unlike typical video game foes, they can only be defeated by dismembering their limbs until they are unable to move anymore. They are also fast, moving quickly into melee range. This results in a need to move quickly, while precisely aiming to slice body parts off of enemies. Failure to remember this will result in the use of copious amounts of ammunition and health kits. With a limited inventory, complications arise if the player is not careful.
While not bad for the game, this created difficulty for me towards the end. I found myself dying repeatedly to the same encounters. After a certain number of deaths, tension gives way to frustration. I will not deny that in the interest of avoiding said frustration and saving time, I began to start switching to easy mode for some battles and then switching back to normal after the battle was over. I would be willing to believe that this had more to do with my lack of skill then the game, but it is nonetheless important to make note of.

Lastly, the levels feel like they had a lot more variety in this game then in Dead Space 3. Most of Dead Space 3 felt very same-y, due to the fact that most of it took place in a tundra, while the rest was in a few sci-fi industrial buildings. Combined with the need to backtrack often, it was difficult to ascertain one area from another without the use of the game's path-finding preventing players from getting lost.
Though most of Dead Space 2 also occurs in sci-fi industrial hallways, the game does use set design and lighting to add variety. Medical areas have all sorts of first-aid and medical equipment scattered throughout the area. Churches and theaters have lush red carpets and candle-lights and engineering bays will have mechanical equipment. Furthermore, the games makes good use to lighting by giving different areas their own colors. With these few additions, players are given a sense of progress and forward movement as they continue the game's story.

Speaking of, the story makes a little more sense than Dead Space 3's nonsensical tale of confusion and scatterbrained characters. The main cast had a clearly defined motive for wanting for wanting to prevent the villain from continuing his research. Furthermore, their relations feel a bit more natural, with both protagonist Issac Clarke and deuteragonist Ellie Langford go from grudging working together to something resembling more of a close friendship. Although the villain's ultimate plan and motivation are at best vague and at worst nonexistent, the relationship between the primary cast is strong enough to carry the game's writing.

Playing through Dead Space 2 hammers home exactly how much of a step back Dead Space 3 must have been to franchise fans. I can only imagine the disappointment of people who went from games like this to whatever they turned its successor into. That said, I can really see why fans of slower, more tense experiences flocked to Dead Space. There is a lot to like with the franchise. What really astounds me is that it is clear Visceral Games know how to create good experiences. So what on earth caused such a terrible transition. I would have loved to be a fly-on-the-wall when they designed each game.

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