Thursday night. Nothing on TV.
“Why don’t you play one of your new games you bought today? I don’t mind watching.” That was all she had to say. She’d barely finished the sentence and I had the wireless remote in hand, button pressed, firing up the 360. That didn’t really surprise her. What DID surprise her was me turning on the lamps. It was just leaving 7pm and it was a muggy Glasgow night. Far from pitch black, closer to daylight, but overcast and dull.
“Why are you putting the lights on, Johnny?” (Yes, my own girlfriend calls me Johnny at times, especially when being patronising). She’s snuggled on the two-seater with a blanket, directly opposite the TV.
“Because, dear, I don’t want you to get too scared. The first game was really…scary”.
She thinks I’m taking the piss. I’m not. The first Dead Space was a genuine nerve shredder. A legitimately intimidating experience. There are few video games that genuinely made my heart pound with tension and fear of what lurked around the next corner. This had good pedigree, this could be horror gaming at its finest. I hoped I wasn’t wrong.
I wasn’t. Soon Pam had realised that the world we’d been drawn into was fraught with atmosphere and distressing, mangled creatures. She’d seen and played the likes of the Resident Evils and Silent Hills before but Dead Space is another level down towards hell. The space station setting adds a claustrophobic foreboding never bettered on home consoles.
Isaac, our mute hero from its prequel, is tied in a straight jacket in the beginning, talking (Oh, he talks now!), wondering where the hell he is. Mental institutions and amnesia for our returning horror protagonists aren’t the most original ideas to start off a horror sequel as I’m sure you’ll testify, horror nuts. It’s been done countless times, even in video games and the first 15 minutes are strangely reminiscent to the PS2 game The Suffering. Tied in a straight jacket, unarmed, running for dear life through absolute mayhem as barely seen massive monsters ramshackle and destroy your surroundings. It’s terrifying none the less. Then, your hands are freed and you are armed only with a torch in the dark. No way to defeat the hoards. You just got to keep on running and praying. Before I’ve laid my hands on a gun, we’re both slightly terrorised and she realises that, no, I wasn’t joking and she seems very grateful for the lights being turned on.
I get a gun! Yes! Maybe I can settle down now. But no. Almost immediately I’m in a room with no pressure. The acoustics are muffled. You can barely hear your own footsteps. No way of telling if those many limbed creatures are swarming you unless you see them first. No way of knowing which direction you should be looking. No idea if one, two or sixteen creatures will emerge. No way. No way. In the middle of a large corridor-like room there is a moving walkway. You can’t hear it, but it’s moving. A thud. What was that!? You spin round on the spot. Nothing there. Palms sweaty. You turn back. A creature twice your size and with spikes for limbs is standing still yet speeding towards you with fury and intent. You never seen or heard it coming and before you shoot your very first round you realise there’s another one behind it and childlike creatures are emerging from the vents. How many? Unknown. Could be hundreds. Just start shooting. Shoot at the closest thing. Shoot anything as long as you hit something. Don’t back into the corner. Certain death if you do. Too many targets. Not enough time to fathom the odds. Just keep shooting. Back away. Back away. Shit. I’m in the corner. No health packs left. SHIT!
Mayhem. Blood. Carnage. Body parts. Neon lights. Terror in muffled silence. You’re hit. You’re hit. SHIT! It’s climbing on you. Get up. Too late. One of the larger creatures remove your head and limbs, leaving only your torso intact. The screen fills with blood. You are dead.
Dead Space 2 isn’t just a great horror game. It isn’t just a great video game. It’s a great video gamer’s game. I’ve played video games for almost thirty years now and with that comes preconceptions. Things you didn’t realise you took for granted. Unwritten rules that only video gamers understand.
In Resident Evil or Silent Hill there are cues that let you know you are safe or walking into danger. Music cues. If it’s almost silent or if a soft piano tune is playing, you are in safe territory. The moment the music changes, there’s something in the environment with you. In most first or third person shooting games if suddenly the game starts allowing you to find lots of free ammo before the next room, you instinctively know you are about to face either an onslaught or a behemoth. There’s no other reason for it. Not in Dead Space 2. There are no cues or the cues lead you into a false sense of security. Or the ammo might be needed four rooms later.
There are no loading screens in game (apart from when you die and continue), instead you are usually placed in an elevator as the game loads. Or so you think. Not even that is safe. NOT EVEN WHEN THE GAME APPEARS TO BE LOADING LEVELS. As a result you are constantly on your guard, especially the hardcore gamers. You realise everywhere could be hostile. The programmers could just be messing with you. It’s the first game, for me, since the Metal Gear Solid series that seems to reward and surprise you for having video gaming preconceptions. It turns them on their head and keeps you guessing. And tense. And witless. It’s beautiful.
The zero gravity, ventilation shaft and outer space sections are wonderfully executed and give the game a much more varied pace than it’s prequel. Resident Evil and Silent Hill games are fantastic but they always seem to be a little rough around the edges at times. Despite being huge sellers, they always have a B-Movie appeal and feel to them. Dead Space 2 has a spit and polish which outshines most horror games. E.A. have spared no expense and this team of developers know exactly what to do with the budget. It’s lighting and graphical prowess outshine most games this generation in fact. It’s wonderfully realised and dense. Ridley Scott would be jealous.
The pacing is superb. Everything just keeps ticking along and whilst the script may be not be equal to the great Hollywood blockbusters or even the Bioshocks of this world, it’s still a cut above the Fatal Frames and F.E.A.R.s and nowhere near as nonsensical as the Metal Gears. You just keep moving along and at no point does it get dull or confusing. It might be hard (some set pieces are particularly tough), the puzzles might stump you for a while, but that still doesn’t kill the notion that you must keep moving. Must get out of there. Must not stop.
And then you realise that’s your girlfriend getting up for work. Was it that long ago she left the couch? Did you even say “Goodnight” to her?
There is a multiplayer though I haven’t played it and doubt I ever will. That’s not what this game was built for. It feels to me like it’s been shoehorned in just to tick another box, to please EA’s demographic mad men.
In short, it’s a masterpiece. In truth, it’s scarier than any film I’ve watched in my adulthood. The immersion is far more intense than any cinema going experience I’ve witnessed. And it’s by EA, a game company I love to hate because of their insistence of bleeding every single penny they can out of the gamers with online passes and the like. And yet, there it sits, on the top of my games pile, making me grin every single time I look at it. I love it. I absolutely love it. And I’m CHOKING for the sequel.
Enjoy work, dear.