Life in Canada is pretty great. I have a beautiful wife and three energetic dogs. Health care is free and the air is clean. So the only thing that really stresses me out is my massive backlog of games. For reasons we’ll leave unmentioned, I have more games still in their original packaging than games I’ve finished.
With this many unplayed games, it can be impossibly difficult to determine which new games will garner my attention, purchase, and ultimately, my play time. Every now and then, I’d like to update you on my backlog progress in the Diaries of a Backlogged Gamer. Some of you may laugh or cry or poke fun, but if I’m truthful with myself, I should probably be writing something to evoke some sort of reaction, right?
Dead Space 2
James Cameron expanded Ridley Scott’s Alien beyond claustrophobia and made us care more about Ripley through her relationship with Newt. Dead Space 2 mimics this iterative evolution perfectly, both in character development and setting amplification.
Somehow, the Dead Space series has never demanded my immediate attention. Even more strange is how this reminds me of The Big Bang Theory. I hate The Big Bang Theory. The jokes are good, writing is fine; characters, actors, everything’s good. A bunch of nerds talking about nerd stuff with a hot(ish) woman living next door all in a fish-out-of-water kind of setting. But doesn’t it seem too easy?
That’s why Dead Space always remained off my radar. A guy fighting scary monsters in space where, you guessed it, no one can hear you scream. Sigh.
I was late getting to the first one and this only perpetuated my response time on the sequel. I didn’t read any previews, reviews, or listen to any commentary on Dead Space 2. None of my friends played it either so this was an extremely rare case where – other than having played the original – I went into this without any preconceived notion of the game’s quality.
…Why didn’t anyone tell me this is required gaming? If you’ve played Dead Space 2, you know what I’m talking about. But if you’re like me and for some reason or another never got around to it, finish reading this spoiler-free discussion, then go buy it. The great thing about playing older games is they’re inexpensive, so you have no excuse (other than maybe playing the latest and greatest games).
Isaac Clarke, the man behind the RIG
Isaac Clarke was a mostly bland character in the original Dead Space. And if I’m to be totally honest with you, I thought he was black (don’t ask me why, just did)! Early on in the sequel, however, we discover this outing will focus much more closely on getting to know Isaac at the most personal and intimate level.
We care about Isaac Clarke and want to fix him this time around. Like Red Dead Redemption in my last Diaries entry, the protagonist elevates this game to a level of mastery that would be impossible with a less interesting character. The gameplay is more exciting, controls more tuned, visuals more dynamic, environments more varied. Of course, the Necromorphs are a formidable foe. Terrifying in their unparalleled viciousness and scream-evoking attacks, these are some of the best monsters in video games. Period.
All these variables add up to a great game. But Isaac’s role as the lead character pushes Dead Space into must-play territory.
Isaac is broken. He is understandably traumatized by his experience upon the USG Ishimura, and he knows more about the Necromorphs than he should. To top it all off, Isaac is crippled with guilt for encouraging his late girlfriend, Nicole, to work aboard the Ishimura – her final resting place.
His supporting cast isn’t too bad either, but we care about each character less with each degree of separation. Nicole, closest to Isaac’s heart, terrorizes throughout the campaign in a supreme performance that never fails to send chills and sweat down my back. Yeesh!
There are a few other guest characters that accompany Isaac along the way through video conferencing. And while this method of communication lends to a feeling of isolation, it doesn’t help build strong feeling towards any of these ancillary roles.
If I have one slight against this game, it is against the human antagonists, who are one-dimensional and distant. No spoilers, but there’s a moment near the end where Isaac’s actions upset a pigheaded marine-like leader, and it just fell flat in comparison to how heavy everything else felt. In a post-BioShock world, we should expect stronger performances delivered even from characters rarely seen in the flesh.
But I’m one to see the bright side in everything, and the decision to keep Isaac’s struggle with his mind and the Necromorphs as the focus here was probably a good one. Plus, it all added up to an enhanced experience over the original, which is all you can ever ask of a sequel.
Where do we go from here?
Too often, sequels struggle to logically expand a series’ universe. This is particularly evident when the first game pigeon-holes itself in a finite location. Writers acknowledge the story must move to another location, but justifying it or making it believable is certainly easier said than done (I’m looking at you, Lost Planet). Luckily for Dead Space 2 (and anyone fortunate enough to play it), this story is character driven first and foremost. How mentally damaged would Isaac be after encountering the Necromorphs? How would a government react to someone with intimate and expansive knowledge of an organism like the Necromorphs? What role does alien life play on religion?
Each of these questions play a pivotal role in leading Isaac through an encouraging variety of settings. And though variety is king here, it always feels like Dead Space. Every area evokes a heart-pounding sense of dread. I am not exaggerating when I say: every single time I opened a door, I backed up first, drew my weapon, and slowly entered. Every. Single. Time.
Survial Horror, thriving
Other than collecting typewriters and ribbons, Dead Space continues to draw upon the gold standards set by the original Resident Evil games. Health and ammo are scarce. Scrounging for cash and weapon upgrades is key to advancing and never feels like a chore. If anything, the threat of Necromorphs jumping through the walls might scare you away from digging in the corners or closets. Otherwise, grinding through inventory discovery, weapon upgrades, or RIG enhancements/replacements rightfully feels addicting and rewarding.
Fear and suspense were replaced by relief and excitement each time I found a Store to lucratively sell my Semiconductors or a Bench to apply Power Nodes to my gear. Oh thank the goddess I’ve collected all this loot, I thought. There’s nothing like taking a Brute down with ease thanks to a more effective Stasis ability and quickly firing Plasma Cutter.
But you won’t always have the upper hand. Isaac is, after all, just an engineer. Gruesome limb-tearing death animations consistently remind you how unforgiving these monsters are. Sure, you’ll always come back to life for another go at it, but I couldn’t help but think how I might react if a humanoid creature with swinging spiky limbs sprinted towards me. Could I aim at the elbows and expertly dismember these things like Isaac? Probably not. And as chilling a thought as that is, putting myself in his shoes like this speaks volumes to the masterful level of immersion on display here.
So was it worth the self-imposed wait?
Dead Space 2 literally gathered multiple layers of dust on my shelf. And like a tree’s rings, each layer of dust symbolized a year; a year of regret for not having played this earlier. I’m sad to know there was a ton of discussion surrounding Dead Space 2 three years ago. It feels like trying to be fashionably late for the party but crashing in on the clean up crew.
The fright factor might be holding this franchise back from mainstream fandom. Overall, Dead Space doesn’t seem to garner overwhelming praise (perhaps that is why I missed it), and that’s a shame. Dead Space 2, in particular, encapsulates a checklist of gold standards in character development, player immersion, and atmosphere amplification.
After a few reveals at E3 and Gamescom in 2014 (P.T., Until Dawn, The Order: 1886), it seems developers had taken notice back in 2011 and hopefully we’re about to experience a delayed shockwave after the initial blast.
PS. Last time, I promised Dishonored would be my next conquest and I did start it, but maybe we’ll leave it for next month. So far… not so good.