Thursday, February 9, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #2: Dead Space 2

Are we enamored with beauty? Studies say that small children are more likely to be attracted to beautiful people than those of us who resemble the likes of me, so certainly this is not an issue created by social means despite being fueled by such. Similarly, we like pretty games. We like seeing what technology is capable of. The message board elite have downplayed the thought that graphics are important similar to that of a flustered parent hushing the notion that their child is not adequately cute. We can sit here all day and state that graphics are of little importance, but just as we play the part of the fool with our mouths agape at the sign of an attractive person walking into the room, we’ll sit in front of the television with stars in our eyes when something wows us.

My jaw’s agape on this one: Dead Space 2 is utterly gorgeous.

The second outing in the franchise from Visceral Games (Dead Space, Dante’s Inferno), Dead Space 2 is the complete package: It has the brains to understand how to properly terrify those who are brave enough to grasp the controller, it has the charm to provide enough cinematic moments to compete with the likes of the Uncharted franchise, it has the imagination to soar to limitless heights, and above all else, it has the looks. It very well could be the Felicia Day of videogames.

On more than one occasion, I would find myself staring out from the starboard, taking in the beauty of a perilous galaxy gone mad. It’s often hard to envision such tragic horrors taking place literally right beside Isaac Clarke with the imaginative artwork that is the natural order of things, from nearby superstations to orbiting stars. Even if the view outside is obscured, taking in the design of The Sprawl, a mini-mall in space with adjacent daycare for the kids (who in turn become infected and ripped limb from limb), is surreal enough to keep you interested in seeing the sights. When you’re counting the dust particles illuminated from within a church’s sanctity -- as the blood dries from your latest conquer, of course -- you know the designers must have done something right.

Right from the opening cut-scene and the sequence that follows, the game hits the ground running. This is the first time I have died in an opening sequence in years, simply because it is so fast paced. Confined to a straight jacket and wandering the halls in a gut-wrenching blaze of glory, you must narrowly avoid the necromorphs that are busting out of their hospital quarters. Are you to be the lone survivor, as fellow patients and doctors alike are being consumed by the monsters surrounding you? And why are you even in this facility? Where are you? The opening five minutes set up a series of questions that keeps the game thriving and well-paced throughout, all while expanding on the lore that the franchise revels in, what with its animated movies and whatnot.

What is it about Dead Space 2 that makes it so special? One of the things it instantly gains is its expansion of the science-fiction medium as a whole. In Hollywood, filmmakers are restricted to the bounds of Earth to depict their creative journeys, where they can only do as much as their locations and set creativity will allow them to do. On the flip-side, videogames such as Dead Space 2 have no limitations; they are bound only by the designers’ imagination. The folks at Visceral Games understand this more than any other developer in the history of the gaming industry, unchaining our customs and expanding our minds with uncanny sequences that are, at their very core, the definition of inspiring. From enemy design the likes of which we have not seen since the Silent Hill series was at its boom period to mapping out the bird-infested living quarters of a caretaker gone mad, the mood is set throughout the game thanks to the imagination of those who have put everything in place.

Dead Space 2 works best when it is pulling from all directions of inspiration, taking things such as a classroom we might find here on Earth and distorting its edges to give it the feel of something familiar but entirely different all the same. Not dissimilar to mistaking a stranger for a friend from behind, Dead Space 2 pulls back the curtain abruptly in most cases, turning something joyous into a relatively shocking experience. Seeing daycares, churches, living quarters, and even retail corridors molded into something heinous and strange with a dark tint over it is a strength for Dead Space 2, even if it’s a new feeling to the series. It is -- and I mean this as the highest form of a compliment -- like playing through one of your nightmares.

While nothing may ever top Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception in terms of cinematic value for gaming, Dead Space 2 is no lightweight; consider it the Adam Wainwright to Uncharted’s Roy Halladay, providing monumental moments when they are needed most, such as rocketing through space and dodging asteroids ala God of War or being dragged through an abandoned hull by a creature you can’t quite see until it is nose-to-nose with you. Uncharted’s amazing cut-scenes and edge-of-your-seat gameplay sequences will be tops for many years, but Dead Space 2’s flirtations with the cinematic feel more realistic. After all, just how many times can Nathan Drake be thrown from skyscrapers or escape sinking labyrinths before he croaks?

All great things have a tragic end, and that may very well be in place for the Dead Space IP. EA has been dissatisfied with the end results on Dead Space 2’s sales, and look to take the franchise in a different direction by turning the ingenious third-person survival horror title, complete with its fantastic HUD that depicts Isaac’s iconic life bar along his spinal column, into a first-person shooter. What a pity to see corporation step in and throw a winning formula under the bus for the sake of an experiment that will crush originality in favor of placing another great circular franchise into a square box, no matter how much they must mash it and break it in order to make it fit. Let’s hope they have a change of heart. Dead Space 2 is deadlocked with the original in terms of quality, and I consider both to be among the best games of this generation. Do not miss them.

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