Dead Space 2 Demo

BY Michael Ubaldi  //  December 27, 2010

I can't account for taste.


ne of the most remarkable facts about 1979's Alien is that the creators saw their movie as an obvious amalgam of films, stories and impressions. Confessed writer Dan O'Bannion: "I stole it from everybody!" But craft — the director, the sets, the actors — elevated the "script about [an HR Giger] monster" to an epitome of sci-fi, gross-out horror. Thirty mimetic years of massive, dank, neglected and unlit industrial sites haunted by abominations followed.

In October 2008, Dead Space appealed to the proclivity some of us now have for taking blind turns and risking man-eating creatures that may or may not be waiting on the other end. Most of the game was derivative of the Alien series: hubristic science gone awry, atrocities uncaged, pawns dispatched to contact and rescue lackeys whom — collaborators already knew — were long overrun. Enter Isaac Clarke, a kind of bionic maintenance man, as mute hero. Novel shipboard environments and the plot's inherently gripping conspiracies moderated significant downsides — from levels that were longer than they were substantive to tools and weapons that may as well have bore someone else's brand.

Old formula in a new era: Visceral Games appears to have settled on the same mutants leaping out from here or there.
All of this was, if you can believe it, one month before the release of Left 4 Dead, Valve Corporation head Gabe Newell's creative vaccine for a genre degenerating into "a shooting gallery." If the realization that the success of both horror media and video games depends on fine psychological insights had already come, the technology may not have been there — until Valve introduced AI "directors" altering gameplay and aesthetics in response to the perceived condition of a player. As hysterical, mindless mobs and the means to fend them off appeared unpredictably, scripted shooters — especially those in survival horror — would seem to have been nudged into obsolescence.

The demo for Dead Space 2 was made available for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 last week, and with the foregoing in mind, Electronic Arts' faith in its product could be impervious or delusional.

Great marriages of inventive animation and gut-twisting sound design -- will they be matched to gameplay?
Isaac, relayed by a long cinematic overusing the word "greed," has since escaped his first encounter with "necromorphs" but while convalescing in an orbital hospital remains dogged, in memory and body, by the same enemy. That Ellen Ripley suffered identically in sequel Aliens suggests that developer Visceral Games can't plead artistic cryptomnesia again. Will Isaac, plunged into his next confrontation with necromorphs, discover another terrifying secret about the willful disobedience of mortal man, or whatever?

Fair enough if Dead Space 2 were to justify such imitation, but the demo's half-hour of gameplay shows no hints of innovation or advancement. Far from attempting Valve's conjury and mystique, Visceral has settled with the same contorted mutants leaping out from here or there, filling rooms with the awful things when the natural shock of the first or second has worn off. Sweeping pans, a fast zoom: new dangers! As it goes, attacks escalate in a progressive violation of personal comfort, with the inevitable lunge from inside the transitional elevator. Yet the uncertainty central to suspense — whether that scuttling shape will strike now as it did last playthrough, or wait for when you least expect — is absent.

Surroundings — a cross between the bowels of a space station and eerily arcane shrine from the looks of them — are beautiful and menacing, just as were those in the original. A brief puzzle involving the gyroscopic dynamo of a gravity generator involves one of the better marriages of inventive animation and gut-twisting sound design in years. But the point to all of this, the battles with humanity's test-tube malefaction? In case you were worried, Isaac's signature move, popularly referred to as the "curb-stomp," is still there, and Electronic Arts exhorts you to "Dismember, stomp and impale your way across the Sprawl!" And I can't account for taste.

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