Anyone remotely versed in the survival horror genre knows that the element of surprise is critical in this type of game. And as great as the original Dead Space was at maintaining a sense of grim uncertainty about what was lying in wait around the next corner, its greatest feat might have been proving that EA was capable of succeeding with an original title right out of the gate. That leaves developer Visceral Games (formerly known as EA Redwood Shores) in an interesting position leading up to the release of the sequel. How does the team crafting the next atmospheric trek through the zombie-infested corners of outer space top the out-of-left-field success it achieved the first time around? By not falling into the trap of making the same game.
Executive producer Steve Papoutsis was in the GameSpot office a few weeks ago to demo two brief areas from Visceral's upcoming sequel. Though he was keen to reiterate that his team is out to make a Dead Space game above all else, he also knows that "more of the same" doesn't quite cut it in a genre where keeping the player off guard is so critical to success. "Isaac has already been through the shit," Papoutsis said of the series' engineer-turned-protagonist. "He's already fought these enemies." Dead Space 2, then, is less a game about dealing with the initial shock of zombified aliens turning one's place of work into a living nightmare and more about using that experience to fight back and find answers.
Don't worry--Dead Space 2 is hardly some Charles Bronson-in-space revenge tale of one man with a score to settle against the villainous necromorphs who have wronged him. Sure, there are changes to Isaac's abilities to make him a more adept fighter. His movement is noticeably less plodding, his melee attacks require less full-body windup, and his telekinesis ability operates more quickly and is thus more suitable for use in combat situations. But for all of that, there are new weapons and new enemies that command the sort of deliberate approach to combat that leads us to believe this game won't be quite the run-and-gun action title that so many other survival horror franchises have evolved into.
One example is Papoutsis' weapon of choice during the demo: the javelin gun. This gun is almost entirely useless when you use its main fire--it merely shoots a dart into enemies or surfaces that causes relatively little damage. But in keeping with the Dead Space tradition of meticulously upgrading nearly every item you use in the game, the javelin gun gains a new alternate fire mode with every upgrade level you reach with it. Papoutsis displayed how a single well-placed shot followed by the incendiary alternate fire can cause a group of necromorphs to burst into flame and thus save you plenty of ammo in the process. Likewise, he showed how you can set traps on the ground by shooting a few electrical rounds on the floor and then wait for your enemies to turn the corner and trigger the alternate fire to send them convulsing in a light show of blue and white sparks.
Balancing out empowering new weapons like the javelin gun are a variety of terrifying new enemy types. The big theme with a lot of new necromorphs seems to be "power in numbers." One of these is the stalker, described by Papoutsis as a velociraptor-like predator prone to hunting in small packs. They're all about group tactics like having one distract you while the others flank your unguarded periphery. The fact that they look quite a bit like alien raptors certainly doesn't help them seem any more cuddly, either. Similar to the stalker is the pack, who trade in strategic formations for sheer numbers. Besides looking like horribly mutated infants charging at you with outstretched arms, these little guys are a threat because they move fast and almost always with plenty of friends around. Killing a single member of the pack doesn't take much more than one or two shots from the most basic of Isaac's weapons--the plasma cutter--but when you're confronted by a half-dozen of them, that's when you really need to worry.
Beyond weapons and enemies, it seems that some of the biggest changes to how you deal with the necromorph invasion come from the setting itself. If you've followed what little has been released about Dead Space 2 thus far, you'll know that the game is set three years after the original and largely takes place in and around a city called the Sprawl--an urban metropolis built on Titan, one of Saturn's moons. And while this new setting allows for much more visual variety than the uniformly dark and brownish-gray corridors of the USG Ishimura--we spied a lot of bright green lighting in a mining facility and a pretty impressive orange-hued view of the Sprawl skyline--what intrigues us most is the way you interact with these settings. Papoutsis readily admitted that a lot of the environments in the original--despite being triumphs in creepy atmosphere--were pretty static when you weren't solving puzzles.
In the sequel, Visceral wants you to do more with the environments. Objects like chairs, tables, and glass windows are now quite destructible, able to be shattered into stray bits and pieces when fired upon. Combine that with the fact that you can now impale and pin down enemies with sharp objects using telekinesis, and you start to see the fun applications of this new tech. However, recklessly firing can also have unforeseen consequences, like when you accidentally shoot the cables suspending the overhead hanging lights. Shoot one cable, and rectangular light might come swinging down and drastically alter the look of the room. Shoot all the cables, and suddenly you've got a shattered light on the ground and a much darker room to navigate.
Our favorite moment came when Papoutsis shot out the safety glass separating Isaac from the powerful vacuum of space. This move can be a double-edged sword: if you're fighting necromorphs close to the glass, you can shoot it out and watch as they get sucked out into the abyss. But if you're close by, you'll get sucked out as well. The only way to avoid a horrible demise is to quickly look for the bright red safety door triggers that will shoot a metal hatch up from the ground and keep you from joining those enemies in the vast emptiness of space. As if the threat of zombie aliens wasn't bad enough.
Will the rest of Dead Space 2 be as scary as the threat of a sudden and violent trip into the abyss of space? We'll just have to wait and see. One thing's for sure though: we should have more on Dead Space 2 at next month's E3, so keep an eye out.