Ridley Scott’s Alien. A masterpiece in cinema – one that established a new brand of science fiction, terrified viewers unfamiliar with H.R. Giger’s predatory, sexualised creatures, and sustained a threatening, claustrophobic, paranoid atmosphere throughout, punctuated with moments of horrific violence.
James Cameron’s Aliens. The backstory was in place, but this time taut scares were replaced by a bigger brand of action, special effects, and characters. The weapons were bigger and the set-pieces more flamboyant – terse sci-fi horror morphing into gung-ho sci-fi action.
It’s a good an analogy for the concern many have wrung hands over since Dead Space 2’s announcement last December. The original was, paradoxically, a product both derivational and unique, taking its cues from existing franchises but building upon them with story and play in a manner that felt like nonconformity to usual patterns. Its atmosphere and setting were wholly its own, and a large part of this was because Dead Space refused to rely on action, but had its lonely claustrophobia and spine-tingling fear do much of the talking for it.
So, when early reports began to emerge that not only would there be a greater focus on combat, but NPCs would appear and Isaac would even remove his helmet and /speak/, there was general rumbling from fans in fear of being alienated by a more mass-market take on the franchise.
But as is usually the case with such things, such worries are unfounded. Even with Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey (executive producer and director on the original) having departed to form Sledgehammer Games, the original team remains, and in no way does it intend to allow Dead Space’s individual take on horror to become distorted. To return to our opening analogy, Aliens may have been a different take on the series, but it was still an excellent film. Dead Space 2 is going to remain the game we know and fear, as executive produce Steve Papoutsis is keen to point out.
“I think when people talk about the action element, perhaps they’re imagining something different than what we’re actually going to deliver,” he suggests during our conversation in a suitably dark conference room. “Dead Space 2 is not going to be a run-and-gun game with some dude popping off one-liners every five seconds. That’s not what the Dead Space franchise is about. Dead Space 2 is going to be a true Dead Space game and stick to the real space, real terror plan.”
Watching Dead Space 2 in action we’re inclined to agree with Papoutsis entirely. Set three years after the events of the first game, Isaac Clarke has somehow survived his Necromorph encounter on board the Ishimura, and now finds himself on The Sprawl – a space station located on Saturn’s moon Titan, and the location of the first ever Planet Crack. As the camera revolves around Isaac, his new suit is revealed, far more angular and athletic than the heavy corrugation of his engineer’s suit in the first game, and looking much more flexible. Behind Isaac lies The Sprawl, a conurbation of towers and spires sitting above the slowly glistening rings of Saturn.
It all clicks into place instantly. The torn hull walls and ripped pipes communicate that Dead Space variety of robust, mechanical sci-fi, and the familiar clinks and clangs of the sound design instantly bring to mind the ambience of the first game’s environment.
“When you do a game like Dead Space and find that people really like it, you ask a lot of questions,” says Papoutsis. “What do people like about it? What do they dislike? You consider a lot of different things, but as we got deeper and deeper into development we realised that Isaac is very iconic to the franchise. Some people might disagree, and say that it’s the suit that’s iconic to the franchise because you didn’t see or hear Isaac.
“Personally, I think Dead Space is about the universe and everything within it – the planet cracking, the Necromorphs, the markers, the Unitologists – there’s all these different elements within Dead Space. So, for Dead Space 2 the story is very centred around Isaac and all these other things. That’s very important to the game.”
Isaac heads deeper into The Sprawl in his slow, hunched manner, through a large bulkhead and into a dark room, where the floor slopes downward into the shadows. It’s here that we’re introduced to the first of Dead Space 2’s new Necromorph enemies; the Stalker – nimble, pointy-limbed enemies who will try to outflank Isaac and expose his weaknesses from behind. They’re dealt with quickly using one of Isaac’s new weapons, a spear gun that can nail Necromorphs to the wall. After doing so, Isaac can activate the weapon’s secondary fire mode, causing the javelin to either ignite into flame or shock the Stalker with a burst of electricity.
The other new ‘weapon’ we’re introduced to is one already very familiar to us. It’s Isaac’s kinesis module. In the first Dead Space it was utilised by very few players other than to move obstacles or shift panels. Here it’s augmented; lock-in on an object and it’ll snap to Isaac instantly, quickly becoming more than a discarded bit of debris, but an effective and deadly projectile.
“In the original Dead Space we managed to get the environments to look really outstanding, but the team felt we could do better in terms of interactivity,” explains Papoutsis. “So now what we want to do is have the environment have more of an impact on the second-to-second combat. This manifests itself through Isaac’s enhanced ability to use discarded pieces of debris to actually impale enemies and knock them back, or use discarded enemy limbs such as Stalker claws to hack apart enemies and stick them to walls.
“Our goal with these control enhancements, our philosophy, is to make sure that controls are an extension of the player,” continues Papoutsis. “We never want the player to be frustrated that they can’t do something because the controls are crap.”
This focus on controlling the environment is further exemplified by two other new additions to the Necromorph bestiary. First are the Crawlers, small and swift enemies that have a secret. From the very first moments of Dead Space it’s been ingrained into every player that ‘strategic dismemberment’ – taking off legs and arms rather than heads – is the way forward. Decapitate the Crawler, however, and its head becomes a scurrying bomb, which can be launched using Kinesis into other nearby enemies with devastating effect.
The Cysts present a similar tactic. Hidden around levels, these undulating pores spit explosive pods whenever Isaac wanders too near. A quick one-two hit of Stasis and Kinesis means Isaac can grab the glowing blob midair, turning it into a weapon for his own use.
Using the environment to your advantage is demonstrated in a more clear-cut manner in a later level. Isaac finds himself traversing a brightly lit, clean office space – a far cry from the decrepit, dusky industrial areas we were previously shown. The walls are floor-to-ceiling panes of glass that look out into the dark depths of space.
Isaac is soon set upon by a horde of Necromorphs emerging from the opposite end of the corridor, there being far too many of the rapacious beings for the put-upon engineer to realistically be able to fend off. Taking out his Plasma Cutter, Isaac quickly fires a bolt into the glass behind, instantly creating a decompression moment that sucks the Necromorphs into the black vacuum of space – along with Isaac too, unfortunately. He’s knocked onto his back, and must attempt to shoot a small panel in order to close a blast door and save himself from being dragged into the cosmos. It’s a sequence that recalls those when Isaac was yanked underground by heaving tentacles on the Ishimura.
In our presentation, Papoutsis purposely fails to destroy the panel, showing us another of Dead Space’s characteristics – extreme violence. Just as Isaac is about to feel the cold grip of space, the blast door closes forcefully on its chest, snapping his spine. Seemingly irritated by this obstruction, the door repeatedly slams upon Isaac until his torso is severed from his legs. Did the team ever consider toning down the violence at all?
“Certainly not,” Papoutsis emphatically asserts. “That’s one of the exciting things about working at Visceral right now – that we’re embracing mature games. A lot of us have worked on a lot of different games over the years where there were certain things we weren’t allowed to do. Now that we’re able to do pretty much whatever we want it’s liberating and fun.”
Papoutsis is wise to the pitfalls that can come with going into ‘gratuitous mode’, and assures us that Dead Space isn’t violent just for the sake of it. “You can go to a place with the extreme violence where it just becomes laughable or comical, and we don’t want to go there,” he says. “It needs to have a relatability factor to the player so they get creeped out by it. Grinding up some dude’s face just to do it isn’t what Dead Space is about. We want to keep it as relatable as possible.”
The violence and the action is coming along nicely, demonstrated in fine form by the two levels we’ve seen. But we’re yet to see any of the stuff we’re interested in – the tension, the scares, and the fear. Admittedly, attempting to demonstrate the really scary stuff in a room full of journalists isn’t the best way to convey the horror aspect of Dead Space 2, so we have to settle for asking Papoutsis about it instead. Just how difficult is it to make a genuinely scary game, particularly as gamers become ever more desensitised to the same tricks and contrivances?
According to Papoutsis, it’s all about variety. “Whether you’re going for extreme tension, or action, or drama, or any of these genre or emotionally evocative angles, you can’t do 100 per cent of the thing all the time – there’s no opportunity to take the person off-guard,” he contemplates. “It’s important to vary things so that there are moments where you are really creeping, and concerned, and being cautious, and there are moments where something happens, like the decompression moment, and it changes your reaction. I think that’s critical to anything you do, especially with horror. If you stay on one steady pace the whole time, how are you going scare somebody if they’re waiting for it, expecting it?
“There’s no real formula to scaring everybody, but, as I said, the more relatable a situation is, the better chance you have of a person reacting to it,” he continues. “That’s why we didn’t go with the extreme high-fantasy science fiction, but it’s like magic almost, and when anything’s possible a person will just accept that that’s what can happen in the world. But when you’re in a world like Dead Space and it’s more realistic, and you see a horrible, shambling Necromorph with its jaw removed you’re like, ‘shit, that could happen to me at the dentist. That’s nasty.’ There’s an immediate emotional response and that’s how we’ve gone about establishing our brand of horror.
All this talk of teeth and jaws gets us thinking about The Thing, and we propose that perhaps this had some inspiration on the body-horror stylings of Dead Space. Dead Space 2’s art director – Ian Milham – is quick to jump in. “To tell the truth, we’ve tried to take as much inspiration from real life as possible rather than films,” he says. “Humans, especially children, acting ‘differently’, or slightly changing their whole form while leaving it recognisable, is often more disturbing than just a crazy monster.
“We think about the basics of fear: personal space, the unknown, injury, and that sort of thing, and try to translate that into our designs. For instance, a lot of our enemies have extreme mouth trauma because people are naturally sensitive about their mouths and teeth.”
Undeniably, a great deal has changed about Dead Space 2, but it’s all been done to refine and enhance the high points of the original – to appeal to the fans that made the first game such a success, rather than rope in new gamers interested in a more bombastic brand of action as seen in Gears Of War. Diehard fans may lament the choice to make Isaac Clarke a more knowable, relatable figure – wishing for the ‘errand boy’ approach of the first game – but even massive overhauls to the set-up of the game such as this have been implemented to enhance the things Dead Space did so well – fear, claustrophobia and tension – rather than weaken them.
“Right now, with Dead Space 2, we’ve found our setting and we’re focussed on that,” says Papoutsis. “We don’t want to dilute the franchise by just churning out stuff. We want it to be because people who enjoy it want more of it. So, we’ve got plans beyond where we’re at, and we now where we’d like to go.
“The great thing about working on the Dead Space franchise is that we created the fiction, so we can pretty much do whatever we want, within reason. Naturally, we are very sensitive to not invalidating core fictional elements we have established in Dead Space 1, Extraction, and our various other story-derived media. In the end, our universe is vast and deep, and we have lots of areas we still need to cover in the Dead Space universe. But first we need to make this game as good as it can be before we really start digging into that.”
Dead Space 2 for Xbox 360 is available for pre-order now. Get involved.