There used to be a time, many aeons ago, when survival horror was a lonely business. You'd tip-toe through the dingy corridors of a Mysterious Mansion/Horrible Hospital/F**cked-up Fairground, whimpering as you turned each corner. If your path happened to cross with another sentient being, you'd most likely try to kill each other; your only friends were the 12 bullets you'd carefully saved, a near-useless knife, and a powdered green herb (this was the '90s; everyone was stoned). Back then, we used to save our progress on typewriters - but you kids probably don't know what they are, do you?
While Resident Evil 5 made a half-decent stab at co-op spookiness, there's no question that Left 4 Dead is the king of sociable scare-em-ups. It's hardly surprising, then, that Dead Space 2 has taken heavy inspiration from Valve for its own multiplayer massacres. To be more precise, it's Left 4 Dead 2's Scavenger mode that's the key reference point - pitching four human troopers against a quartet of lovable Necromorphs. The former have to complete a number of linked objectives before the time limit expires; the latter have to pull out their opponents' organs and turn them into Christmas tree decorations (intestines make a great substitute for tinsel, so I hear).
Like the single-player campaign, Dead Space 2's multiplayer matches are set on The Sprawl - a civilian settlement on Titan, one of Saturn's moons. The concept here is that we're following a group of security forces as they set about important tasks around the city, in locations that won't crop up in the main campaign. In the demo at today's showcase, the anonymous workers are paying a visit to The Solar Array. They might be on a mission to fix something important, or maybe they're here to install a Sky+ box; I don't know, but what I do know is that they're almost certainly going to fail. Why? Because the nice EA man has already explained that cooperation is vital, and the security forces are running around like headless chickens - quite literally, in some cases.
Matches work on a two-round basis, with each team swapping sides at the halfway point. It's a sensible structure that gives everyone a chance to play as the 'morphs; given the choice, I suspect most players would side with the mutants every time. There's an undeniable novelty in assuming control of a rotting baby with massive tentacles, and while it's still fun to blow these nasties to pieces as a human, it's far more satisfying to humiliate your rivals by tugging out their squishy parts.
Three of the four Necromorphs on offer are brand new; The Lurker is the sole familiar face - he's the dead baby one who looks a bit like a frog with a trio of tentacles sprouting from his back. The Lurker has the unique ability to climb walls and ceilings, and is best suited to ambush strategies, wanging his waggly bits at people who pass beneath him. The Spitter and The Puker are tall, stalking creatures who respectively gob at and vomit upon their unfortunate foes. Finally, we have The Pack - the most normal-looking mutant on offer, although that's not saying much. Mr Pack is a pale, bald humanoid mess with long claws. If you absolutely had to go on a date with a Necromorph, and given his relative lack of mutation, you might consider The Pack to be the best choice. You'd be wrong: Mr Pack is a child, and a dead one at that. What the hell were you thinking, you big sicko?
Whichever monstrosity you pick (for the game, not for a date), your overall objective remains the same: maul the living daylights out of the beleaguered security forces, either using your class-specific powers, or via powerful-but-risky close-up attacks. You can choose to spawn in any of the air vents around the map, so there's plenty of scope for patient trap-laying, but at the moment it seems surprisingly effective to just rush the humans as quickly as possible. The four player-controlled 'morphs are joined by NPC allies, and if you keep the pressure up it's easy to bog the opposition down until time runs out. Mind you, I'm speaking here on the basis of my own experiences - and as I've already mentioned, there wasn't much teamwork going on at EA's showcase. On the rare occasions when the humans did band together, I found that they represented a much more serious threat.
From the Security Forces side of things, the action feels like a cross between standard Dead Space and an objective-based FPS match (think Medal of Honor's Combat Mission, for a recent example). There's a persistent drive to push forward to the next goal, and the ticking clock maintains a degree of pressure, but the overall experience is less stressful than Left 4 Dead. Valve's game often finds the play revolving around the battle to free yourself from a surrounding horde, but here things stay a bit more fluid - if only because death arrives so swiftly. Slain mutants explode into limbless, pus-spewing trunks, and if a 'morph player emerges victorious from a 'struggle' sequence they'll be rewarded with a violent execution animation. Dead Space veterans will remember these as the moments where a mutant grabs Isaac (or in this case, a security officer) in some kind of nasty clinch, leading to a frantic QTE. They work in exactly the same way here - with both aggressor and defender hammering away at their pads.
There is a slight problem with these attacks, however. For the Pack and Lurkers to initiate these moves - which seem to be the strongest tools in their arsenal - they have to leap towards their target and then perform a mid-air melee swipe. At the moment there's no way to lock onto your intended victim, and as a result it's not uncommon to see creatures bouncing all over the place like an ill-judged horror reimagining of The Tigger Movie. It can be quite frustrating to pull these attacks off, and their ungainliness slightly spoils the sleek effect of the animation elsewhere. On the other hand, there's an argument that says a guaranteed lock-on might prove too effective. There's a closed beta currently underway, so there's faint chance that EA may implement this feature if it does turn out to be necessary. It's not likely to happen, but you never know.
As it stands, the game certainly looks the part. The maps feel claustrophobic and dirty, with plenty of dark corners to be used as makeshift hiding spots. Player IDs are displayed using the same 'floating projection' style that looked so good in the first game, and the player models boast plenty of details - the rancid flesh on the Necromorphs looks particularly grim. What remains to be seen is whether or not these matches gain a following. It's darned tricky to stake a permanent claim on the hearts of online gamers, even for a publisher the size of EA; at the very least, Dead Space 2's multiplayer should offer a bit of fun once we're done with the main campaign.