Steve Papoutsis, the man in charge of making Dead Space 2 everything everyone hopes it'll be, likes telling jokes. Initially, I find that completely bonkers because the original Dead Space didn't tell a single funny throughout its stupendously atmospheric duration. But maybe horror game creators are a bit like comedians, who, I've heard, are often insular, shy and reserved in private. Maybe, if every day of your working life is consumed by the process of making the scariest, most messed up interactive experience in video game land, then in private you're going to try and make as many people laugh as possible.
That's exactly what Steve's presentation of Dead Space 2, at EA's recent spring showcase, does. It makes us laugh, because he cracks out some proper funnies.
Like this one, about how developer Visceral Games has improved how space engineer Isaac Clarke feels to control: "We've revisited everything that has to pertain to the controls of the game. We even tried a fourth person camera. Just kidding. It's a joke. What's a fourth person camera? It was supposed to be a joke. Sorry."
That was funny, Steve. No need to worry. It's just that game journalists aren't used to this kind if thing. We're used to developers telling us how awesome and maximum kick ass in the extreme their game is going to be. We're not used to jokes.
Here's another one, in response to the question: now that Isaac wears a retractable helmet and, shock horror, talks, will he spend his time telling us about stuff like, oh, let's say... kids?
"Oh you know, he really likes walks on the beach," Steve says. "Ponies. Seriously guys we're not going to do anything hokey with his personality. It wasn't an easy decision to give him a voice because as you can imagine, half the team's like, 'No! You're ruining it!' We just had to say, 'well hey, it's going to be hard to tell a story, especially the type of story we're doing, without having him talk'. So that's kind of where we went. We did hundreds of revisions. We've seen some kooky dialogue, and we were like, 'No way! We're not going to have him say dumb stuff like that! He wouldn't say the mutt's nuts'. Or would he? I don't know."
Stop joking, Steve. Isaac talking is a big deal, to be taken very seriously. In the first Dead Space, which, by the way, I probably treated harshly in my review, the tooled up mechanic didn't say a word. And it was only at the end of the game, after strategically dismembering countless "Necromorphs" on board the stricken interstellar mining ship USG Ishimura, that he took his helmet off for a breather. Put simply, Isaac was a mysterious chap.
In Dead Space 2, not so much. This time, we're going to get to know Isaac a bit better, and find out first hand just how messed up his poor life is. Meet Isaac Clarke version 2.0.
But first, some housekeeping. Dead Space 2 is set three years after the events of Dead Space and aboard The Sprawl, a gigantic space city built into Titan (one of Saturn's moons, GCSE physics fans). The game's extensive lore tells us that Titan was the scene of the very first "planet crack", a phrase Dead Space fans will know well. The Sprawl began life as a small mining colony, but quickly evolved into the... sprawling space city it is today.
Why is Isaac on The Sprawl? How did he escape the Ishimura? What colour are his pants? Steve won't say. It's a response we get quite a few times during his hour long gameplay demo. Steve doesn't want to go down to Spoiler Town, apparently. Soon (*cough*E3*cough*), though, he teases.
What he will talk about, though, is how the team's improved upon the original game's gameplay. Steve talks about the improved kinesis, stasis and weapon upgrades - basically, how Isaac works. He will control more responsively. You'll be able to tear up Necromorphs more easily. Kinesis will allow you to pick objects up and fire them off quicker. Steve describes this process, which was perfectly doable in the first game, as "snappier". The juicy foot stomp move is much more responsive, the sadists among you will be delighted to hear. The camera has been repositioned ever so slightly so that you can take in more of the view. On the Ishimura, Isaac felt a bit like an errand boy, what with all the "Autoglass Repair, Autoglass Replace" jobs he had to do. On The Sprawl, Isaac will be more in command of situations.
And we see it in all its dark, atmospheric, dynamically lit glory. Isaac, wearing a nice shiny new suit (why is his health displayed on his back? Surely that's not good for Isaac's neck muscles) is walking in a dark, atmospheric, dynamically lit hallway, packed with Necromorphs dribbling at the thought of sucking on some man flesh.
One of the best things about Dead Space was what Visceral called "Strategic Dismemberment". You could use the Plasma Cutter to slice razor sharp legs and arms off of the mutated monstrosities, even beheading them. It wouldn't stop them short - like zombies they'd crawl towards you without legs, run at you without arms, or go into berserk mode without a head. It was terrifying stuff, and bloody wicked.
Strategic Dismemberment once again returns, but this time, like Isaac, it's been upgraded to version 2.0. Visceral's added Impalement to the mix. With the Javelin Gun you'll be able to fire huge metal spikes into enemies, pinning them to surfaces. Once impaled, you can then use the Javelin Gun's alternative fire to electrocute them. This powerful shock has an area of effect, so any Necromorphs that move into range will take damage. Unfortunately, this also applies to Isaac, so you'll have to stay on your toes.
Impalement also lets you give the Necromorphs a taste of their own medicine. Say, for example, you down a Necromorph with your last Plasma Cutter shot. What do you do? You frantically search for a discarded Slasher blade, pick it up with kinesis then fire it at your next enemy, pinning them to the wall. Lovely.
The ability to pick stuff up from the environment and use it against your enemies ties into Dead Space 2's more interactive game world. So much of The Scrawl can be smashed to pieces - glass, metal and lights explode in a shower of pretty effects and graphical wizardry. In one section, set in what looks like a bright, futuristic office space, Isaac sprays the entire two-level area with gun fire, almost razing it to the ground. Necromorphs then attack. Using kinesis, Isaac picks up a stray, razor sharp piece of metal and impales his enemy.
In another area, we see Dead Space's trademark superb dynamic lighting effects in motion; a giant ceiling fan whirs, casting shadows in pools of light on the cold, metal floor. Imagine this: a Necromorph runs around the corner, knocking over a lamp - the only light source in the room. In your mind's eye the intangible shadows it casts become as terrifying as the tangible monsters you can hear gurgling somewhere in the dark. The idea is that The Scrawl will feel like a real place where convincing physics and dynamic lights can be interacted with, not just by Isaac, but by all the horrible monsters roaming about the place. The Ishimura, for all its visual splendour, felt at times more like a gorgeous work of 3D art than a convincing 3D space.
Talking of horrible monsters, Dead Space 2 has, as you'd expect, quite a few new Necromorph types to get to grips with. The Stalker hunts in packs, trying to outflank and outsmart Isaac rather than assault from the front. Your best bet against these nasty pieces of work is to use stasis to freeze them in place, impale them on the nearest wall and then use their own Stalker blades against them.
The Crawler is a smaller Necromorph that... you guessed it, crawls around on the ground before exploding in your face. If you've got the skillz you can sever its head, pick up its carcass with kinesis and fire it back against enemies. If a bad guy walks near a Crawler, you can shoot it to have it explode prematurely, splitting apart your gormless foe.
My favourite new enemy, though, is the wonderfully named Cyst. It looks like the worst spot you ever had - one of those volcanic mounds of sweat and grease and puss that used to sprout up from the deep recesses of your skin, usually on the day of the big date (just me?). The Cyst are stuck to the walls, floors and ceilings of The Sprawl, just waiting for careless adventurers to get too close. But, as with most things in Dead Space 2, you can turn the Cyst against other Necromorphs. If you're careful, you can use kinesis to grab a Cyst pod and shoot it against other Necromorphs, virtually popping a gigantic spot in their faces. Now, imagine this: you come up on a hallway packed with Cyst. Use stasis to slow them down, run through them, aggro a few Necromorphs, then run back, hopefully timed so that the Cyst come out of stasis just as your pursuers are close enough to trigger multiple eruptions. Nice.
"We want players to look around and be cautious," Steve says. "It's not a run and gun game. Again, I'll continue to say that. This is a Dead Space game. You need to be cautious, conserve ammo and be smart as you play the game."
Steve's demo ends with what's called a "Decompression Moment". In the aforementioned office space, there is a wall made up of glass marked as being under construction. This is not your typical safety glass found elsewhere in The Sprawl. It's not safe. It's not sturdy. Four Necromorphs stand next to it licking their lips (do Necromorphs have lips?). Isaac shoots the glass and air rushes out of the room, chucking the baddies out into dead space. Isaac hurtles along the floor, too. The safety door begins to close, but it's too late - it crushes our poor protagonist, splitting him in half.
Time to reload and try again. This time, as Isaac is being pulled towards certain death he shoots a big red switch set just above the safety door. It closes before Isaac gets close, and all is well again. With two shots, then, Isaac's just taken out four Necromorphs, a feat that would normally take 12. Now, imagine this: you're in a dark room. You can hear enemies coming at you. You shoot and break construction glass you didn't know was there. Cue a "Decompression Moment" in the pitch black.
It's funny that, during Steve's demo, we haven't heard Isaac say a single word. It's funny because one of the big new things about Dead Space 2 is that he can talk. As is the way of the modern world, EA is probably saving Isaac's first words for a future reveal (*cough*E3*cough*). What's not funny, though, is Dead Space 2. From what we've seen of the game in action, it's just as atmospheric, tense and downright disturbing as its predecessor. If my rather shaky theory about comedians being introverts actually makes sense, then maybe Isaac, a man Steve admits has seen "some pretty gnarly shit", will emerge from his mystique as the most jovial, happy happy joy joy person in video games. Nah. Probably not.
Until Isaac's big reveal, we'll have to make do with what we've seen: The Sprawl looks like a huge, impressively atmospheric place with a visual variety and level of interactivity we didn't get from the incredibly polished Ishimura. Isaac looks like he'll control more responsively in everything he does, although not to the extent that Dead Space 2 will feel like your average third-person shooter. And Impalement looks wicked. Just... wicked.
There's still loads to come, of course, that's not to do with Isaac's voice. We understand that poor Isaac's spent some time in a mental hospital and is suffering from dementia and posttraumatic stress disorder. But how will that manifest itself in the game? Multiplayer, already confirmed ("you'll be able to strategically dismember your friends" is all Steve will say on it), sounds promising, although not particularly in keeping with the very solitary, story-driven experience Dead Space has traditionally offered. And then, last but not least, there's the game's structure. The divisive locator, Dead Space's blue line of light that held your hand in a vice-like grip as it led you to your objectives, returns, as do the clearly divided chapters. Will we once again feel like we're being guided around like mindless lemmings?
Unanswered questions, for now. All that's left is for Steve to wrap up his set with another joke: "I'd like to make, like, a thousand Dead Space games if people want them. That's the big thing, right? Just like with anything, you get to a point where it's like, 'ah, another one?' We don't ever want that to happen with Dead Space. So we're going to take it one step at a time. Like I said we've mapped out plenty of games worth of stuff. But there has to be an interest, right? We don't want to cheapen what we're doing. We're really focused on quality with it. Hopefully if people like this one, we get to make another one. But honestly it would be great to just keep making more and more of them. We're thinking Kart Racer, a fitness game... joke! Making sure you guys got that. RTS."
Dead Space 2 is due for release for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC early next year.