So I just finished Dead Space 2 and wanted to discuss it a bit. Mainly because it is a perfect example of some trends in game design that I find are really harmful. I also find that it has some moments that could have been brilliant if just slightly changed, making it extra interesting to discuss.
Before going into the actual critique I want to say that the game did have some enjoyable parts, especially the at times absolutely amazing scenery. Dead Space 2 just radiates production value and it is a very well-put together game. I quite liked a lot of it and it is one of the few games in recent memory that I played until the end. The game has very nice atmosphere in places and even attempts at a sort of meaningful theme(more on that later).
At the same time, it is very clear that Dead Space does not aim for any real sophistication. For instance, you need to stomp on dead mutant children to get hold of goodies and gore is quite excessive. In many ways, the game is much closer to Dead Alive (Braindead) than to something like Alien, and should probably be judged that way. However, in the following discussion I will approach the game as if the goal was to create a tense sci-fi horror game.
With that out of the way, let's get down to business.
When I started the game, I was not in the best of moods (being a bit agitated), but I did what I could, darkened the room and so on. Everything to heighten immersion. As the game started out, it began with a non-playable sequence, something which made me relax and slowly immerse myself. Once the game actually began and I gained control, my mood had changed quite a bit and I felt I was ready to be immersed and role-play. Then after just playing for 30 seconds or so, I took a wrong turn and died.
This broke all the immersion I had built up over 10 minutes or so, and I had to start all over. The intent was probably to communicate the danger to the player, but this could have been made a lot better. Why not simply hurt the protagonist, or something similar, giving in-game feedback that the player should be very careful. After I had died and gotten a loading screen, I had to build up my mood again almost from scratch.
The same thing happened at the end of game, where you need complete a sort of chase-sequence before the final cinematic. I was unsure of the controls in this sequence and died just before it was over. Just like with the death at the start, this completely spoiled my mood and removed any emotional impact the ending might have had. Instead of becoming an exciting sequence, it became an obstacle and I concentrated on the pure mechanics instead of role-playing.
Having cheap deaths during immersive/emotional events like this is just lazy design. The sequences are meant to be completed in a specific fashion anyway, so I cannot understand what can be gained by having players restart over and over until they "get it". Sure it adds some kind of excitement, but this is greatly removed on subsequent attempts anyway, not speaking of how bad this is for immersion and role-playing. And considering there are other ways to add consequences to actions, I do not think it is a valid reason. It is just falling back to old and uninspired design.
Scattered across the game are save stations, all using an interface similar to 20 year old games. I do not understand why these are in, as it is the most immersion-breaking device one can think of. Having to enter a menu, and choose a slot in which to save, has no connection to the game world at all. Consoles nowadays have large hard drives (and save games can be made very small) so it cannot be a technical limitation like in older games. I am guessing it is just another case of falling back to old design patterns, and again I think it is totally unnecessary.
The way I save games in systems like this is to loop through the visible slots (usually four), always picking the oldest save game to overwrite. That way I have three older save games to go back to in case something screws up. As this is basically the system we emulate in Penumbra and Amnesia, and nobody has raised any complaints on that, I guess I am not alone in saving like this. So, if one still wants to use the save stations, my first suggestion would be to simply skip the interface and just save upon interaction. If players want to go back to certain places have a "Save Game" option in the menu or simply a chapter selection.
But why stop at that? I would have liked the game to skip saving altogether and do it automatically for me. Dead Space 2 implements resource streaming extremely well and you never feel like you travel between different maps, but roam a continuous environment. Not having any kind of visible save system would fit this design perfectly and most likely increase atmosphere.
It seems quite clear to me that Dead Space 2 tries very hard to provide a lengthy adventure (took me 10 hours or so go through) and to do so it repeats many elements over and over. This is something that exists in just about any game, where the goal of having filling a certain length quota trumps pacing, story development and the like.
For example, I really liked the first time the protagonist is forced to crawl through a ventilation shaft, but the tenth time this was repeated it just felt old and uninspired. Instead of trying to come up with new ways to create similar moments, the first one used is just recycled. Another example is the hacking mechanic that was served as an interesting diversion the first time, but ended up being an unwanted frustration.
You rarely see this sort behavior in other media (at least the good works). It is only in games where an, at first intriguing and noteworthy, event/idea is repeated until tedium. I would much rather have a shorter game that constantly bombards me with unique and inspiring sequences.
Dead Space 2 does do this right at a few times though. For instance, one section has the protagonist hanging upside while enemies swarm from all directions. This sequence is never repeated and not even dragged out. I would have liked to see that for all parts of the game.
Looting and Shooting
I might be that I am slightly disturbed, but I find shooting limbs of monsters a great pastime. Especially with the fun and greatly varied arsenal that Dead Space 2 provides. So much did I enjoy it in fact that it is hard to focus on much else. Sure, some of the fighting can be pretty intense with enemies swarming you, but not that much different from how a game like Tetris can be. Added to this is the focus on upgrading the weapons and finding ammo/money, which further brings your mindset toward the shooting part of the game.
I have talked about how focusing on fun can be bad before, and Dead Space 2 is such a perfect example. Your main motivation to explore the environment is not to get deeper into the story or to enjoy the art, instead it is to search for goodies. Because the game constantly bombards you with items popping up and force you to pay attention to them (you will run out of ammo otherwise), this becomes the main thing occupying your mind. Everything else is simply pushed into the background, which is really a shame consider the epic set pieces and sometimes interesting background facts. In their effort to comply with "fun" gaming standards, the creators have actually let much of their hard work go to waste.
I must add that the combat was not completely un-scary though. I started out playing on normal, and at one point, my resources had almost run out, which made me much more careful and tense when I thought monsters might be near. As I was put in this state, it completely transformed how I approached the game, and I started to pay more attention to background sounds and the like. Unfortunately, as I died the combat sequences stopped being scary and instead became tedious challenges in resource management. This together with the increased urge to find hidden items, killed most of the atmosphere to me. I then change to easy difficulty and could enjoy the game more as I did not have to worry about looting or combat strategies as much.
Dead Space 2 does have a story, but you will have to make an effort to find and experience it. As if the focus on combat was not enough, the actual story seems to be consciously pushed into the background. I can actually only recall one time when you had to actively confront the story (reading a note gives a clue on solving a puzzle). The rest of the story just plays out in the background and as a player you are pushed on by the urge of upgrading weapons and dismember mutants.
The game does have some interesting aspects though, for example trying to tie the entire game up with the protagonist's grief, but since it is so drawn out and overwhelmed by other elements, it does not really work. Another intriguing part of the game are some earlier sequences where you encounter people fleeing from monsters and people locked up in cells. Hearing the hammering of somebody wanting your help was quite disturbing and had they just added some kind of interaction related to this (like try to open the door) it could have been extremely effective. Instead it was just pushed into the background.
One of the story things that I did really enjoy was how a recording spoke of the material of a ceiling in an upcoming room. When entering the room your attention is directly drawn up and you could relate the recording, graphics and background story to each other in a nice way. I really wished the game had a lot more of this.
In the first Dead Space you played the part of a silent errand boy, something that the creators tried to change in the sequel. The way they try to do this is to make the protagonist an active character and make his own decisions. However, I think this sort of backfired and in Dead Space 2 I had even less of an idea on what is going on. Several times I had to check the "mission log" in order to find out what I was up to, and to find out the reasons for this. Since the protagonist was already talking, I wished he could have done this just a little more, explaining his action and reminding me, the player, of what I was supposed to do.
This also connects to the way the story is told, and further distances the player from the events in the game. Instead of deciding for yourself what the right course of action is, you just follow the game's instructions in hope that will allow you to progress. So while in the previous game you followed the commands of in-game characters you now follow the commands game's interface. This is of course much less immersive.
Playing Dead Space 2 made me both sad and hopeful.
Sad because I feel there is so much excellent work that has gone to waste and that I keep wondering if there will ever be any change to this. For every game i play I feel that there is so much potential lost due to following old and dull game conventions.
Hopeful because while there is much I do not like, it feels that there is not that much needed to totally transform the experience. Simply removing all combat focus and making the game half as long would probably have created a much more interesting experience. The question is if that will ever happen, but now I am at least confident that it is possible.