McGinnis: New video game raises the bar for horrorWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Even the most staunch gamers must admit that there are some emotions that video games cannot yet generate as effectively as other forms of art — at least, not yet. It’s hard to stir someone into passionate outrage by the social issues a game raises, or move them to tears by a game’s subtle depiction of a romance, though there are examples of both. My point is there are other forms of art that mine these emotional depths better, in general, than games can.
There is one thing, however, that games do better than any art form in pop culture: scare you. Ever since 1996 and the release of the first “Resident Evil” game, the genre of “survival horror” has reigned supreme as the best way to be creeped out. It’s not hard to figure out why. When you’re watching a scary movie or show, no matter how horrifying the events onscreen, they’re still happening to someone else. A game is happening to you.
One of the best examples of the genre in recent years was called “Dead Space,” released in 2008. A horror title set on a distant spaceship, the game called to mind comparisons to the “Alien” movie series, as gamers fought for their lives against a mutated race of monsters called the Necromorphs.
The game was a critical success but only modestly popular commercially, leaving the development of a sequel somewhat in doubt. Thankfully, Visceral Games still pursued a follow-up, and the result, “Dead Space 2,” was released Jan. 25 for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. And, like its predecessor, it raises the bar for what is possible with a horror video game, setting new standards in visuals, story and, yes, scares.
Isaac Clarke, the hero of the first title, awakens on a space station called “The Sprawl,” located on one of Saturn’s moons. Like Ripley of the “Alien” series, he has no idea that time has passed — three years — and wakes to a new nightmarish invasion of the aliens who wreaked havoc in the first game. The basic idea remains the same — run around, fight monsters who jump out from around every corner, level up weapons and try to survive.
It’s the details that make “Dead Space 2” so special, starting with the lead character. In the first game, Clarke was practically a nonentity. We knew almost nothing about him, other than the fact that he had a girlfriend on the ship he was searching for. We barely saw his face, and he didn’t even have a voice. This time, Isaac emerges as a fully realized individual.
The character is grief-stricken over the loss of his beloved Nicole, and his exposure to the events of the previous game seems to have driven him mad. As he fights for his life, we see numerous visions of his past flash before him, as he tries to reconcile the horrors of his past with the horrors of his present. As voiced by actor Gunner Wright, the player can now more fully identify with and sympathize with Clarke. Our attachment makes the game’s scares all the more immediate.
And oh, are there scares. The developers claimed in interviews leading up to the release that there would be more of a focus on action and less on horror. While action is indeed front and center, horror is far from an afterthought. The world of the Sprawl has been fully realized as a living, breathing place, which feels totally real with plenty of nooks and crannies for monsters to jump out at you. Unlike the first game, which had a very strict structure of levels, this one feels much more organic and continuous, intensifying the feeling that there’s no place to hide.
The success of the primary campaign is the meat and potatoes of the package, but Visceral Games has provided plenty of tasty side dishes, too. Unlike the first title, “Dead Space 2” has an extensive online multiplayer mode, and for PS3 buyers, the game comes in a Limited Edition which features the excellent “Dead Space: Extraction” shooter as a bonus. That game was originally released only on the Wii, but the version available here is excellent, and plays well with either the Playstation Move or traditional controller.
Though the first “Dead Space” was a great example of what could be done with horror in games, its sequel successfully surpasses it in every way. It looks amazing, plays like a dream and feels like your worst nightmare — in the best possible way. If you don’t like being terrified, stay away. But for everyone who loves a good scare now and then, you cannot do better than this.
E-mail Jeff at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.