PAX Prime 2010 Hands-On Preview: In space, plenty of people can hear you scream. Trust me.
The necromorphs are even more terrifying than ever in this sequel to 2008's horrifying hit. But don't worry ? Isaac's upgrades are more than just a pretty face and an assertive voice in Dead Space 2. He's got some brand new kick-ass weapons in his arsenal that will blow you away. I jumped right into the action at this year's PAX Prime, playing through the demo I'd seen earlier in the year at E3. Even though I knew what was coming, I still found myself nearly jumping out of my seat. But what really had me intimidated was that I also got a chance to speak with Guillaume Voghel, the Assistant Producer at EA Montreal.
The sequel takes place on the Sprawl, a space station dedicated to mining located on one of the moons of Saturn. This is where we find ourselves at the beginning of the demo which, despite the change in locale, still felt comfortable and nostalgic. It felt good to hear all of the familiar Dead Space noises I knew and loved, from the sound of the loading screen to Isaac's breathing as he walked around in his intimidating suit. I busted out my familiar plasma cutter, turned the beam sideways, and started right in.
The first thing I did was get wrecked by some necromorphs as I reacquainted myself with the controls and the gameplay. I hadn't forgotten the core mechanic to killing the enemies ? namely, that you have to shoot off their limbs ? but I had forgotten how tricky it can be. I died a few times, but didn't let the discouragement stop me from diving back in again and forging ahead.
I made my way through familiar territory, cutting off limbs and clicking the right analog stick to make sure I was still heading in the correct direction. Familiar as well were the corpses littering the floor, especially the ones that lunged at me and nearly scared me right off the chair. Dead Space, how I missed you, and how I missed poor Isaac, now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in the three years since the ending of the last game. Can he handle what's ahead?
For the first time, you get to hear Isaac's voice as he's trying to communicate with someone named Dana. He tells her he thinks he's found the exit, but it's way above him. He can't get through to her, though, and so it's time to start trying to figure things out on your own. You have to take an elevator and once you come out, you get a transmission from Dana, but you can't hear her very well, and communication is lost again. There's a quick puzzle here, where Isaac has to reach his hand into a control panel, and you move the left analog stick in a circular motion, waiting until the right moment to press X and rip out the guts of the machine. Apparently even the engineering can get a little messy.
It was at this point that Guillaume Voghel tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I had any questions about the game. At first, all I could do was let out a steady stream of compliments ? how much I'd loved the first game, how I'd had my doubts when I heard they were moving the sequel to a space station, how I worried that they would lose the feeling of total isolation so easily attained on the S. S. Ishimura but that it was obvious they were bringing it all together in a way that would keep fans and newcomers both satisfied and scared.
The first question I asked ? once I was able to stop my steady stream of nervous chatter ? was why they'd made the decision to go from the ship to the space station. He said they brought it to the Sprawl because they wanted ?to have a variety of environments, so that feeling where you are isolated and you are always in that scary environment is still there, it's still coming back, so it's the most important thing in the franchise for us.? Basically what they wanted to do, he explained, was to expand that feeling of isolation into different environments. The first part, the part I had just been playing, was the freezer; the part where I was now was the mechanical area. Coming up next was the chapel.
?You're still alone; you've still got to deal with the necromorphs, but you're in a different environment,? Guillaume said. ?We add more freedom with architectures, and textures, and completely different colors, so it's more variety but still the same feeling of horror and tension.?
My next question was about the inventory system, and if they'd changed it up at all. Part of what I'd liked so much about the first Dead Space was that constant crushing feeling of never having enough ammo ? or enough room in my pack. A question of what to take might be the deciding item between life and death. ?The inventory system is very similar to the first one,? he replied. ?The only thing we're changing is we're adding more suits, more different customization of suits, throughout the game you're going to acquire suits and you can change any suit anytime you want at any store.?
Another question on my mind was what lead them to add in puzzles like the one I had just done, and the one I was about to experience with the three spinning rings. ?Basically, we thought, ?well, Isaac is an engineer, so, he's a smart guy, he can figure out that stuff, so he can hack into consoles,' and then there's going to be more puzzles with multiple layers, you need to stasis this and then use telekinesis, interact with it and add more of a mix and really more complicated puzzles to take it a level further.?
Of course, I knew one of the main questions on everyone's mind: what kind of new weapons are we going to see in Dead Space 2? ?So, I can't talk about every weapon, but one of the weapons we have in the demo is the Javelin Gun, so if you haven't tried it, you're going to try it, it's so fun. You basically impale enemies to the wall with the darts and if you're not sure they're dead, you just electrocute them with your alternate fire.? He went on to refer to the ?amazing fun? it was to use the gun. I was ready to try it out.
At that point, it was sinking in that I was standing next to the Assistant Producer on Dead Space 2, and my mind went blank. I asked him if there was anything else he wanted to add. ?It's Dead Space, it's bringing back a lot of our gory moments, a little bit more action, quicker paced, but we're staying true to the franchise, we want to stay true to the fans, and deliver kick-ass action with big moments.?
After that, he helped me through the engineering puzzle, which was exactly how he'd described ? complicated and with multiple layers to it. First, I had to stasis the spinning rings, and then pay attention to which of the six sections were blue. The blue ones had arms that could be pulled down with telekinesis, but the tricky part was getting to the other side in time to get the other arm down as well and have them grab hold of the spinning ring. This has to be repeated for the two inner rings as well, both of which are spinning successively faster, giving less time for the second ring and even less for the smallest one in the very center, at which point you actually have to run to the other side to make it. I was a little clumsy at first, but managed to do it fairly quickly once I got the hang of it. It wasn't difficult as everything felt very smooth and intuitive ? not to say that it was easy, but the gameplay definitely feels polished compared to how some of the puzzles felt in the first game.
In solving that puzzle, I'd activated zero gravity. In the first game, this meant jumping from place to place in an awkward and sometimes frustrating path to get to another part of the room. But things are completely changed in Dead Space 2. Now, clicking on the left stick in zero gravity gives you full freedom to float around the room. You can fly anywhere. ?To us, it allows more and different gameplay that we can use and gives a different experience to players.? I commented on a particularly difficult zero gravity experience I remembered from the first game, and expressed how grateful I was for this improvement. I made my way up through the room, had to stasis a door to get through, and then, once inside, I maneuvered myself over the floor and clicked the left stick again, which magnetized my boots to the floor. I had to turn the gravity back on before I could proceed to the next section, so I made my way around the room to the controls and then went through a door into the Church of Unitology.
The chapel was so different and yet still evoked the same feelings ? the red carpets and stained glass windows were cold and sterile, and I still felt cloaked in the oppressiveness of isolation. This is what Guillaume was talking about ? having the story take place in a space station gives them the ability to create brand new places to fill with scream-worthy scenes. It was here that I decided to try out some of my new guns. I used the Javelin Gun to stick some nasty necromorphs to the wall and couldn't help but laugh at how efficient it was, especially when I electrocuted them. It seems a bit overpowered ? this is, after all, a game in which you need to exercise precision under pressure ? but it still felt good to nail those baddies to the wall.
Guillaume told me to turn to the left, and just outside of a window was the Sprawl in all of its isolated beauty. ?There's the city where the action is going on, so you're going to explore different parts of it,? he said. Directly following the breathtaking view was the attack by a large necromorph I'd had a brief encounter with previously. While I battled with him, fellow writer Mike Gutierrez took over and asked Guillaume some more questions.
His first question was, ?How'd you guys figure out how to top the first one and make it so much more intense? How messed up are you guys to do this?? We all laughed. Guillaume replied, ?We're dedicated to the horror genre, it's really figuring out what people liked about the first one, like maxing those points, and also bringing in a little bit of new stuff, not too much to water down the experience but really bring some new and interesting twists, and new expansions so we could further out the depths of Dead Space.? Mike asked him a few questions about the Sprawl as well, and then some things he couldn't tell us about ? namely more locations Isaac would be visiting as well as how the game was going to tie into EA's Gun Club, a membership service that offers extra incentives to EA customers.
He noticed where I was in the demo and said, ?when we said we want to have a little bit more action in it, it's one of these moments where you're basically flying through space, bumping on a spaceship with a big monster, and you've got to get out of there, you've got to find a way to really get through that.? A ship had risen up outside of the window Isaac was standing at, and he was thrown out into space with the hostile ship on one side and the monster on the other. This prompted Mike to ask about the cinematics and how there seemed to be a lot of those moments ? how did those fit in with this sequel? ?So basically, these cinematics, there are some Quick Time Events to get through them, so you experience a cinematic but you always have to pay attention to make sure you're not having a QTE and you need to do something, like in that example, at some point, you've got to shoot the canisters-?
Here I interrupted him with, ?I know! I'm trying to shoot them!? There was more laughter, and then Guillaume said to ?always go for the red canisters!? Mike felt that was a good gaming rule of thumb. ?So it's really about having some super big moments that really are imposing but always giving something to the player so he's always active and really dynamic.?
Once I was done the demo, I turned and got up and said, ?I know you're not allowed to talk about it probably, but ever since I heard the word ?multiplayer' associated with this game, I've been wracking my brain as to how the hell you guys are going to do that.? Mike even offered to stop recording, but Guillaume just laughed and said it was ok. ?Multiplayer?we're going to give more info about it in the coming weeks, but what I can tell you is that you will be able to dismember your friends.? Consider me ready to tear the limbs off of all my online buddies.