I just finished Hard Core mode on Dead Space 2 this week, and I can now say it was truly my most epic accomplishment in my long video gaming career.  I say "epic" because the word encompasses more than just difficulty (I'm pretty sure Veteran difficulty on Call of Duty: World At War will remain the most difficult thing I've ever done for some time to come).  Most times when I finish something on the hardest setting, I feel something like relief that it's over.  Not so, DS2.  I felt elated, jubilant, ecstatic.  When the final boss fight ended, I jumped off my couch like electricity had just flowed through the seat cushion, yelling at the screen and pumping both fists in World Cup winning goal fashion.  Never have I been more excited at a game's completion.

The entire experience of Dead Space 2 has been a fantastic lesson in great modern video game design.  I reviewed DS2 and gave it a 9, so I don't consider it the best game I've ever played, though I do think I'd have to put it in my top ten favorites.  What I do think, however, is that Dead Space 2 boasts the greatest presentation, in terms of an immersive player experience, that any game has ever displayed.  For the remainder of this post, I'll break down why I make this bold claim and explain how it contributes to the near flawless design.


Immersion means sometimes getting hugs from friendly necromorphs you didn't even know were there


First of all, there is no break in the narrative.  Not one single pause in the entire game.  Think about that for a moment.  There is one, and only one, loading screen that occurs when you start up the game (either fresh or from a save).  Other than that, everything else loads on the fly.  I don't know of any other game that does this.  Granted, it's not possible in most games, as there are changes in location or timing that take place.  Dead Space has the advantage of taking place over the course of only a few hours, so Visceral gets to take advantage of the limited scope to keep the experience flowing continuously.

Still, it's a marvelous feat of game design.  If the game needs extra time to load the next area, it simply masks the load time within the context of the game.  Frequently, you'll find yourself on an elevator ride as the next big section queues up.  Occasionally, a door won't open because the room behind it doesn't yet have a ceiling or something, but the developers simply make it appear in the game as if the security on the door you're trying to open hasn't verified you yet or something similar.

The closest you'll come to a loading screen

The point I'm making here is once the title of the game displays, if the player chose not to save and didn't die, the entire game could be played without ever seeing a single load screen.  That is an incredible accomplishment, and one I don't think has been addressed in any reviews I've read.

Another thing that makes the experience so immersive is the menu system.  All aspects of the menu (inventory, objectives, recorded logs) are handled in a real-time interface.  No pausing to read that text log again, or try to use the small health pack instead of letting the game auto-pick a large one.  You want to drop some unnecessary ammo to make room?  That's fine, but the world will move on around you.  And if a necromorph just happened to be sneaking up behind you at the time, well...

In many games, especially RPGs, this may not matter.  But in a survival horror game, it adds to the tension knowing that you can't freeze time for the little things.  In addition, in my opinion the Dead Space series has the best-looking menus in the industry, hands down.  The 3-dimensional holographic display is amazing to look at.  How many games would you say impressed you with an inventory screen?  I realize not every game can do this.  Red Dead Redemption would have looked pretty silly if John Marston whipped out his portable computer to switch from a rifle to a revolver.  But every game developer out there should try to incorporate this much innovation in their game design.


My last point is about the game's Hard Core mode, which when I first read what it was I thought was ridiculous and somewhat insane.  For those who don't know, it plays like Zealot (hard) difficulty, limits you to only three saves for the entire game, and strips you of all checkpoints.  Yeah, it ain't called Hard Core for nuthin'.  As I mentioned earlier, I have now completed it.

And because I have, I can say this...Dead Space 2's Hard Core mode was the single most immersive gameplay experience I have ever encountered.

Do you want to truly feel like Isaac Clarke, desperately trying to survive in a terrifying world of nightmarish creatures that can overwhelm and surprise you at every turn?  Then there is NOTHING in the industry that compares to knowing that one mistake, one single tiny mistake, can cost your protagonist his life and you three hours of play time.  It's a completely different way of playing the game, where the most important consideration is survival, exactly like a survival horror game should be.  Inventory management takes on a whole new twist, as you're constantly worried about having enough health packs to survive until the next store.  Every action is deliberate, infused with a caution that only someone in a truly intense situation can summon.  To me, this was gaming at its most pure.

Pushovers in normal play...NIGHTMARE in hardcore

I can't describe how I felt during the last chapter of the game, when Isaac was being subjected to a constant onslaught of enemies in a mad rush to make the final encounter.  And when I got close, I pulled up my inventory and realized I was out of health packs for the last battle.  My heart was literally racing like I'd been the one running instead of Isaac.  Three hours since my last save, and here I was...so close, and yet so far.  Trust me when I say that even the simplest of actions, like a quick-time event you know is coming, hammer you with a pressure that must be felt to be believed.  And when I finally completed the last button press...well, I don't know how to describe it.  I honestly don't have the words.

Hard Core mode or not, Dead Space 2 is a marvel of game design, and Visceral deserves all the kudos they get for what they've accomplished here.  It may not be the best story or the tightest gameplay mechanics, but what it lacks in those areas it more than makes up for in presentation.  I don't know how they can improve on it in Dead Space 3.  All I know is that I will be there to see how they try.

Congratulations, Visceral.  You've made a fan for life.