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In Dead Space no one can hear you scream, unless you're playing multiplayer...
It was always going to be a tough ask. Dead Space is much loved for its paranoid, claustrophobic, solitary atmosphere; how could you possibly create a multiplayer mode for a game that is so defined by a sense of isolation? The answer, according to developer Visceral Games, is to make it objective-based rather than a frantic free-for-all, and to retain the slick HUD-less design and strategic dismemberment of the single-player experience. You can play on either the human or necromorph team in 4-on-4 sci-fi combat across five different maps, each with its own distinct feel and mission objectives. Imagine a gritty, third-person Left4Dead set in space, with the option to play as the zombies, and you've more or less got the idea.
And the zombies, or rather necromorphs, are a truly disturbing bunch. This is a gruesome game. On more than one occasion I found myself longing for a first-person option just so I wouldn't have to stare at the mutilated backside of my grotesque re-animated avatar. It's a strong testament to the design capabilities of the development team that they were able to evoke a level of disgust and nausea that I haven't experienced since watching Hellraiser as a young teenager. But I'm a sensitive soul, and fans of sadistic gore porn will be well served here; apparently the development team referenced pictures of car crash victims when designing the necromorphs - and it shows.
Take the Spitter, for example: this mangled humanoid mess of muscle striations and pincer-like appendages has the ability to lob balls of toxic phlegm at opponents over long distances. The aptly named Puker can also fire medium-range spit-balls, and has the added ability to unleash a stream of short-range bile over nearby humans. Both Spitter and Puker can charge up their shots to deal more damage. The Pack - a blazingly fast and vicious melee character - looks like some sort of nightmarish eight year-old child with brutal claws sprouting from its emaciated arms; leap into the air and grab a human while controlling a Pack and you initiate a frantic button bashing mini-game, resulting in a grisly decapitation if your Track & Field skills are superior to theirs (otherwise, you get stomped instead).
The Lurker is a different beast entirely; designed for long range camping sneakiness, a single button press allows you to climb up walls and slink off into the shadows to snipe from above. In practice, the camera can't quite keep up with you as you traverse the ceilings of the game, and your field of vision is strangely constrained, preventing effective target spotting. Hopefully this will be fixed by the game's release, as it's an interesting addition to the cast of macabre necromorph characters.
What the humans lack in brute physical force they make up for in long range firepower. In addition to the familiar Plasma Cutter (which can fire horizontally or vertically for easier amputation of necromorph limbs), there's also a Pulse Rifle, and a Javelin Gun which can pin enemies to the wall. The Pulse Rifle can fire bullets which use one round, or grenades which use 10; an elegant unified ammo system which is counted down by the holographic display projected by the gun. Health is represented by a traffic light system on the vertebrae of your exoskeleton. As it drops down to red you start to stagger and lurch as you move, an animated cue that circumvents the need for an ugly HUD health bar. Indeed, it's this ambient distribution of traditional HUD information that is one of the most striking and immersive elements of the design; even mission objectives and time limits appear on screens dotted around the arenas to prevent the need for unnecessary pop-ups.
Human objectives are time-limited and essentially involve standing still and holding a button in front of a console, or walking slowly from one area to another with a mission critical object. These are dressed up variously as restoring power to a computer system, or assembling parts of a bomb etc. depending on the map. The necromorphs' mission is simply to prevent the human team from completing theirs. In either case, success is heavily dependent on careful teamwork; human members are vulnerable while activating mission objectives and need to be protected, and you'll often find yourself shooting a marauding Pack off another team-mates face just before they get decapitated. Likewise, necromorphs don't stand much chance alone against human artillery, and need to swarm as a group to leverage their superior melee capability. It's hard to gauge at this point how balanced the system is. Necromorphs respawn slightly faster (and can pick which vent they appear from on the map), while humans have group healing items and a powerful stasis ability which can temporarily freeze enemies in suspended animation. There appears to be some differentiation within the necromorph group as well, with the respawn timer taking slightly longer for Spitters as opposed to, for instance, Packs.
Naturally, there's a full unlock meta-game as well, featuring upgradeable weapons and armour for the humans, and a range of deadly perks and abilities for the necromorphs. It's unclear yet whether the multiplayer will provide a substantial alternative to the single player game, and clearly the elegant immersion that emerges from the HUD-less design is somewhat hampered by constantly dying and having to loadout. Nevertheless the multiplayer is an intriguing if frantic experience, and if Visceral Games can balance the myriad elements of the gameplay effectively, it could prove to be a moderately diverting alternative to the ubiquitous sandy First-Person Shooters that plague the current crop of consoles.
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