“It's like Left 4 Dead!” That was the primary whinge emanating from almost every journo who got their hands on Dead Space 2's multiplayer mode at a recent EA event in London. And yes, to be fair it is a lot like Left 4 Dead, but then, when could that ever be considered a bad thing? If you're going to draw inspiration from anywhere, then it stands to reason that you'd draw it from the best, and as it happens, the monsters vs. humans sensibility of Dead Space 2's multiplayer works almost as well as Left 4 Dead's, ratcheting up the tension in all the right places, while preserving the intensity of the Dead Space experience.
Pitting the Security Team stationed upon The Sprawl against a gang of vicious Necromorphs, the multiplayer action couldn't be more straightforward, pick up and play stuff. As the humans, you're a member of the Security Team, suited up in Isaac Clarke gear tasked with fighting through the Necromorphs and assembling a device, before subsequently activating it to win. As the Necromorph team, you simply need to prevent the humans from completing their task.
Starting our hands-on as the Sprawl Security Team on the Solar Array map, we quickly realise that Dead Space 2 is as relentlessly dark and oppressive as ever, so it pays to stalk the corridors as a single unit, watching one another's backs. Yet, as you'll well know, multiplayer matches seldom work out the way they're supposed to, so things quickly descend into disorganised chaos and we're left alone facing down a lonely corridor, shining a flashlight into the impenetrable darkness, with a twitching assault rifle waiting to blast anything that moves.
The lighting still plays tricks, and having to fend off human-controlled opponents is unnerving, especially considering that they can emerge from any vent and mount nasty attacks consisting of corrosive vomit, flailing spiky limbs and tentacles. Naturally, every encounter between assault rifle/plasma cutter/line rack and a group of the spindly aliens invariably results in a spectacularly messy explosion of blood, viscera, offal and dismembered body parts. Even if you lose, the pulsating mass of gore left behind is something to behold.
Sticking together is the key to avoiding such moments of wanton splatter then and staying close means that whenever you heal yourself, you also heal the rest of your squad, so it pays to roll as a unit. And when things get really hairy, you can deploy a shot of stasis to slow down your attacker and then pick them apart as you see fit. It seems somewhat unfair, given that the Necromorphs have fewer abilities than their human rivals, but that's because the strategies you'll employ as one of the flesh-eating extra-terrestrials are more class-based, and you can do some serious damage if you go about it the right way.
Moving onto the Titan Mines map, the Humans need to gather an important component to build a light mine and win the match, and again, the Necromorphs have to stop them. Playing on the Necromorph side this time, we're eager to give each of the four Necros on offer a good run for their money, so we start by going with the Pack, who takes only one second to spawn. Each of the four classes has a different spawn time to keep things balanced, so if you choose to keep leaping into the game as the Pack, you'll get more goes, but as they're weaker, you might get less play time.
The Pack – the weird talon-fingered baby headed freaks – specialise in leaping on their prey, clawing them to death before chewing out their larynx, so timing when to aim and jump is a skill in itself, but then you have to bash X faster than your opponent to get the kill or be torn apart. The Pack is massive fun to play as, while the Puker and the Spitter are fairly similar, both lumbering in with strong melee attacks and the ability to spew noxious goo all over the place. The primary difference between the two seems to be that the Spitter is able to hurl his acidic payload further while the Puker is more about the melee attacks, with its two spiked appendages dealing out some nasty blows.
Finally, the Lurker is a nasty little crawling mutant that can climb walls, and either whip up-close with its three tentacles or zap from afar with a row of three crosshairs. If you're skilful enough, you can hit three targets at once while stuck to a ceiling. Size-wise, the Lurker is like a roast chicken on four legs, so it's easy to pick a vent to spawn out of and then creep up on someone and get whipping and shooting. This is invariably hilarious, but once you're rumbled, it's a quick and messy death. Ultimately, it's just good fun to turn the tables and play as the Necromorphs that we're familiar with from the first Dead Space (the Pack and Spitter excepted) and wreak havoc from the moment you leap out of the ventilation shafts.
Our sole issue with playing Dead Space 2's multiplayer mode at present is not that it's essentially a derivation of Left 4 Dead's versus mode – that truly isn't a criticism – it's that the camera sometimes has a little trouble keeping up with all of the leaping around, flailing appendages and tendrils when you're controlling a Necromorph. Playing as a human is instantly familiar if you've played Dead Space 1, down to the HUD and pathfinding line projection when you push in the right analogue stick, but the Necromorph side of the experience could use some work, with perhaps a lock-on facility needed. Being able to level up unlocks stronger melee attacks and better weaponry, which is obviously manifested in different ways for each side, adding a little extra incentive to keep on playing.
On the basis of this early showing of the multiplayer aspect of Dead Space 2, things look fairly positive and the core idea and mechanics are all completely sound. There is, however, room for improvement where the camera and controls are concerned. Otherwise, it could be worth investing in some nappies and delving into the unrelenting scares with friends and enemies alike when Dead Space 2 drops next year.
Dead Space 2 launches on January 25th, 2011 and January 28th, 2011 in North America and Europe respectively.