With the latest re-release of Capcom’s medium-defining classic Resident Evil 4 fresh on the mind, it’s bizarre and perhaps a bit sad to think on how few games have proven genuinely worthy of its design legacy. Even now, more than a decade after its original release, there is still only one game that has managed to truly take up the torch passed on by Leon’s misadventures through the macabre European countryside: Dead Space 2.
This is common enough in game design. A title comes out that changes everything, and everyone jumps to mimic it. Oftentimes, this is only surface level and glosses over the actual design decisions that drove the original designers to create the innovations in question.
In the case of RE4, its greatest innovation was bringing a heightened level of interaction to the third-person shooter by placing the aiming perspective over the character’s shoulder. This allowed players to freely target anything in the environment, shooting specific enemy limbs to cause them to fall down or drop explosives on themselves.
This was revelatory in 2005, and the medium soon saw an influx of games that allowed players to aim with this same degree of accuracy. One of the first was Gears of War, and you can trace RE4’s lineage through Naughty Dog’s modern oeuvre, from Uncharted to The Last of Us, as well as in everything from Dead Space and Mass Effect through the third-person elements of contemporary Deus Ex games.
Yes, RE4’s influence is tangible everywhere you look in the industry, and yet very few games have truly achieved what it did, including its own tepidly received successors.
So what’s RE4’s secret, the design element that so few of the games inspired by it have failed to understand or implement? It’s simple when you think about it, obvious in hindsight. The horror of Resident Evil 4 is the paranoia that one can experience in crowds. To express this in terms of mechanics, director Shinji Mikami and his team focused its combat encounters and scenario design on one core element: crowd control.
This statement of intent is made powerfully evident in the game’s opening village skirmish, which sees players navigating Leon through hordes of deranged villagers wielding pitchforks, axes, and the occasional chainsaw while trying to keep his head attached to his body. This encounter requires firm situational awareness, being able to observe where the enemies are in the environment and use your arsenal to its fullest in order to keep the throngs at bay.
Improvisation is key. Enemies do heavy damage, your resources are limited, and death comes swiftly thanks to the sheer numbers that you are up against. Fortunately, you have dozens of options at your disposal. Aiming at an enemy’s legs or head will stagger them, allowing you to execute a swift melee kick that will knock down surrounding enemies, giving you some precious breathing room. Doors can be kicked open violently, leading to strategies that see you hiding in a room, kicking foes down with the door, and unloading a shotgun into the group before they can get up. Attempting to snipe from the rooftops will see savvy enemies setting up ladders to reach you, but these too can be used against them: wait until two or three are climbing up, and then kick the ladder down.
The original Dead Space was a fine spiritual successor to RE4 in that it took the often-imitated over the shoulder aiming perspective and gave it renewed purpose: much like certain enemies later in RE4, headshots were a liability at best in Dead Space. You had to target the limbs of the horrific Necromorphs, tearing them apart at the seams in order to stop their reanimated bodies from hunting you. It took a sequel to perfect the formula, though, and that brilliant sequel is also the only game since RE4 to understand the power and tension of crowd control in a third-person shooter.
Dead Space 2 achieves this through the addition of some clever new enemy types and weaponry but, above all, it’s the game’s superlative encounter design that makes it such a worthy contender. One new enemy type, the “Pack,” is a horde of small Necromorph-infected children that can overwhelm the player through a combination of sheer numbers and the fact that their small bodies and fast movements make them a tricky target. Challenging on their own, encounters with them really come to life when the game starts layering in multiple other enemy types that demand oftentimes opposing strategies.
“Stalkers” are another brilliant addition to the mix. These raptor-like creatures stick to the shadows and trying to flank you and setup coordinated ambushes. Their terrifying presence is made a little easier by the addition of new weapons like the Detonator, which allows you to launch mines that can stick to the floor and walls, allowing you to set clever traps to kill multiple enemies with as little ammo as possible. Pulling it off is a brilliant rush, and managing the hordes is a feeling only matched by Resident Evil 4.
It’s not perfect, but then nothing is. RE4 builds the idea of crowd control into nearly every last encounter in the game, but it’s not quite so pervasive in Dead Space 2. This is apparent in the environments, which aren’t nearly stuffed so full of possibilities as those in Capcom’s classic. In a clever touch, certain rooms on Titan Station have glass that can be shot out, sucking enemies into the vacuum of space. It’s an interesting risk vs. reward proposition, as you have a limited amount of time to activate an emergency shutoff switch before Isaac is jettisoned out into nothingness alongside them.
In a perfect world, we’d have a Dead Space follow-up that would have doubled down on these clever environmental touches and played up DS2's satisfying and varied crowd-based encounter design. As it stands, Dead Space 2 is an artfully crafted survival horror title that ranks alongside Resident Evil 4 as a true classic. Here’s hoping that more developers look deeper into these games and their richest design elements instead of simply skimming the surface.