Dead Space 2
Three years after the Necromorph outbreak aboard the USG Ishimura, former run-of-the-mill engineer Isaac Clarke is still recovering from the entire ordeal. He’s been committed to a psyche ward on Saturn’s Titan moon, interrogated and experimented on. Haunted by his late girlfriend Nicole, formerly of the Ishimura, Isaac is a hallow shell of his former self, still struggling to make sense of the events. Unfortunately for him, and the people of ‘The Sprawl’, humanity rarely learns from its mistakes, and history has a tendency to repeat itself.
Dead Space 2, like the original before it, is a horror game heavy on action and it wastes no time propelling you immediately into danger. Before you even have a single moment to catch your breath, once control over Isaac is given to you, you’re inundated by Necromorphs from every direction. The catch is you’ve just come to in a psychiatric ward, you’re wearing a straight jacket and you obviously have no weapons. It’s also likely you’ve been drugged. Long story short, you’re in no position to fight and Dead Space 2 sends you running for your life from the very beginning.
Initially stripped of the iconic engineer suit Isaac is known to wear, we finally get to see the man behind the mask; one of Dead Space 1’s major problems was the fact that we never really got to know Isaac. Like Gordon Freeman, Isaac was a mute protagonist that let others do the talking for him, but, unlike Gordon, none of the supporting cast were nearly as emotive as those found in Half-Life, leaving Isaac’s personality especially blank. What made it worse was the reliance of video messaging and single-sided conversations through windows to further the narrative, which kept every character aboard the Ishimura at arm’s length. Dead Space 2 fixes these problems by giving Isaac a voice and employing the sparse use of cut scenes, which is a significant step for a series that wants you in control every step of the way. Both additions strengthen Isaac’s relationship to the world and the characters fighting to survive around him.
The PlayStation 3 version of Dead Space 2 is by default the ‘Limited Edition’, which includes an HD port of the former Wii exclusive, Dead Space: Extraction. Extraction is a light gun style of game with a heavy emphasis on narrative. It supports 2 player local co-op and either PlayStation Move or DualShock 3 input.
Strategic dismemberment returns and is still the name of the game with Dead Space 2. Shooting was arguably the strongest aspect of the original title and the sequel doesn’t mess too heavily with it. There are the requisite new weapons to play with, but it’s the subtle additions to combat that make the game all the more interesting. Cysts, small wall or floor affixed spitting enemies, can be used in a variety of ways to fight other Necromorphs: you could Stasis freeze them and steal a projectile with Telekinesis to use on another enemy, or, lure an oncoming foe into a Cyst’s path, triggering it and killing the enemy for you. Additionally, found objects can still be used to impale, every weapon still has a useful alternate fire and both Stasis and Telekinesis abilities can still be experimented with. Not to beleaguer the point, but Dead Space 2 yields many ways to dispatch its monsters and it often encourages you to carve your own strategy in eviscerating them.
Considering how strong the action side of the game was, it’s no surprise developer Visceral decided to take Dead Space 2 further down that direction. The original required a lot of back tracking and errand running, which are both common traits for survival horror games, while Dead Space 2 requires no story-related backtracking whatsoever – though you may want to return to a store, bench or save station every once in a while. Level design is predominantly of the linear variety in this sequel but the occasional large open space and side rooms provide small opportunities for exploration. Locations in general are a lot more varied than those found in Dead Space 1, as Isaac follows the trail from one side of The Sprawl to another. The Sprawl sort of becomes a character of its own early in the game, evoking the stray feeling of BioShock’s Rapture without equaling it, and stands out favorably compared to the repetitive interiors of the Ishimura. Admittedly both locations served their respective stories in particular ways; the events of Dead Space were personal and claustrophobic, while those in Dead Space 2 are grander and have much larger consequences. Unfortunately a lot of the character Visceral creates within The Sprawl is squandered by the end of the game, as the final third or so reverts back to the dark corridors we’ve all become so intimate with.
The final act of the game – last boss withstanding – is generally the weakest portion of the title. The pacing kicks into overdrive, the story begins to steam roll towards its conclusion and the action really picks up. While all that sounds good, the problem is the difficulty spikes along with it and the length of this full throttle portion of the game is exhausting. Difficulty should certainly rise towards the climax, but it feels like Visceral’s solution was to simply throw as many enemies at the player as possible. By contrast the rest of the campaign throws controlled amounts of Necromorphs your way – just enough to keep you honest, but never so many that you’re completely overwhelmed. It also doesn’t help when they begin to inexplicably respawn for the first time in the entire game and you’re reintroduced to a pesky acquaintance from Dead Space 1.
Despite the balance issues towards the end, it really does get your heart pumping, which is something Dead Space 2 routinely does. There are a handful of huge moments scattered throughout the game that will take your breath away. Several of them are built around the improved Zero-G sections, where Isaac is given the ability to fly in any direction and usually has a puzzle of sorts to solve. One such moment, involving a Solar Array really hammers home how small and insignificant Isaac literally is when compared to the environment around him. It’s also a stunning show piece for the technology Visceral has packed into this game.
Curiously, Dead Space 2 also sports an all-new competitive multiplayer mode – joining Uncharted 2 and BioShock 2 as sequels with unlikely multiplayer. Games are restricted to 4v4 team matches, humans versus Necromorphs, and revolve around various objectives. The humans have to stick together to destroy something, trigger switches or carry an object from point A to point B, while the Necromorphs have to do everything in their power to stop them. Since the Necromorphs have fewer abilities than the humans, and are a hell of a lot easier to kill, they spawn a lot quicker and are supplemented by AI controlled monsters. Given the discrepancy between the two sides it’s easy to write the multiplayer off as unbalanced, but with a little patience and practice the joys of both sides begin to reveal themselves. As a human there’s an undeniable pleasure in Stasis freezing a player-controlled Necromorph, shooting off their legs and then stomping their head to jelly. On the other side, there’s nothing as satisfying as sneaking up in the dark and pouncing on an unsuspecting human to perform an Execution. Every match gives each team a turn at both sides and there is a distinct, exciting play style to both.
Dead Space 2 is a superior sequel in pretty much every way. Just like Dead Space before it, the game isn’t subtle and grabs your attention from the start. The difference is this time it never lets go, and you’re left hurtling through one of the most consistently engaging horror games of the generation. It sadly does falter, thanks to a few balancing issues, but it remains an adrenaline-fueled nightmare no action gamer should pass up.