The Nightmare Revisited
It’s the perfect formula for a sequel: give gamers more of the content they’re returning for, ramp up the intensity, and deliver an experience rife with fist-pumping, jaw-dropping moments that leaves players ready to cry uncle for a blessed reprieve, yet physically unable to pull themselves away. This is developer Visceral Games’ deep-space horror title, Dead Space 2.
In Dead Space 2, players once again assume control of Isaac Clarke, the protagonist from the original Dead Space. Three years have passed since the first game’s events, and Isaac finds himself being held on the Sprawl, an immense space station orbiting Saturn’s moon, Titan. Kept alive, but little more than that, Isaac is more a prisoner, confined to an isolated cell in the bowels of the Sprawl’s science labs. He has no recollection of what has transpired since his escape from the horror on Aegis VII and the USG Ishimura, and is now not much more than a subject kept for scientific study. The Sprawl’s science staff know that Isaac’s mind holds the key to the occurrences on the Ishimura, and ultimately to the Marker, which was the cause of all the calamity in the first place.
Here We Go Again
Immediately – and by this I mean literally within the first ten seconds of actual gameplay – Dead Space 2 makes it clear that it will pull no punches with its intensity, and sends any yellow-bellied wannabes packing! Isaac is unceremoniously dumped in the player’s lap, tied up in a straight jacket, disoriented and unarmed, having just been recalled to consciousness in his tiny cell. Before your very eyes, your would-be rescuer Franco (familiar to players of Dead Space Ignition as its main protagonist) is attacked by an Infector and turned into a hellish abomination. It is up to the player to take flight away from certain death, and maneuver a defenseless Isaac through a veritable gauntlet of Necromorphs attacking from every which way as the nightmare repeats itself with a new outbreak. This sets the tone for the game, as things can – and often will – go from bad to worse without warning. Safety is a rare commodity during your stay on the Sprawl, and players will quickly learn to relish the few moments of respite afforded to them.
But this is a horror game, not an action game. When you’re not sweating and twitching from the bombardment of coordinated Necromorph assaults, you will find your nerves teased and stretched to the breaking point by the quite disturbing environments you traverse. Your surroundings stand as a true testament to Visceral Games’ ability to know how to truly unnerve and put on edge a captive gaming audience, accomplished at times through the use of unexpected explosions of harsh sounds punctuating the eerily deafening silences, at other times by the interplay of shadows and flickering light in such a way that the player is often offered only a mere glimpse of a fast-approaching attacker. This lighting design is not, however, used to cheapen the experience and provide easy hiding places for adversaries to jump out from. Rather, the feel of the Sprawl itself has been enhanced by the developers realistically providing an abundance of darkened spaces, unlit corners, or malfunctioning light sources. The player will spend the entirety of the game anxiously straining his eyes to make out the slightest malign movement up ahead, and casting a panicked, shaking flashlight beam about, hoping to find nothing…but often knowing better. The thrill this brings to the gameplay experience is immense, and shows just how expertly we can be scared more by what we don’t see than what we do.
It’s the Little Things That Go a Long Way
One should not make the mistake of assuming Isaac travels through a pitch-black vacuum; there is plenty to see and marvel at, if one has the stomach for it! In regards to blood and gore, Dead Space 2 is an adult-oriented game through and through. Scores of mutilated corpses (and some still more alive than you’d think!) litter the Sprawl, and messages recently scrawled in blood can be found on walls all over. Adding to the disturbing sense of realism are the remnants of ordinary lives interrupted by the catastrophe: unfiled paperwork left on workstations, monitors that have been suddenly abandoned and still display what somebody was just working on, a child’s bedside night-light still lit and casting over-sized shadows around her bedroom. These all show the swift, undiscriminating and lethal wave of this new Necromorph epidemic. One of the most unsettling areas Isaac will have to make his way through is the Sprawl’s recently abandoned elementary school; players will appreciate the effective way in which the environment design enhances the feeling of anxiety when they discover the school’s gymnasium, the bleachers and stage still set up for the upcoming school play.
The amount of detail also extends to the character models. It is perversely intriguing to see the horribly twisted and mutated Necromorphs up close, and bodily fluids are accounted for by the bucketfuls! Vomit, bile, blood, acid, and other assorted substances make frequent appearances. It is also a joy to watch each enemy’s unique animation as it kills you; the abhorrent and disgusting ways that the designers have come up with for Isaac to get maimed and mutilated are as entertaining as they are revolting. A particularly memorable death scene has Isaac being embraced by an aptly named Puker, who proceeds to vomit a corrosive acid-like substance down Isaac’s throat. Isaac lives out his last few seconds in agony, doubled over and himself puking out his liquified innards. While not for the faint of heart, each gruesome death bears experiencing at least once.
The sound design holds its own and delivers more nail-biting suspense. Sudden spikes in the ambient soundtrack are a great asset to the devilish unease prevalent everywhere on the Sprawl, and the soundtrack likewise delivers. Quiet background music crescendos whenever Isaac’s immediate surroundings become more perilous, and the game’s spoken dialog is delivered well. An added element of gameplay this time around is Isaac’s inner struggle to cope with the death of his girlfriend Nicole, and his guilt for the fact that he couldn’t do anything to help save her in the original Dead Space. The voice actors convey his conflict nicely, and it is interesting to see and hear Isaac react to a human emotion beyond the basic struggle for survival from time to time.
Dead Space offered Isaac a wide variety of weapons to dispatch his foes, and Dead Space 2 adds fuel to the fire. Many favorites have been reincarnated, such as the Ripper, Flamethrower, and Line Gun. Joining the lineup are a number of new additions, one being the Javelin Gun, which lets you shoot a high-velocity spear into an oncoming enemy, picking him up along its trajectory and impaling him in a wall, or better yet in a pressure window, piercing the room’s vacuum and jettisoning him and any other Necromorphs into space. Stasis powers and suit upgrades also make comebacks, and just seeing Isaac don the familiar engineering rig truly feels like a bad-ass hero moment! Combat and movement controls are handled very well; Isaac has the ability to walk or sprint, and each weapon still has a secondary firing mode to dole out more punishment to baddies. Enemy types require a bit more strategy, so using each weapon to its fullest capability is a must. Combat flows smoothly and aiming is spot-on – a necessity for accurate enemy dismemberment. Taking Necromorphs apart limb by limb is still a key mechanic, and vital for survival. The over-the-shoulder camera provides a wide field of vision to keep the player abreast of oncoming enemies. Unfortunately the camera angle does make it quite difficult to fight effectively at melee range; once a smaller enemy, like the Pack, has closed the distance to about a foot or two away from Isaac, it will enter a sort of blind spot in which it becomes harder to hit with a ranged weapon. At this juncture it becomes more effective to just madly wail on the stomp button and turn your foe into so much Necro-mashed potatoes.
The quest Isaac is forced to embark on is a fairly lengthy one, and filled with high-adrenaline cinematic moments, with several (usually predictable) plot twists and turns along the way. The developers realized that gamers are used to continuous changes of plans from the original Dead Space, as Isaac himself sometimes quips on these situations. One early action sequence has Isaacboarding a train to a new destination. Of course, all does not go well, and the train is derailed. Isaac bounces and careens down the length of the train’s interior, sliding past Necromorphs left and right as the train tumbles vertically. The frantic action culminates with Isaac fighting off waves of enemies swarming from every direction while hanging suspended, tangled upside-down in electrical cables. Barely escaping the train crashing down on top of him and being flung across the room like a rag doll by the blast of its explosion, Isaac shows his sardonic side as he drily sums up the whole incident as an “unscheduled stop”. Another highlight of the game, for many players, is sure to be a revisit to the USG Ishimura during the latter half of the game. Players will get to see some new sights aboard the derelict space vessel, as well as revisit some places that will bring back some especially unpleasant memories…
Take the Good With the Bad
The game’s pacing as a whole has been much improved, and flows much smoother than its predecessor’s. No longer is a central area needed as a sort of hub from which to embark to new areas of the ship and back again, which led to a kind of circular gameplay feel in the previous game. Isaac’s goal lies somewhere far ahead of him, and he tries to take the most direct route whenever possible. Backtracking, a major issue in the first Dead Space, is virtually non-existent this time around; Isaac continuously moves toward his goal. No area is revisited, so the game doesn’t feel artificially lengthened through use of the “Go back to that place where a new door has become unlocked” tactic. Upon completing the game, players are also offered a “New Game Plus” mode, adding some replay value by allowing the player to begin a whole new playthrough while keeping all their upgraded weapons and equipment from the first playthrough.
My biggest gripe is with the brand-new multiplayer mode. This is probably the most important new addition to the game, as Dead Space had no online multiplayer. Sadly, there is very little draw to stick to the multiplayer after checking it out for a few rounds. Players take on the role of either a human or one of four distinct Necromorph types, and battle it out against the opposing faction in a four-on-four deathmatch-type game. However, the Necromorphs simply seem too unwieldy. Each one has a trademark attack specific to their type; however, many of the attacks are too clumsy to execute. There is little reason to use much in the way of tactics; it quickly becomes more economical to pick the first available character and simply wail away at your opponent. The multiplayer maps seem somewhat uninspired and too dark to navigate well; in addition, the game shipped with only small handful of maps. The spaces are tight and cramped, making ambushing unnecessary. On the whole, the multiplayer experience seems truncated and over-simplified, and can in no way be held up to the high quality of the single-player campaign.
The Final Verdict
Overall, Dead Space 2 is well worth the price of admission. It takes the formula of the original Dead Space and makes improvements across the board. Combat remains smooth and the weapon mechanics work splendidly, if a little difficult in close quarters. The game’s sound, lighting and graphics all combine to craft an immensely nerve-racking experience. Sadly, the game’s multiplayer fails to deliver on its promise to give players a reason to come back to the game, but the single-player mode offers its own replayability. With moments that will keep players literally trembling from tension well after they’re over – like Isaac’s first encounter with the Stalkers – and boss battles on an epic scale that will have the player jumping up and pumping their fists – Isaac’s battle with the Tormenter that takes you up and down through the station, and finally outside its walls into space – there’s lots to love about this entry. Even a stunted multiplayer experience can’t keep Dead Space 2 from gaining instant classic status, and leaving players hungry and eager for more!