The original Dead Space was a pants-ruining tribute to everything great about sci-fi horror. It borrowed heavily from many sources while never feeling like a rip-off. Lauded for its graphics, sound design and “Strategic dismemberment” gameplay it was a surprise attack from the waning survival horror genre.
A tough act to follow, but there can be no doubt about it, Visceral games have delivered: Dead Space 2 offers more scares, more thrills and just more of everything that went right with its predecessor.
Isaac awakens on The Sprawl, a mining station that grew into a thriving city on Saturn’s largest moon Titan, the moon itself almost mined out of existence, so that The Sprawl appears to dangle from a small outcrop of floating rock.
It’s been three years since Isaac left the horrors of the USG Ishimura and dropped a continent on the alien artifact known as The Marker. In a straitjacket and with no memory of the past three years, Isaac awakes to a station in panic, and must literally run for his life in the game’s opening moments. His old pals the necromorphs are rampaging through the sprawl and it looks like Isaac is about to have another extremely bad day at the office.
The main story is standard fare, without spoiling anything; you could probably guess that Isaac sets off to stop whatever is causing this latest infestation, with the help/hindrance of a handful of side characters.
The only problem here, is that this amounts to little more than “lets meet up” for about the first half of the game. There feels like there isn’t any major direction beyond: “ok I need to destroy this thing, so I guess I’ll walk in this direction for 10 hours until I get there”. Dead Space 1’s simple plot felt much more urgent in the early stages, and much more hopeless, all you were trying to do was survive long enough to make it out.
Good thing that the other aspects of the story hold up so well, the world they’ve crafted here is truly believable and a joy or immerse yourself in. In case you don’t know, a whole dead space universe has sprung up around this tale since its inception two years ago; two animated movies, a comic, an interactive comic and an on-rails shooter later, it shows.
The sub-plot involving Isaac’s dementia serves as the most engaging aspect of this tale, and is also a catalyst for one of the game’s biggest changes from the originals formula: Isaac talks, a lot (more on that later). This dementia takes the form of Isaacs deceased girlfriend Nicole, who shows up every now and again to creep you out and make you question your sanity.
It’s not as creepy as it could be, most of the time it’s actually welcome sight as you know that there will probably be no ambushes or surprise attacks for the next couple of minutes, but towards the end this relationship between protagonist and hallucination (ghost?, dead ex?) develops in a believable way that really helps make Isaac a more memorable character this time around.
Gameplay takes place from an over the shoulder third-person perspective. You carefully manage inventory space, health packs and ammo to survive. Items and weapons are purchased from automated kiosks, while upgrades to your suit (known as a R.I.G), weapons and abilities are installed on a workbench provided you have enough “Power Nodes” to fill in the requisite slots for each upgrade.
These nodes are rare finds, and expensive to purchase, meaning there is no way you can upgrade everything on one play through, you’ll need to compromise one thing in favor of something else, and the choice of what to upgrade will inevitably lead to a good deal of thought about out what load-out best accommodates your play style.
I often found myself torn between two upgrades I could barely afford. Returning are the Telekinesis and Stasis abilities: TK allows you to pick up objects that are out of reach or at the other end of a room swarming with nasties, it also serves as a useful way to conserve ammo; sharp or explosive objects can be launched at enemies, including their own limbs. Slicing a necromorph’s arm off and then impaling them to a wall with it is eternally satisfying and fun for all the family.
The stasis ability allows you to freeze enemies in place for a brief moment in time, useful for enemies that charge at you or when you’re being overwhelmed, it’s essential in dealing with some late-game enemies.
You use a variety of tools (some familiar, some new) to dismember, burn, impale, shock, push, explode and of course shoot your enemies. The Plasma Cutter is back and is still both your first weapon and one of the best in the game; though don’t expect to rely on it as heavily this time. Each weapon has a unique alternate firing mode and knowing the right tool for each situation is key, a spear-guns alternate fire is an electro shock, and trip mines can be set up(or disarmed and used again) for a new type of enemy that flanks you.
Ammunition felt far less scarce on The Sprawl than on the Ishimura, though spread across all weapons so you’re forced to vary your tactics. Same goes for credits, which can often (and strangely) be produced by stomping on or otherwise disturbing recently slaughtered enemies.
Worth mentioning that there were complaints from many about a sluggish mouse in Dead Space 1 PC but this is certainly not apparent here. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever played a third-person shooter on the PC that was this comfortable. Perhaps some of that is due to the fact that Isaac feels much faster in general this time around; aiming feels much more responsive, you can reload while sprinting and even sprint backwards or sideways meaning Isaac is formidably agile in combat.
With all these toys and abilities, Isaac may seem overpowered, but the truth is that the enemy design can be so insidious and menacing that you’ll want all the help you can get to exterminate them on sight. As far as I can recall, all of the necromorphs from Dead Space have returned in one form or another, barring the bosses. There are some new horrors along for the ride, including packs of screaming childlike beings that swarm you in groups, and a particularly creepy addition that prefers to charge you at a blind spot if you don’t heed the telltale sign of it peeking around a corner at you.
Zero-gravity and vacuum sections have returned, and outer-space segments are both more numerous and more involved. Someone had the forethought to install thrusters as standard on all R.I.G.s since the Ishimura’s trip to Aegis VII. No longer do you simply launch yourself from one surface to the opposite surface to get around in zero-g; you can now fully turn and fly in any direction you please.
Oxygen can be replenished at special stations that recharge quickly, this is in stark contrast to the previous outing where oxygen stations did not recharge and every last breath counted –rushing to the airlock with only a couple of seconds on the clock was a common occurrence, in fact I didn’t even upgrade the oxygen time on my R.I.G. in DS2 -feeling perfectly comfortable with the default amount for any situation.
Some people say that you can finish this game in 7 hours, I’m sure you can but I see no reason not to take your time. I played this game in the late hours with the lights off and the sound blasting – it took me over 12 hours.The adventure felt much longer this time.
There is a multiplayer component in this outing; teams of four humans are pitted against 4 much weaker necromorphs who have the ability to choose where to respawn. It’s objective based, with the necros trying to thwart the humans from completing the objectives (which basically involve standing by an objective long enough to fill a bar without dying). There is some basic leveling up here, and the different necro types are cool in theory.
What little I saw of it was chaotic and will probably enjoy fleeting online success, but time will tell.
One of the main reasons to take your time with the campaign is that it’s such a rich audiovisual experience. As engrossing and immersive as the visuals were in the original, everything seems to have been stepped up here.
Textures feel more detailed, lighting is fantastic throughout, character models – particularly Isaac’s are expressive and finely detailed. As before there is no HUD, all information is displayed via in game holographic projections from weapons, R.I.G.s and environmental objects. The enemies look great too, though you won’t have time to notice and taking a minute to check them out is not advised.
I wonder if the engine is optimized for quad-cores or something, as the game ran like butter for me with everything on and at my max resolution (1600X900, 4GB RAM, 1GB Video card), again Visceral have crafted a game that is entertaining even just to watch, this is a game to impress non-gamers with.
The first chapters feel more claustrophobic this time, there are no grand vistas to set the scene at the start, you just wake up and hell is already upon you. What glimpses you do get of the greater station are limited to typical cityscapes you might see anywhere, albeit in outer space.
Eventually this opens up and there are some great things to gawk at, the environments themselves do change a good bit, but it still amounts to a linear trek down a series of dark, tight corridors most of the time. This isn’t as bad as it sounds, the level design is good, and each area has a mindboggling array of random flotsam that much have taken an age to design and model , only to be passed by with hardly a second glance.
There is little actual backtracking, you visit one or two areas a couple of times but you end up there by always following the straight path, not to look for a key or something like that. Diversions usually lead to loot and monsters. It may be linear, but it’s an enthralling trip.
As amazing as this game looks, it’s the sound design that steals the show when it comes to scares, ambient noise fills every room with a sense of dread, distant screaming as the catastrophe unfolds across the station and the mumbling of terrified civilians behind locked doors.
That old survival horror trope –the screaming/laughing baby- returns here and is used to great effect, the fact that this and other noises sometimes can come from necromorphs means you can’t just ignore them as background noise. There isn’t much actual music per se, but the hum of machinery or the clatter of a distant battle gives each area its own distinctive flavor.
The sound design is especially noticeable during space or other vacuum sections, where almost nothing can be heard at all and every noise shrinks away in almost deafening contrast. Only the noises from your suit and anything you directly contact are in evidence here, these moments are punctuated with an occasional thrum of a deep cello, which gives these timed sequences some extra gravitas.
The final aspect of the sound design is the voice acting, which hits the nail on the head in this case, Isaac talks for the first time and it’s not at all jarring, awkward or ham-fisted, most game voice acting is a combination of those three. He doesn’t speak much but has a lot to say on a small number of occasions and the lines are delivered well and often just what you might say yourself in those situations. Other actors follow suit, it’s rare that good voice talent is combined with good dialogue in an action game, but here it is.
Closing comments and Replay Value
Terrifying, exhilarating and addictive. By the time you finish Dead Space 2 you’ll be both relieved that it’s finished yet eager for another play through, the last couple of chapters really never let up in their intensity, so be prepared to bring your game face if you intend to play on harder difficulties.
Multiple plays will reveal different rewards in the form advanced new RIGs and the possibility of upgrading everything via New Game+ options. But really the experience is so well polished that it would be worth multiple plays without any of that, it’s just icing on the cake.
I didn’t go into the multiplayer in detail as I honestly didn’t give it much time and don’t find it as interesting as other games, but I’m glad they didn’t go with co-op as that ruined the fear factor of Resident Evil 5. It’s not exactly throw-away, but it’s not a comprehensive multiplayer package either. It’s nice to have it though, this game just didn’t even need it, again it’s just bonus.
This game ultimately one ups the original in every conceivable way other than the wow factor of a great new IP.
Dead Space 2 is the current state of survival horror, immersive, beautiful and panic inducing.
You need to buy this game.