When it comes to survival horror games, the franchise that has long worn the crown is Resident Evil. There have been many strong contenders over the years, but few have been able to maintain the level of quality needed to generate excitement for what is something of a niche market. It also hurts that for every good survival horror title, there have been some bad ones. Really awful games that tried the patience of even the biggest fan. So to stand out in that genre, you really need to come out with something memorable and well made. And for the second time since 2008, EA and Visceral Games have done just that.
Despite a few reservations (mainly to do with the reliance on backtracking-style missions), I loved the first Dead Space. The sci-fi setting was a nice twist to the survival horror genre and it presented moments of truly crushing solitude as you fought your way through a location that was isolated in deep space, as well as moments of jaw dropping awe. The first time you see the shattered moon Aegis VII through the mangled hull of the USG Ishimura still stands out among the cooler moments in video gamedom, and that was just one of several memorable scenes.
Dead Space 2 takes what works from the original game and does not attempt to reinvent it, rather it simply adds to it — sometimes to a fault. If the style of the original game was not for you, then the sequel won’t be either. Almost nothing has changed between the two games in terms of gameplay. There are a few minor tweaks, and the character movements are a bit less stiff than before, but the mechanics remain the same. The game delivers an incredible atmosphere and the pacing is designed so well that the lack of new tricks isn’t a major deal, but it is surprising. Ultimately it doesn’t matter though because the game is good enough that you overlook the minor stuff.
The campaign for Dead Space 2 plays out like a movie, forcing you through a sick and twisted world down a very linear story and path. The pacing is handled with a cinematic feel in mind, and you can tell that a great deal of care was put into the flow of the game. Often you will be alone, walking through deserted hallways when suddenly the world goes insane and you are forced to fight off waves of enemies that want to do terrible things to you. Then just as suddenly as it began, you will find yourself alone again, only this time far more paranoid. Dead Space 2 offers a few legitimate scares, and more than once you will find yourself on edge while nervously looking for supplies.
Of every survival horror title made, Dead Space 2 is among the very best at balancing the supplies versus the action, constantly keeping you nervous about your health and ammo. Several times you will leave a fight injured and with no ammo, but proud to have survived. That is due to the work of Visceral Games, and they deserve recognition for it.
As far as the negatives, there are only a handful of new weapons which is a shame, and there are sections that become repetitive. A few times you will feel like you have fallen into a pattern which robs the game of much of the thrill of the next attack or scare, but in general the game moves at a solid pace. There are a few things that prevent Dead Space 2 from receiving perfect marks, but it is still one of the best survival horror games around, and it sets a new high water mark for the genre.
Meet Isaac Clarke, the unluckiest guy alive
It’s a good thing that the series’ protagonist Isaac Clarke is an engineer, as rarely have so many things broken and needed to be fixed in worse situations. The series in total can best be described by this simple formula: Isaac has a plan, the plan falls apart, Isaac needs to fix things to make the plan work. And repeat. Dead Space 2 does a better job of making this feel like a natural part of the story telling process than its predecessor did, but what essentially amount to fetch and carry quests are still a major part of Dead Space 2.
The game begins with Isaac suffering the effects of his run-in with the Marker, which has left him with a mild case of insanity. During a moment of lucidity, he is freed from the psychiatric ward where he has spent the last three years as a resident, and Isaac soon realizes that he is once again trapped in the nightmare he thought he escaped. One of the more compelling aspects of the game is Isaac’s battle with his own sanity. The events of the first game traumatized him badly. He was not a soldier, he was an engineer who was looking for the woman he loved when he was confronted with the Necromorph horror. That doesn’t go away easily, and it becomes part of who Isaac is.
But rather than the desire to escape that was key to the original game, in Dead Space 2 Isaac decides to take a stand. He sees a solution, and to accomplish it, he is willing to put aside his demons and do what he must.
For the most part, the story is something going on in the background while you try to survive in an incredibly oppressive and creepy atmosphere. There are plenty of twists and turns that culminate to a satisfying ending, but the majority of the game involves Isaac needing to go from place A to B, but having to divert to place C in order to fix the elevator, or the computer, or the engines, etc. etc. The story of the Marker, the Unitology Church, and the cover-up surrounding Isaac are all interesting, but they are all a minor driving force compared to Isaac’s magnetic pull towards all things involving Murphy’s Law.
One of the major improvements of Dead Space 2 over its predecessor is the lack of backtracking, which helps to hide the repetitive nature of the missions through better pacing. While you still need to go find the odd power source, or realign the flux capacitors, or whatever, you won’t find yourself running down a familiar hallway to flip a switch, then head back to flip another switch to open the door you passed at the start of the level. Dead Space 2 follows a linear path, but you constantly progress without going over the same territory.
Dead Space 2 is like playing a 12 hour long movie. It’s designed from start to finish to be told as one continuous narrative, and it does it well. The story is a secondary concern to the setting, and the atmosphere created is impressive.
A cast of dozens! Well, two or three maybe
Another new addition to the sequel is that of Isaac himself. In the original game, any dialogue was from people talking to Isaac, but the man himself was taciturn to the point of being mute. It was likely a choice to add to the sense of isolation, but the character has become slightly iconic and earned himself a personality.
In this go-round, Isaac finds his voice and becomes a fully realized character. The problem with adding a voice to a previously voiceless character is that they are competing with the gamer’s imagination. The actor playing Isaac is fine, but a bit underwhelming for my tastes.
There are a handful of other voice actors in the game as well, and they all do decent jobs, yet none of them shine. I admit, this is nitpicking, but none of the characters have the personality they could. For example, one of the supporting characters is brutally attacked and is injured in a way that is permanent, yet that character’s emotional response is equivalent to Monty Python’s Black Knight saying “tis but a scratch”.
It isn’t like the voice acting is bad. It isn’t Resident Evil “Jill, here’s a lockpick—it might be handy if you, the master of unlocking take it with you” bad, but it is flat at times. Otherwise the sound is exceptional, and Dead Space 2 seriously benefits from being played in surround sound. The occasional rattling behind you or the odd alarm clock help add to the atmosphere, and the few moments of silence will have the hairs on the back of your neck standing up.
Welcome to the Sprawl
The real star of Dead Space 2 is the Sprawl, an orbiting space station built on what used to be Saturn’s moon Titan, before the planet mining became so intensive that only a sliver of rock is left as the city’s foundation.
In the original game, the Ishimura was an isolated and claustrophobic environment that, despite its size, was still a very confined area. Because of it, the tone was all about survival. You wanted to escape, and the Ishimura was a trap that felt like a tomb. On the other hand, the Sprawl is a civilization that you are watching die. It is as much tragedy as horror. The size of the city often counteracts the desolation inherent in the first game, and in many ways, the tone may be closer to BioShock than to the original Dead Space--with the exception of the massive amounts of gore that are everywhere.
Dead Space 2 is designed with a cinematic flair, and the Sprawl is impressive to say the least. There are even certain areas which allow you to use the Sprawl to your advantage…sort of. For example, in some areas the windows can be broken, which will suck the Necromorphs into space, but it will also drag you out unless you can shut the emergency shutter release quickly enough. You also spend a bit of time outside, where you will often find yourself in a zero-G fight where using the station’s oxygen and barriers will be key to surviving. These moments are well choreographed, and Visceral Games sets each of them up so you won’t just run into them randomly, they will always signify a justifiably epic Hollywood-style fight in the making.
The look of Dead Space 2
The original Dead Space looked amazing, both graphically and in terms of art design. The sequel takes up that mantle, and does not fail to deliver. The graphics are as good as any game, but the look and the detail of the Sprawl are so incredible that it will take multiple play-throughs to catch everything.
But while the look of the game is amazing, it does slightly lack the same wow factor that the original offered. That may be simply because we have seen the Dead Space universe before, and nothing has really changed. Call me spoiled, but when you’ve seen one futuristic setting backdropped against a planet, you’ve seen them all. There are still a few events in Dead Space 2 that will stick in people’s memories, but not as many as the original.
There are also the consequences of doing away with the distinct sections that broke up the Ishimura. Areas like the Bridge or the Botanical Gardens each had their own look and feel. In Dead Space 2, there are distinct areas you travel through, but they all blur together (with some exceptions), and there are no breaks in the game to signify a change in area. This becomes more of an issue later in the game when the nature of the missions can become repetitive, and to complete one major goal, you need to do several minor ones. It slows the game down a bit and can detract from the otherwise strong pacing of the game.
If you enjoyed the gameplay of Dead Space, you will enjoy Dead Space 2. There are a few new additions, but for the most part, the two games play identically—and that is good and bad.
As with the former game, to kill the Necromorphs you need to cut their limbs off, and the weapons to accomplish that are identical to the previous game. There are just three new weapons in your arsenal, and while they are fun enough, none of them really stand out. The armors are also slightly neglected, and there are only four suits throughout (although you can probably expect more via online purchases, possibly weapons too).
The telekineses has been improved and will frequently make the difference between you living and dying, especially early on. It is nice to see the additional emphasis on both it and the stasis, but neither are new, and neither will radically change the way you play.
For a sequel of this magnitude, it is a shame that there wasn’t a heavier emphasis on adding new weapons and armors. It seems like a given that any sequel coming out these days will offer new weapons and accessories—it’s just the right thing to do. On paper it shouldn’t matter, but it does, and it is an odd, albeit minor omission from the Dead Space sequel.
The camera is also the same as before, and as with the first game, it can get finicky. In certain tight corners, you can be getting hit by an enemy to your side and never see it. It happens often. Also making its return is the inability to turn quickly. For as versatile a person as Isaac is, he sucks at turning around. This causes more than a little frustration at times. In general, Isaac moves a bit easier than in previous games, which is good, but there will still be moments when he feels stiff.
Balancing Your Fear
Despite a few minor issues, and despite the lack of anything new, the gameplay is fun enough that you will grumble occasionally then forget all about it after you hold off hordes of enemies and drop the last attacking Necromorph with your final round of ammo. And that is the real genius of Dead Space 2—the balance.
However they did it, whether through massive testing or just sheer luck, Visceral Games did an incredible job of balancing the game so you will almost always be able to progress, but just barely. There is enough ammo to kill your enemies, but you will have to be smart about inventory management, and you might go stretches where you don’t see a health pack for just long enough that you change your style of play into a more defensive posture.
If it had happened once, I would call it a lucky break, but it happens constantly and it seriously adds to the tone of the game in a way that is truly brilliant. Beyond the look, setting and atmosphere of the title, Visceral Games delivered exactly the game they wanted. Even if you hate everything about Dead Space 2, you have to admire the quality craftsmanship that went into it.
There is also a fairly high replay value thanks to the scarcity of supplies. When you begin a new game after having beaten it, you can carry over all your weapons and armor, which allows you to level up the weapons you may not have had the opportunity to power up. Even though there aren’t many weapons to choose from, the ammo is scarce enough that you will end up just focusing on a few. There are also five levels of difficulty to try out, including “hardcore”, which is just plain mean. Enemies are tougher, supplies are scarcer and best of all, when you die you start at your last save point—but you only have three save points to use. The entire game.
Oh, almost forgot to mention, there is a multiplayer component, because games these days are apparently legally required to have some multiplayer aspect to them.
The multiplayer side is team based, with up to eight people online playing as either a human or a Necromorph character. As a human, you and the other humans play just like Isaac, and you have mission objectives to accomplish that will require the cooperation of your teammates. On the other side, the Necromorphs are there to kill. They are weaker than the humans, but they have the advantage of being able to swarm enemies without having to accomplish objectives.
The teamwork element is crucial, and when it works, it’s fun. Unfortunately for those that play online games enough, you know that joining teams is not the natural state of most online gamers, and finding a group that is willing to work together can be tricky. Even when you do, there is usually “that guy” that is born to annoy you. If you have never met this type of person, then you are that type of person.
In play it is similar to the Left 4 Dead multiplayer, although with smaller maps and shorter games. It is an interesting experiment to force cooperative play against competitive players. After playing through each map as either species, I was fairly bored, but that is a personal preference. Some will gravitate to it, while others will play it once and forget it.
Regardless, the multiplayer is an addition to the game, not a substitute for something that was removed. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it is well made. The single player campaign is just as long–maybe even longer than the original–so the addition of multiplayer is pure bonus on top of an already good value.
Dead Space 2 is a sequel in the vein of a Hollywood movie sequel. Rather than reinventing the formula that worked so well with the 2008 original, Visceral Games and EA offered more of the same–just bigger, louder, scarier, and the stakes are higher, just like a Hollywood movie sequel would, and it works.
Despite a few issues, Dead Space 2 is an excellent game. The Resident Evil games are still going strong, but the Dead Space franchise has something new to offer, and it does it with such skill that the series can lay claim to being the preeminent survival horror franchise on the market.
There are a few slow parts, and the “go and fix it” missions get slightly tedious. The sequel does not significantly add much to the gameplay of the first, and the weapons are the same with only a few additions, plus the armors are limited. These gripes are easy enough to overlook though. The faults do mark the score down a few points because of it, but if you loved the first game, the second will only build on that feeling.
Dead Space 2 has set the bar high for 2011, and with the sequel, the franchise has made its case as the best survival horror series on the market.
Score: 8.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by EA)