EA’s inaugural entry into the Dead Space universe, set aboard the mining ship Ishimura, had a fair amount of set-up to get through before the survival horror action kicked in – and was all the better for a moody, perfectly pitched opening. Dead Space 2, a direct sequel in every way, has no such barrier, safe in the assumption that the player knows exactly what’s going on. As it happens, you won’t – in fact, you’ll begin the game running for your life weaponless and lost, familiar but still deadly Necromorphs closing in. It’s a bombastic opening that sets an elevated pace nicely and ensures that right from the opening this isn’t a follow-on that should be taken lightly.
Indeed, whilst Dead Space 2 features the celebrated return of one Isaac Clarke, he’s placed out of sorts, out of his comfort zone. Without his engineer’s suit he’s naked, vulnerable and lost, his location being something of a mystery that slowly unravels throughout the game via a twisting, multilayered plot that keeps the player guessing right up until the end credits. All the while Clarke is hunted by the reanimated dead, their sole single-minded intent that of further infection of both human and steel as The Sprawl, the game’s vividly varied location, gradually falls under their constant attrition.
The atmosphere this time is less System Shock, more Bioshock, as the initial hospital locale makes way for a space station that would, prior to the events in question, have housed a million inhabitants – shopping concourses, schools and residential areas are a given, but there are dark secrets on this floating base, and before you reach the game’s half way point you’ll have seen first hand what appears to be at the heart of the Sprawl’s problems, a disturbing religious movement that plays brilliantly on the psychological aspects without being hammy or forced; and towards the end of the game you’ll learn how this all kicked off – in fine style.
The sequel is nothing if not expansive, and with a much bigger area to explore you never know what’s around the next corner in terms of exposition.
What you will get used to quickly, though, are the jumps. The Necromorphs might be chilling to some, their spasmodic, shambling movement making way for terrifyingly fast pack hunters and swarms of bug-like variants, but the schlocky, cheap scares are prevalent throughout. The first time a screen flickers into life as you pass, or a grate gives way as a creature bursts out is genuinely scary, the type of fright that usually preceeds a nervous laugh and a child-like fumbling for controls, but when it happens with regularity the effect is lessened.
Indeed, after a couple of hours we half expected something to happen each time it did, the precedence well and truly set in stone.
Thankfully, Clarke’s previous encounter has taught him well, his mastery of his kinesis powers re-established swiftly and his stasis powers following soon after. The duo result in an endless ability to pick up and move most objects in the game at will (and, indeed, use as projectile weapons given a quick squeeze of the trigger) and, you’ll remember from the first game, slow down time.
The latter trick requires a lengthy recharge, although it can be used against more than just the enemy as Dead Space 2 moves slickly between survival horror and puzzle game without skipping a beat. Also upgraded is the notion of antigravity movement, no longer confined to defined areas, Clarke can now float about in freedom during key moments in the game.
And whilst weaponry is still forged around the notion that the player’s role is that of an engineer, once again there’s a choice of armaments from the revival of the Plasma Cutter (introduced in a very clever manner) through to old favourites like the Pulse Rifle, and each can be upgraded and tweaked via Benches scattered around The Sprawl by way of power nodes scavenged and bought at the various shops. None of this has changed much from the first Dead Space, and with good reason: the game offers a smart set of choices in terms of your arsenal and encourages diversity, and, for the completist, several run-throughs – it’s not possible to buy and upgrade each gun to its maximum on a single play.
Isaac’s suits can be changed, too, and whilst there’s a knowing nod to the first game when you first don the Engineer’s outfit, further changes can result in tweaks to your stats (your health and maximum inventory capacity the primary but certainly not only variables) and, of course, your physical appearance.
In turn, Clarke is now fully voiced, and has much more of a personality which lends much more gravitas to the emotional attachment you’ll need to grant the game if you’re to get the most out of the plot; which, at least in terms of relativity amongst other videogames, is actually quite complex. It’s fair to say anyone not expecting some plot twists after the first game would be unwise.
It wouldn’t be fair to outline what happens in the game, though, part of the thrill is seeing for yourself what comes next – but with the greater emphasis on human intervention and Clarke’s hallucinations and dementia, players can expect to be left in the dark right until the very end. In some cases, quite literally: Dead Space 2 isn’t afraid to switch off the lights and pile on the suspense, a flickering strobe can cast some horrific silhouettes and the developers use this fact to great effect, the often incredible lighting helps to create not only stunning visuals but also exactly the right sort of atmosphere. Smoke and debris is used for effect and weight, rather than to hide the blemishes, and the improved animation coupled with consistently sharp textures and solid scenery mean the sequel is a great looking game.
But where it really excels is aurally – the soundtrack a scraping, unnerving affair punctuated with curdled screams and background ambience that’s unmatched in the genre. The game genuinely loses much of its creepiness with the volume turned down low – ensure that you’re playing Dead Space 2 with a full surround sound system or, better still, some fancy headphones for maximum effect. Full credit to the game’s composer, Jason Graves – he’s done some amazing work here and it’s easily his most accomplished so far, and that echoes the art direction too, which is remarkably good especially given the considerably larger playing area and remains so throughout the entire story.
Praise, too, for the level design team. Dead Space 2 takes the same core principles that the first game introduced so well – claustrophobia, darkness and the rush of the unknown – but removes the needless backtracking (the few times you revisit an area it’s normally completely different and you certainly don’t need to retrace your steps much at all) and makes full use of the heterogeneous locations the plot has to offer.
Whilst the single player is still essentially a linear experience, it’s one that never really feels like you’re not fully in control and the smart use of minor diversions and alternate routes mean that rushing through the game, which is a few chapters longer than the first, is ill-advised.
Dead Space 2 is a game to savour slowly, to invest in. The controls work perfectly once you’re an hour or so in, the initially clumsy doubling up of the triggers less of an issue once you’re more familiar with their functions, and the wonderful use of Clarke’s suit to portray the game’s otherwise non-existant user interface (everything you need, from health and ammo to menus and communications, is displayed physically on or around the player character) is still at the top of its game.
It’s a slick, progressive title with a wonderfully thick atmosphere and plenty to get your teeth into. It might not be scary in the most traditional sense, but it’s one hell of a ride and – yes – it’s a better game than the first. Liked Dead Space? Get this.
- The atmosphere is superb, and genuinely thick and rich
- Some incredible set-pieces
- Excellent pacing
- The HUD and UI is still groundbreaking
- Production is superb, with zero loading breaks unless you die
- There’s a great cameo…
- The introductory re-cap video feels a little bit last minute
- It’s not really scary in so much that we’ve seen most of the monsters before
- The relentless jumps start to grate, and the spawning behind you is often cheap
- Some checkpoints are a little too spaced out
Dead Space 2, continuing directly after the first game, marks continued effort from Visceral and, likewise, support from EA. New IPs should be applauded when they’re of this kind of calibre – expertly produced, genuinely innovative and, if you’re prepared to do several run-throughs, great value for money. Naturally, those that didn’t really get on with the first Dead Space will find that little (literally) has changed save for the location and a richer sense of characterisation, but for those of us that adored Clarke’s first adventure this sequel represents everything we could have wished for: it’s bigger, better and more beautiful but without straying from the core principles that mapped out the former.
Reviewers notes: Dead Space 2 also contains a supplementary multiplayer version, which we were unable to test. At the time of writing this review, pre-release, we couldn’t manage to arrange an online game and our two-day temporary Live access expired before publication.
In addition, we reviewed this game from the Xbox 360 version, which spans two disks – this isn’t an issue at all, the game is broken into two distinct sections; the PS3 version, which contains Move-enabled Dead Space Extraction, was unavailable for review.