Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available on PS3 and PC
Apart from being the first game in the series, the original Dead Space was the first game I reviewed for MyGaming; it’s fitting then that both the franchise and I are back to deal with more pesky aliens, more action, and (somewhat) more pants-wetting than ever before.
Protagonist Isaac Clarke is also back, but like Sigourney Weaver in the Alien films he’s become fed up with all this face-eating space mutant nonsense and has decided to be far less of a girl’s blouse on his second outing on an alien-infested ship. Unfortunately though the horrific events from his stint on the Ishimura have left him a tad unhinged, plagued by dark visions and even darker hallucinations.
This is bad news for poor Isaac but good news for us gamers, as the inner torment of our hero becomes not only the foundation for the scares we paid good money for but also a story far more interesting than the bland ‘destroy the evil artefact’ yarn that loosely holds the game’s plot together.
This is all a bit of a double-edged plasma cutter though: while Isaac’s emotional turbulence is quite disturbing and yet remarkably enthralling, the rest of the frights in Dead Space 2 have become a little too much like a carnival’s House of Horrors. Necromorphs (the alien scum that you’re trying to exterminate) felt cunning and passive-aggressively terrifying in the first game and their arrival on screen was practically bowel-loosening; this time around though a lot of the terror feels watered down thanks to predictable pop-up entrances where you most expect them. (Seriously, Visceral Games, if you’re going to make a Necromorph wait until the lights go out before pushing it through the suspect-looking air vent right behind the player you might as well give the poor creature a top hat and cane and shove him onto a stage to the tune of ‘New York, New York’.)
This somewhat tamer horror isn’t a deal-breaker though, and fear not (drum roll), you will indeed be on the wrong side of scared a lot of the time, but it’s a real shame that some of the focus of making the enemies feel scarily smart has been lost. There are some jarring set pieces to really get your hands shaking and bladder churning, but overall the routine enemy encounters made me feel slightly less inclined to play with the lights on this time around.
Gameplay is the traditional Dead Space fare with dismemberment still being the preferred method of dispatching foes, and most of the other mechanics have returned too: upgrading suits and weapons via benches, keeping tabs on health and ammo via the non-existent HUD, using stasis to slow down opponents, using kinesis to fling stuff, and bouncing around a few (upgraded) zero-gravity sections.
Combat itself is smoother and more action-packed with Isaac feeling surprisingly lighter in his monstrous engineering suit, a necessary improvement considering the increased number of enemies you’ll be forced to fight at any one given time. Beefing up Isaac’s arsenal are cool new toys like the savage Javelin gun that impales enemies before optionally electrifying them, and a kickass sniper rifle called the Seeker. Old favourites like the Line Gun and Ripper make a welcome return, and I’m chuffed overall that Visceral Games kept true to the whole ‘mining feel’ of all the guns rather than giving us the traditional pistol/shotgun/machinegun selection.
Weapon upgrades feel more rounded too with upgrade paths forcing players to make use of more balanced gun improvements. This means that you’re better off slowly upgrading each firearm in your arsenal equally to get maximum death-dealing potential, a slightly different tactic to Dead Space where the whole game could be finished with just one or two maxed weapons. This also leads to a wider variety of combat options, making the actual killing part of the gameplay (i.e. most of the game) a lot more fun.
On the technical side Dead Space 2 impresses with quality visuals in a much greater variety of environments than before. Graphics are sharp, textures are detailed, and a lot of love has been put into art directing even the smallest scenes; meticulously designed asylums and empty space littered with thousands of bits of debris spring to mind. The scale of the whole experience feels grander too, and although this does take away from some of the intimacy of the first game, it seems justified: we couldn’t exactly have a sequel that’s smaller, right?
Particularly excellent is the sound design, and if you’ve been looking for an excuse to fork out for a decent gaming home theatre setup, this is it. The sounds of shuffling Necromorphs are unsettling, the music score is superb and works brilliantly with the different environments, and Isaac’s voice work is rather good for someone we previously thought was mute.
There’s a great amount of longevity too as New Game Plus means you can haul all your goodies over into another round of mayhem once you’ve clocked the game the first time. The difficulty levels offer a satisfying level of challenge as well, and I’ve always found a harder difficulty really intensifies the survival-horror vibe, but be warned that Hardcore mode lives up to its title: no checkpoints and only three saves allowed for the entire game mean you’ll find a whole new slew of ways to soil yourself.
As if this wasn’t enough the Collector’s Edition offers some cool extras in the form of a soundtrack disc, a lithograph of a Necromorph transformation (sadly only postcard size and printed on heavy paper instead of aluminium or something equally rad), a sweet shiny box, a bonus suit and gun, and most importantly the full game of Dead Space: Extraction featuring Move support. As confirmed earlier local PS3 gamers sadly don’t get the Plasma Cutter replica in our version this side of the pond but the rest of the cool stuff more than makes up for it.
Overall, despite veering slightly away from some of the things that made the first Dead Space so brilliant for me, Dead Space 2 is a thoroughly entertaining survival-horror experience and a worthy successor to the original. If you’re after a polished AAA title with a fair bit of nail biting thrown in we highly recommend you grab yourself a copy of Dead Space 2 and a new set of brown underpants while you’re at it.
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