After the first Dead Space, a series of digital comics, an animated film and a Wii prequel, it seemed like the madness spawned by The Marker had been told enough times that a continuation of Isaac Clarke’s story feels long overdue. Yet as the mainstay of Dead Space, it does make sense that developer Visceral Games would save him for the next HD installment of the series.
This time around, Mr. Clarke knows what he’s dealing with: nercomorphs that come in all shapes and sizes with the peculiar limb-centric weaknesses. They have taken over yet another space installation, much in larger scale than the planet cracker Ishimura from the first game. Ishimura had the feel of a giant oil rig, utilitarian in design but hardly a place you’d want to live in long term. This Titan base in Dead Space 2, known as The Sprawl, is a place befitting a colony, with its fully equipped hospital, mall, schools, and homely living quarters. With each of these familiar areas, the game brings to mind the zombie games and films that helped inspired it, especially the mall part. You might roll your eyes at the first sight of the nursery, knowing full well what might in there.
With such emphasis placed on story and the fanaticism of Unitology in every Dead Space release, Visceral does a great deal to show how the religious groups’ ideals have infiltrated the Sprawl and the space populace in general. It’s intentionally creepy stuff which serves to add to an already tense experience.
As part of that surprising 2008 lineup of original IPs from EA, Dead Space was on the top on the quality scale. It makes it all the more challenging for Visceral to produce a follow-up that would match (and hopefully exceed) the quality of the first game. They accomplish this by taking risks, most notably with changing up the flow and the timing of the countless nercomorph appearances. As I discussed with producer Rich Briggs, the project intentionally went with a less-is-more approach. It was partially done as a response to player feedback that Dead Space’s scary moments were non-stop. Many would ask “What’s wrong with that? I like constant action!” What you learn quickly in Dead Space 2 is that it offers the very same things that make you watch horror movies. By adding brief lulls from the action, the subsequent appearance of more necromorphs become all the more frightening. You stay on your toes, where a flick of a switch, the opening of a door, just walking down a hallway will trigger foes to fall from the ceiling; even just seeing one of them crawl out from around a corner if creepy enough. The Ishimura had these circular vents where 19 times out of 20, you can expect a nercomorph to jump out of them. Dead Space 2 definitely has these vents, but not many of them will have a something coming out of it, and that actually makes it scarier. Does that mean the game does not have a lot of action? Rest assured you will have your hands full. How Visceral manages to dole out the enemies is a spoiler in itself, but know that each encounter is both exhilarating and positively nerve wracking at the same time.
One of Dead Space 2’s more subtle achievements is with its occasional deviations from the Resident Evil 4-influenced gameplay. Brief events, usually during a boss fight or a dramatic development will cue the camera to shift in what appears to be a cutscene. What the player quickly learns is that these parts are meant to be played. You have to stay alert because these scenes can come at any moment. Once you get used to expecting it, clearing a specific sequence on your first try delivers a rush that is nothing short of sublime. It underscores a promising trend of transcending the decade-long inclusion of quick time events in action games. QTEs have worked for the likes of God of War and Heavy Rain, but Dead Space 2 shows that the QTE might have run its course.
Along with these major changes, Visceral does not ignore the finer points. Isaac’s stomping animation is more fluid and forceful; it exemplifies the emotions of a man who is sick and tired of this nightmare. There’s more insight to his personality now since he talks a whole a lot more. It’s not that he didn’t have anything to say in the previous game; it was just a design change by Visceral. The game’s chapter-to-chapter flow is also an improvement. The tram rides that signified the end of a chapter in the first Dead Space made the game feel a little segmented. In this sequel, you move seamlessly into each chapter. The game subtly conceals the loading times by throwing in numerous elevator rides that are just brief enough you might forget these transitions are meant for the game to load a new area.
One improvement that many will appreciate above all others is zero gravity mobility. Dead Space 2 features the ability to freely move where there is no gravity, so there isn’t any of the point-and-jump mechanic from the first game. It also comes with boost functionality which will be useful more than once.
In areas that did not need improvement, things just got a little slicker. Isaac’s outfit upgrades make him like a complete badass, taking the samurai influences of the initial costume design and turning it into something befitting of an action-packed sci-fi tale. Visceral also kept the impressive user interface, ingeniously placing readouts and indicators on the suits themselves. While a clean no-HUD UI is appealing, no game should implement it just for the sake of it. In the case of Dead Space 2, the no-HUD design works perfectly. This allows you to focus on what’s really important: the nercomorph that’s charging at you, flailing lethal blades for limbs.
In fending off these creatures, the series once again gives you enough abilities to make it a fair fight. Straight forward firearms usage will only get you so far. Getting familiar with each weapon’s alternate firing mode, regular use of the immobilizing Stasis, and frequent use of the Kinesis ability will mean the difference in whether you retry a section ten times or clear it on your first attempt. Visceral should once again be commended for finding that sweet spot in offering the user just the right amount of survival resources that each skill is useful and relevant while keeping things challenging.
It’s hard to find any meaningful faults to this game. The multiplayer does not feel tacked on and its inclusion does not take away from the quality of the single player experience (unlike other games where a story mode is scaled back to devote studio resources to multiplayer). Brief backtracking? Not a big deal since those parts can have a number of worthwhile nercomorph engagements. Does one particular supporting character get annoying? Yes, but at least you don’t have to deal with him directly through most of the game.
The first great game of 2011 closes an important chapter on Isaac, placing an equal amount of pressure for a third installment to top Dead Space 2 in the same way this exceeded Dead Space. If there was a sense of obligation to give gamers a change of scenery, the cop-out move would be to place Dead Space 3 on a planetary surface. A greater challenge would be to infect another ship or colony and find a way to deliver something new. As Dead Space 2 proved, Visceral is more than happy to meet those future challenges.
(This review was based off a complete playthrough of the game on the Normal difficulty setting as well as 2 hours spent on the multiplayer modes. A copy of the game was provided in advance by EA for review purposes.)
Developer: Visceral Games
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Released: January 25, 2011