Once again casting players in the role of Isaac Clarke, a man who spends his weekdays performing MOTs and the weekends slicing up murderous mutant creatures, Dead Space 2 is the continuation of the surprise 2008 hit.
If you’re unfamiliar with Dead Space, this is full-on, brutal survival horror that plays like Resident Evil 4 with go faster stripes. It’s third person exploration and combat, utilising a series of makeshift power tools as weapons with which you need to ‘tactically dismember’ your foes, all the time trying to avoid becoming so much mulch.
The original game set the bar very high, indeed, and was a very stylish sci-fi romp that featured all of the usual scares associated with this genre, such as telegraphed monster closets, gruesome foes and scarce ammo, and threw in some genuinely unsettling atmosphere and devious mind games. The result was a truly original take on survival horror that pushed people’s scare buttons and was a very enjoyable title.
Dead Space 2 clearly aims to improve upon its forerunner, and promises a bigger, better game packed with even more horror and enough blood to fill a small ocean.
The story follows on from the first game. Isaac, having escaped from the USG Ishimura and Aegis VII, having destroyed the red marker, is found floating in space and taken to Titan Station, a huge floating city in space above Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.
As the game opens, it appears the Earth Government (EarthGov) are not so sure of Isaac’s story, and he’s clad in a straightjacket and detained in a psych ward.
Of course, it doesn’t take long for things to go the way of the pear, and not only is Isaac thrown into another confrontation with the Necromorphs, but he’s also now hunted by the apparent ghost of his dead wife, whom he spent the first game looking for. Be careful what you wish for, eh, Isaac?
Soon the entire city is overrun with the hideous Necromorphs, and Isaac is left to survive in similar fashion to the original game, only on a much larger and more varied stage.
Bright lights, big city
One of the common criticisms of the first game was the repetitive nature of the environments. Being based primarily on a star ship, some felt that the game lacked variety. Dead Space 2 addresses this, and the city is an interesting and varied place, featuring gloomy hospitals, shopping malls, residential apartment blocks and even opulently decorated churches and kindergartens.
Whilst you explore the city, you’ll also soak up one of the game’s strongest points, the atmosphere. Dead Space set the bar very high here, and the sequel doesn’t rest on its laurels. Dead Space 2 ups the stakes, and just about every trick in the book is used to keep players in a constant state of uncertainty.
All manner of sounds and voices can be heard everywhere, from screams and whispering to, always chilling, babies cries, and environmental scares, such as pipes bursting and lights cutting out are as effective as ever. The sound design is superb, and the SFX and ambient music set the tone perfectly.
The lighting deserves particular praise, too, and is some of the best I’ve ever seen, delivering a real sense of danger as you gingerly and cautiously advance down pitch black corridors and manoeuvre around blood stained rooms with only a thin beam of torchlight illuminating the way.
The encounters with Isaac’s wife can be pretty scary as well, although she does lose some of her terrifying presence after several random pop ups, diminishing her threat a little.
Some boss encounter set pieces are truly impressive, and often leave Isaac in a very precarious state, and even introductions to the game’s standard enemy types are impressive.
It all comes together to form a horror title that won’t fail to give everyone a seat-leaving moment at least once, and an experience that most will find continually unnerving and tense.
One point of contention here for many will, no doubt, be the decision to give Isaac a face and voice. Whereas he was a silent protagonist in the first game, here he’s got his own dialogue and will react vocally to things he sees and does. Personally, I prefer the silent hero route, as I feel this benefits the dark, unnerving atmosphere more than a chatty star, which I feel can pull you out of the experience a little. Of course, this is all down to personal taste, and some may welcome the added personality.
Slice and dice
The core gameplay in Dead Space 2 remains pretty much the same as before, and if there’s any major shortcomings to be found here, it’s the similarity to the first. In fact, very little has changed other than a few improvements, and the combat and tactical dismemberment remains as important as ever.
Once again, Isaac makes use of various cutting tools to rip the Necromorphs limb from limb, and the weapons on offer are quite varied, including the staple plasma cutter, pulse rifle, line gun and ripper, amongst other new additions like the javelin gun.
All weapons are effective in some way, and you can simply shoot enemies to take them down, but as in the original, the key is to slice off enemy limbs one by one, killing foes quickly and saving ammo in the process.
Different weapons are more effective against some enemies than others, and if you’re going to survive, you’ll really need to conserve ammo, as it can be scarce, especially on harder difficulties. And, with more enemy variety, there’s even more reason to keep a flexible arsenal to hand.
To augment Isaac’s weapon-based combat and to help save ammo, Dead Space 2 features a more robust and useful telekinesis and stasis system. As before, Isaac can pick up objects and throw them. But this time there’s far more scope in combat, and Isaac can not only hurl objects, including spikes and loading crates at foes for an instant kill if aimed correctly, but he can also rip the claws off dead foes and hurl them back at enemies. You can even shoot the spiked limbs off a Necromorph and then use TK to hurl its own arm back at it, with fatal results, often pinning said foe to the wall. Nice.
Stasis is more prevalent here, too, and although it was used sparingly by most in the original, here it’s far more essential, not only to bypass deadly hazards such as spinning air circulation blades, but to slow down the much more agile and deadly Necromorphs, either to make them easier to hit, or to stop them so you can run in for the melee kill. You’ll use it much more in normal fights this time around, and if you find yourself without stasis power, you’ll instantly feel vulnerable.
This all helps to create an improved combat system, and one that demands real tactics. You really can’t simply fire away at foes here, and aiming for limbs and using the right weapons for the job are the easiest way to success. It makes even simple fights a challenge, and slicing off limbs just never gets old.
That said, the game can become a little repetitive at times, and after a while you’ll start to guess when the next ‘surprise’ attack will occur, negating the fear somewhat, but it never gets dull. Just don’t expect anything radically different from the first.
A to Z, up and down
A cool feature of the first game was Isaac’s handy laser pointer, compass thingy. This always pointed Isaac in the right direction, and it returns here, albeit in a beefed up manner. Now, Isaac’s direction finder not only points to the next objective, but can also be set to find the nearest safe point, shop and workbench. It’s a nice feature, and ensures you’ll never get lost in the expansive city.
Perhaps one of the biggest improvements, however, is the antigravity sections. The original game had such sections, but these were a little clunky and unwieldy, especially during combat. Isaac would only jump from one point to another awkwardly, and the end result wasn’t all that great. Here, Isaac has been freed from such constraints, and thanks to some handy manoeuvring jets on his suit, he can fly around smoothly, in full 360 degrees.
This is a welcome change that makes antigravity sections far more enjoyable, and also makes for more impressive puzzles and situations.
As well as the long and polished single player campaign, Dead Space 2 features an online multiplayer component. This has been hyped quite a bit during the game’s production cycle, and it’s no surprise, given the human vs Necromorph angle, a la Left 4 Dead.
Sadly, although the multiplayer modes are enjoyable enough in small doses, pitting teams of engineers versus a variety of Necromorphs in game types such as deathmatch and objective-based missions, it’s not very well balanced, and players of human characters are vastly more powerful that Necro players, who’ll spend a good deal of time waiting to respawn.
The online component certainly doesn’t come across as an afterthought, but it’s nowhere near as good as it could have been, and most will tire of it fairly quickly.
Luckily, this doesn’t really matter, as the main course is, without a doubt, the single player, and here the game hits the mark. The story is intriguing, the visuals are impeccable, the campaign is long and always enjoyable, and if you’re looking for atmosphere, it’s laid on thick.
Dead Space 2 is a sequel that does its predecessor proud and is a great continuation of the story. Yes, it’s not all that different from the first game, but if you loved the first, that’s no bad thing. If you’ve never played the first (and why not?) then this is even more of a must see, and makes for the first must-have 360 game of 2011.
Dead Space 2 is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.
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