Before I start in on this, let me just say, that I thought that the original Dead Space was an excellent game. I honestly went into the original without high hopes; I hadn’t found other survival horror games that I liked. However, the science fiction universe pulled me in and I ended up having a blast.
It gives me great joy to say that the sequel improves upon everything that made the original great and even smoothed over a few of the areas where I found the original wanting.
You reprise your role as Isaac Clarke, the technician who (spoiler alert!) survived the events of the first game. Isaac awakes from the mist of amnesia amidst a necromorph outbreak on what has come to be known as the Sprawl, a city on the remains of one of Saturn’s moons. As Isaac attempts to contain the outbreak he must contend with not only the nightmarish necromorphs, but also government soldiers and the haunting image of his girlfriend, Nicole, who stalks him wherever he goes. From the opening scene when you awake in a straitjacket completely helpless to the final boss battle, Dead Space 2 kept me excited to keep going further in the story and anxious for Isaac’s physical security and mental health.
So much, in fact, that I played through the entire game in three sittings. This happened for a number of reasons. First, the chapters now blend together seamlessly a la Half-Life, rather than having distinct loading screens as in the previous game. This makes it super easy to play two or three chapters without even realizing it (and without your heart rate dropping much either). Second, Isaac is much more compelling character now that he is fully voiced and scripted: he’ll frequently take off his helmet to talk with other survivors, he will also curse when things don’t go his way, and he is constantly trying to maintain his sanity as Nicole haunts him. These two changes, the continuous level model and the emergence of an empathetic character made it much harder for me to put the game down.
But the biggest reason is that Dead Space 2‘s mouse aiming doesn’t have the same slow drag that the original had. I was free to use my mouse without feeling like my character had arms made of clay. This makes the game feel a bit more like an action game with a much more frantic pacing. The game does feel different than before as well. While the game is scary, the developers included several action-hero sequences that really get your adrenaline pumping.
Finally, I decided to finish the game quickly because I knew that the sooner I finished the game, the sooner I could move all of the lights in my apartment away from my computer and put them back in their normal, resting positions about my apartment.
Gameplay wise, the game is very similar to its predecessor: it’s a third-person shooter/horror game. The uniquely Dead Space mechanics are back, including zero-gravity, zero-atmosphere, and the stasis module. The zero-g areas are much more manageable now, with Isaac floating and using small thrusters to maneuver, rather than being forced to land on specific surfaces. This reduced my vertigo for me, which almost made it feel too easy to navigate. The zero-atmosphere areas typically came in the form of minor space walks in which I never felt like I had to rush. I would have liked to have more of these areas to explore.
But Isaac doesn’t just stick to his old toys. His role as a technician is also emphasized with his ability to open up equipment panels and hack doors and other mechanized devices. Attempting this brings up a hacking minigame, which I found wanting, especially because there isn’t any variety in the hacking task: every panel behaves the same as every other panel. I would have liked some optional hacks that provided some unique benefits (special schematics, extra items, etc), in addition to just a bit of variety in the main panels. It’s not a bad mechanic, I just thought that its current implementation didn’t really add enough to the game.The horror is still there. Heck, I would say it’s even been ramped up a notch or two. In addition to Nicole stalking Isaac, there are a number of opportunities to witness horror in the game world. In Dead Space the crew of the USG Ishimura are either dead to begin with and or have already been driven mad by the outbreak. In the sequel however, a big part of the horror is the setting: the Sprawl isn’t a military base or an abandoned research station, it’s a city not unlike those that we know today. And it is this familiarity that makes some of the scenes of families fleeing from the necromorphs at the beginning of the outbreak so disturbing.
Graphically the game is positively gorgeous. The textures of the world and of the enemies are amazing; the familiar human features in the necromorphs makes them a disturbing enemy and the details are there. One area that has seen much improvement is the environment. The Sprawl is colored with a much more varied palette than the heavy industrial tones of the USG Ishimura. In addition to the plethora of colors, the physical layout of the levels is much more varied and interesting, with Isaac encountering everything from malls to tram systems to apartments. One chapter used black lights extensively, where blood smears glowed in the dark and sent chills down my spine. Eep!
Which leads me to the point of gore. This game is probably the bloodiest and gruesome I’ve ever played. While for the most part I don’t mind it (having been desensitized to it after playing the first game), there were a couple of scenes that felt like they had been added purely for shock value and it just seemed lazy on the part of the developers.
One thing that I didn’t understand is why I had access to a number of weapons and medium-power suits from the first store. Maybe it was some DLC that was included in my purchase or because I had a Dead Space save game on my computer; I honestly don’t know. In any case, I felt that having access to this made the rest of the game a bit easier than I would have liked for the “Normal” difficulty setting. I think I will ramp up the difficulty a notch for my second play through.
Dead Space 2 enhances what made the first game great and smoothed over some of its problem spots. I highly recommend it to anyone who can stomach the gore and the psychological trauma. Play with the lights on if you need to.
Hell, I know I did.