Dead Space was possibly the most taut, frightening video game I’ve ever played, and I’ve played Blade Kitten (whose saccharine cuteness still haunts my dreams). Normally one to stroll through alien hives whilst whistling the theme from Lethal Weapon and fragging nasties via no-look over-the-shoulder headshots, Visceral’s space-horror had me tentatively peeking around then ducking back behind the same corner for five full minutes like some kind of easily startled but forgetful turtle.
When the sequel was announced I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that adult incontinence manufacturers were puzzled as to why their stock value was soaring.
Dead Space 2 opens on Titan, a moon of Saturn. It’s been three years since Isaac Clarke delimbed his way to a victory of sorts aboard the USG Ishimura, and he awakes to find himself in a hospital on a city known as The Sprawl, clad in straitjacket fashion and unable to remember any events from the intervening period.
It’s clear that mentally he’s a little worse for wear, but before he’s able to piece together his recent past, history repeats and The Sprawl populace are murdered and transformed into his old foes, the deformed and deadly Necromorphs. Under the guidance of a mysterious woman named Daina, Isaac breaks free of his shackles and before long is in full action hero mode, blasting and stomping his way across The Sprawl in search of some answers, his sanity, and a big serving of blood-soaked revenge.
The first thing that strikes you about Dead Space 2 - particularly if you played its predecessor - is the action. It’s clear from the outset that this is not the slow-exploration survival-horror the first game was, but rather a particularly gory yet entertaining third-person shooter. As such, Isaac is far more nimble this time around, the controls tighter, the gameplay faster but well balanced, and the enemies more plentiful.
Plentiful too is the ammunition and although some restraint is required, a lack bullets shouldn’t hamper anyone’s progress this time around as Isaac plays the role of predator casually facing down unspeakable grotesquery without batting an eyelid. Indeed he’s now a capable killing machine that stalks its former tormentors.
Aiding this new-found feeling of confidence is Isaac’s kinesis ability. It’s now much easier to use to good effect – it’s simple and satisfying to skewer enemies with their own detached limbs or any bits of metal lying around, and pulling extremities from downed enemies can be accomplished quickly and with minimal effort.
Isaac’s stomp attack has also been improved; it’s more Melbourne Shuffle than ceremonial sumo and that’s just as well as you have to corpse-stomp the dead to find necessary pick-ups. It’s also a handy way to finish off pitiful half-dead crawling Necromorphs. Yes, even babies and infants. Needless to say, the game earns its R18 certification for that alone.
The gameplay changes are pretty radical, but the biggest difference you’ll notice between Dead Space 1 and 2 is the new setting. Free from the claustrophobic corridors of the Ishimura, Isaac dismembers and Riverdances his way through a nursery, apartments, a church and more this time. The variety of environments is welcome, but it’s at the expense of the oppressive blackness and ugly industrial functionality of the aforementioned starship, an ugliness that was responsible for much of Dead Space’s atmosphere of dread and almost palpable hopelessness.
With the narrative now being so concerned with the mental state of its protagonist, one might hope for more darkness, but it must be noted that many of the vistas here are spectacular - particularly when Isaac spacewalks to fix some misaligned solar arrays or freefalls at terminal velocity from orbit.
Given that Dead Space 2 is a sequel, there needs to be more of everything and it needs to be bigger, so it’s no surprise that a slight dearth of enemy variety in the first game is remedied here by the addition of a several new Necromorphs and a lot more gore. There’s a foe whose vomit causes your joints to seize, infants who deal heavy damage by way of their sharp claws, exploding babies, stationary spores who spit plasma if you venture too close to them, stick insect-like Necromorphs who burst into a swarm of smaller enemies, and ridiculously fast hybrids who peer over and around cover like prairie dogs to quietly observe you before dashing in head-first to bowl you over, shrieking all the while.
Things certainly become more tense when you hear their strange cooing, as it does when the scorpion Necromorph from the first game shows up. He’s also a speedy one now, and these two in combination with a seizing Necro will gammy up Isaac’s swagger for the duration of their visit.
Fortunately, Isaac has a few new weapons at his disposal too – and it’s just as well as publisher EA wanted players to have a harder time beating the game should they use only the basic weapons. There’s a javelin gun whose spears can be electrified to cause extra damage, a sniper rifle and a minelayer on top of the usual suspects. The underpowered pulse rifle from the first game has been given an upgrade, you can still freeze enemies with your stasis (and it now slowly recharges), and there are stasis barrels scattered about alongside the usual exploding ones. The weapon and armour upgrade system has carried over too, with some notable additions such as the antique diving bell armour.
Zero gravity sections also return, but with a twist – you can now fly around rather than leap from surface to surface. This makes for a more enjoyable experience and for more interesting puzzles, none of which are particularly taxing, it must be said.
As it was in the first game, the sound design is top-notch here too. All the squelches, screams, creaks, groans and booms are great. The score, voice acting and cinematic moments – like most elements of the game – are uniformly excellent.
However, Dead Space 2 is not a flawless experience. Some later levels of the game feel a little uninspired – I always prefer to play a tight 12 hours over a slightly sagging 15, but at least this time you aren’t constantly being told to perform task X at Y location as you were in the original.
The game does flow better as a result of this, but many narrative possibilities aren’t explored in as much depth as they could have been. The story isn’t moved particularly far along over the duration of the game, and you’ll never get the sense that Isaac was really struggling that hard with his demons. Many will enjoy the (admittedly easy) swipes at religion and government, however.
To get really picky, there is also a bug, of sorts, where you sometimes can’t take an item (say, an explosive canister) from one room to the next – it simply disappears as if it’s not allowed to be used in the new area. There are also not enough bosses, and the game features a run-the-gauntlet style mission towards the end where you once again flee an indestructible opponent – a mission which shifts the emphasis from shooting your way through to running and barely surviving, and one which isn’t particularly enjoyable to play or satisfying to complete.
Multiplayer is a new addition to the Dead Space franchise and proves to be a solid if unremarkable four-versus-four affair across five maps. The marines are identical (although they can be levelled up granting them access to other weapons and armour) and the Necromorph team members choose one of four distinct classes. They’re tasked with trying to stop the marines from carrying out a certain task (sound familiar?). It’s competent but hardly groundbreaking, and is unlikely to have much longevity without additional content being released on a regular basis.
That aside, Dead Space 2 is a fantastic shooter. It’s a marked departure in mood and gameplay from the first, but these design choices have paid off enormously. A must for horror or shooter fans.