Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Visceral Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Dead Space 2 is my introduction to this particular franchise. I’m not sure I remember what made me pass on playing the original Dead Space. Critically, it seemed to be pretty well received. I think it was just released in a crowded gaming calendar where other games caught my attention instead. That said, I’m glad I gave Dead Space 2 a chance. The game is everything I hoped it would be. Playing through the ten hour story mode, I found it to be tense, scary, thrilling and even darkly humourous at times.
Developer Visceral Games were kind enough to include a video recap of the first game to bring me up to speed. An engineer named Isaac Clarke visited a derelict space craft which, shockingly, was infested with horrible alien creatures called Necromorphs that wiped out everyone on board. Isaac eventually escaped the Ishimura but not before uncovering a sinister conspiracy perpetrated by a religious cult and the Earth’s government.
In this sequel, set three years after the original, Isaac awakens to find himself in a metropolis named Sprawl which is located on one of Saturn’s moons. Sprawl, like the Ishimura before it, is overrun with Necromorphs. To complicate matters further, Isaac is haunted by visions of his recently deceased girlfriend Nicole, is being aided by a woman on an intercom that he doesn’t know if he can trust and is being hunted down by a crazy sciento…I mean, crazy unitologist cult who wants him to do their evil bidding. Poor guy can’t seem to catch a break.
Dead Space 2 (and I also presume Dead Space 1) is a frankenstein-esque creation stiching together components of many other famous video games and films before it, borrowing both its sci-fi and horror influences in rather liberal doses. Visceral does this with an incredible proficiency however, so you don’t begrudge the game its lack of originality. As I mentioned at the start of this review, they are also currently operating in a market that is starved of decent horror games. Good on them for spotting an opportunity and making the most of it.
Most importantly, the core playing mechanics in Dead Space 2 are very robust. In the game, you navigate Isaac through a range of both tight passageways and open arenas taking out a variety of enemies who need to be killed by having their limbs targeted. You get an excellent range of weaponry and only a limited number of slots in which to use them. The game is also purposefully stingey with its allocation of ammo so you are constantly resource managing throughout the game to ensure you carry the right mix of weapons that allow you to perform both ranged and close quarter combat. It’s not unexpected to spend half the game with a miniscule amount of health and only a few rounds of ammunition in the chamber.
On top of this, the weapons also have a functionality similar to the gravity gun in Half-Life 2, allowing Isaac to grab and fling objects in the environment. This turns many of the in-game items into potential weapons should ammo become too scarce. And if that wasn’t enough, Isaac also has limited usage of something called ‘stasis’ which, when cast at enemies or even ingame objects, slows them down to half-speed, giving the game its own variation on bullet-time.
When you put all of this together: a diverse range of weapons, a colourful cast of enemy creatures, the ability to manipulate objects and the power to change the speed of what is happening, it creates for a playing environment that is full of depth, complexity and is thoroughly enjoyable to play.
The game’s presentation is also a blast. You can tell the developers are big fans of Alien franchise and I think they have a keen understanding of how to balance tension with bursts of action and spectacle. Isaac is a pretty likable everyman who tries to make the most of a lousy situation and the necromorph design is suitably repulsive and freakish. There support cast is also pretty entertaining although most of them don’t end up living very long.
Speaking of presentation, Dead Space 2 rather cleverly avoids cluttering the screen with too much information and instead bolts on Isaac’s health and ammo counter onto his body so it is constantly onscreen. Even the game’s inventory system is brought up via a holographic projection shooting out of Isaac’s arm so you are always in the game.
Dead Space 2 has a surprisingly dark sense of humour. As I mentioned before, the unitologists are a very thinly veiled swipe at Scientology and the necromorph alien design includes creatures that resemble young children and even babies. There is one moment in the game where Isaac is in a nursery and peers through a viewing panel and watches a baby crawling towards her mother. Only the baby is infected and has an explosive sac attached to its belly. When the baby unites with her mother, they exploded, showering the window with blood. It sounds appalling but its so over the top in its silliness that it gets away with it. The game shares a similar tone to Sam Raimi’s earlier work even down to its rather brutal treatment of its protagonist. I don’t know if there is an official number but the incredible variety of death animations I witnessed for poor Isaac surely surpasses that of any other gaming hero.
If there’s one gripe I have about the game, its the length. A ten hour campaign might sound about right but I actually felt a bit drained towards the last couple of hours where I felt Visceral were running out of ideas and padding out the game with some unneccsary extra levels. Does anyone really get excited about playing another level set in a mine or a warehouse? I think this game could have comfortably shed Chapters 10 through 13 and have been a better experience for it. On a personal note, I also found the difficulty was starting to get the best of me towards the end of the game and I wouldn’t have minded the option to change the difficulty setting midway through. For the record, I played and completed the game on ‘normal’.
Overall however, Dead Space 2 is a fine achievement that Visceral should rightly be pleased with. I think it can comfortably be recognized as one of the best horror video games ever made and I look forward to the sequel that was implied in the post-credits audio snippet.