Dead Space 2 Review
New franchises are about as tough to get off the ground as a pig on a pogo stick but in 2008, Electronic Arts did it. With Dead Space, EA's tension-filled, sci-fi third-person-survival-horror-shooter, (Whew, hyphen much?) we got a gripping, Aliens-like story of conspiracy, madness and survival. Lauded by both critics and gamers alike, Dead Space was begging for a sequel from the day it was released and now we have it in the action-packed followup title, Dead Space 2.
This sequel follows the continuing story of engineer-turned-hero, Isaac Clarke. (Note: if you didn't play the first game and fail to watch the “previously on Dead Space” feature on Dead Space 2’s main menu, you're bound to be a little lost.) Since coming into contact with an alien artifact called the Marker, Isaac's mental state has been progressively breaking down. Things are so bad, at game start he's a patient in a mental hospital, fitted out with one of those stylish jackets—you know, the ones with the cute little sleeves that tie up in back? It's been three years since the events on the USG Ishimura and Isaac's relaxing in a comfy padded cell on one of Saturn's moons in a metropolis called the Sprawl. There, he happily spends his days attending therapy, purging his demons and eating Jell-o until the Sprawl is attacked and all hell breaks loose.
Mental or not, Isaac is suddenly reliving the nightmare of the Ishimura as he works to escape yet another Necromorph invasion. His escape from the hospital serves as an expertly designed tutorial, teaching (or reminding) you how to use your weapons, which in this case are improvised from various bits of hospital machinery. Surprisingly quickly considering your weakened state, you fall back into action hero mode and within minutes are back to mowing down Necromorphs like a vengeful, space-suited weed whacker. Fans of the first game will be happy to hear that gameplay in Dead Space 2 hasn't changed all that much. There's lots of mutated, goopy dead guys lurching at you and lots of opportunity for shooting them. That is, lots of shooting and dismembering and exploding and stomping and bashing them.
Thankfully, these violently entertaining things have all become much easier and more fun since Visceral streamlined the controls and added a few new enemies. While upgrading is still done the same way—installing power nodes at benches—and it still feels a little awkward to have to hold down the left trigger in order to be able to shoot, things like swapping weapons, checking your ammo count, using kinesis and finding your next objective have become much more convenient. The new kinesis setup in particular expands the gameplay, allowing for multiple puzzles involving swapping batteries and mainframe nodes and makes it simpler to use objects found in the environment as weapons. Shopping has also gotten more interesting with stores offering new weapons (like a javelin gun and a seeker rifle) and multiple combat suits (including my favorite, the retro suit, that makes you almost look like a Bioshock Big Daddy).
Dead Space 2 has a lot of good things going for it aside from more streamlined controls and a few new items. For one thing, it feels more expansive. Instead of being stuck in one location, you move around the Sprawl fighting your way through shopping malls and day care centers. This added variety does much to differentiate Dead Space 2 from the previous game and although this sounds odd to say about a survival horror game, makes it prettier. You'll see vast views of the city from floor-to-ceiling windows and experience interactive, cinematic set pieces that show off the scale of the environment while pumping up the action movie feel. Granted, the story's a bit convoluted but the dialog and voice acting make up for it so even if you don't care much about the overall plotline, you do care about the individual characters.
Unfortunately, there are a few things that undermine Dead Space 2 and keep it from being everything it could be. Most importantly, there's little sense of dread. Even with a few new and interesting enemies (Necromorph babies. Eek!), you feel fairly confident from the beginning in your weapons and abilities, and as such, don't feel particularly vulnerable. Adding to this are the many wide open spaces and enemy placement which is fairly predictable. It doesn't take long to learn when certain types of enemies will attack and from where, and having access to frequent save points keeps you from ever really feeling in that much jeopardy. Aside from the sense of dread being largely diluted, gameplay itself can get monotonous in places when you’re in environments whose sections look so much the same. After moving through door after door, elevator after elevator, you'll be grateful for your objective pointer because otherwise you might find yourself lost in a maze of similar-looking corridors. Dead Space 2’s last issue is the four-on-four multiplayer which while interesting at first, isn't lastingly so. The idea is that four humans try to achieve an objective while four necros try and stop them. While playing on the necro side might be novel for a little while, it's likely most players would rather have access to a range of upgradeable weaponry and will soon be fighting over who “has” to be the necros.
Dead Space 2 is a solid game and in many ways an improvement over the first Dead Space. The problem is, having traded up from small scale survival horror to full-blown action blockbuster, the game and the franchise, lose something. Even so, shooter fans will be in their element and there's enough excitement, variety and “living through a fight by the skin of your teeth” experiences to keep both existing fans and gamers new to the series more than happy.