There’s a bit where, over the radio, Isaac Clarke is told that under absolutely no circumstances must he never ever… and then the transmission cuts to static. Still, blind obedience to a tried and tested bag of clichés is never necessarily a bad thing, and it’s always a reassuring eventuality that moving into a monster-infested funeral parlour is never going to end well.
As the big-budget sequel to the 2008 survival-horror epic, developer Visceral Games is attempting to solidify the series’ exemplary shooting and top-tier jumpy frights by rounding out the human element of its protagonist. Formerly little more than a mute conduit for the player, giving Isaac a voice and a face is a move which may come back to haunt Visceral Games more than Derek Acorah does Living TV. Personally, I kind of preferred Isaac Clarke when he was just a wheezing death rattle, but now he’s into serial cussing and showing off his oft-visible bonce with a range that spans expressionless to completely bemused.
The game, however, is much the same as before: an unrestrained exercise in violence, set around Titan mining colony the Sprawl, three years after calamitous events of the original, and it’s all still wrapped up with overarching themes of shady capitalistic enterprise and quasi-religious Unitology fanatics. Before long it becomes clear that the Sprawl is home to another Marker, one of the twisted double-helix structures at the root of the universe’s mucky Necromorph problems, and that everybody has been transformed into a monster. Again.
Things kick off pretty quickly, too, and seconds after the opening montage there’s a person getting stabbed through the head, with the player watching their grisly, close-up transformation into a gibbering, flailing Necromorph, and gleefully continues throwing up well-designed shots of nasty brutality until its bombastic denouement. The whole game is never anything less than visually stunning, either, with the signature minimalistic UI and a near-unparalleled attention to detail across its many creepy crevices and flickering corridors.
Dead Space 2 is a poster boy for violent carnage, but the unnerving clash between Visceral Games’ desire to refocus and remodel Isaac and the situation he finds himself in is epitomised nicely about two-thirds of the way through the game. During this moment the player finds themselves staring at something horrible and iconic from the first game, and the growing sense of dread and unease is neatly undercut when Isaac turns to his female sidekick and cheesily says “I’m full of bad ideas.” So was the scriptwriter, evidentially.
I imagine the intention was to replicate something like Ripley’s character shift from Alien to Aliens – Dead Space has always been an unashamed attempt to replicate the coolest bits from dozens of sci-fi influences in a survival horror mould, with the mix of borrowed ideas even trickling down to the protagonist’s compounded name. But here it doesn’t always mesh right. A creeping traversal through a Unitology church is enough to make your palms sweat, but during a section where you stand on top of a massive mining truck as it’s driven through an underground tunnel of Necromorph gore, the game errs dangerously close to the point where Isaac might as well take off his helmet, put on a pair of sunglasses and try dual-wielding plasma rifles.
These latter parts are completely at odds with Dead Space 2’s finest moments. The game works best as a struggle, one where each corner leaves you feeling like you’re a couple of bullets and a medpack short of getting through the next encounter. These are the plentiful moments where Dead Space 2’s 15 chapters shine – the game is often an overwhelming taut, tense affair, with bouts of satisfying blasting offset by a lingering hesitation about going down the next corridor.
A slight tweak to the rhythm of play means enemies now attack in slightly denser groups – or, in the case of the new mutated Pack children, an infant swarm – with you using a hefty array of dangerous mining equipment to separate Necromorphs from their bladed, contorted appendages. The focus on dismemberment still feels refreshing in our age of the one-hit headshot, and the deep, bassy rumblings of the weaponry adds a satisfying weight to even the most mundane gunfights.
Where the sequel’s combat truly excels over the original is by bringing Isaac’s kinesis and stasis abilities to the forefront – two tricks that only those who ploughed through the USG Ishimura on the original’s more demanding difficulty levels would ever be forced to utilise. Now freezing foes mid-air and snapping off Necromorph’s blades to use as weapons comes naturally, the moves easily executed even in the middle of frenzied gunplay, and the game competently emphasises these potent abilities in its opening chapters.
The laws of sequel creation demand the addition of new enemies and rejiggered weapons alongside refinements, though, and Dead Space’s 2 new foes and modified guns (hurrah, the flamethrower is actually useful now) effectively widen the game’s combat diversity. The Stalker, for instance, is unashamedly modelled on the velociraptors from Jurassic Park, and pops out its eerie head to signpost an incoming attack. I felt prickles on the back of my neck more than once.
Meanwhile, Isaac’s loosely explained three-year stint in stasis has made him nimbler and tougher, and after slotting a few upgrade nodes into your equipment you’ll quickly go into situations feeling like the hunter rather than the hunted, only for the game to quickly send your bloody chunks crashing back to the last checkpoint. Isaac might be tougher, and the enemies might fall a little easier, but the game still makes sure there’s enough opportunity to show off its many gruesome executions.
Nips and tucks to navigating zero gravity are also much appreciated, with the ability to manually drift around in a vacuum turned into a viable option with the simple addition of a button to reorient yourself alongside a simple method of taking off and landing. Isaac’s ability to boost through decompressed space is used to good effect, as is his newfound trick of shooting out certain windows to drag everything inside a room into the void.
Moving the game to the Sprawl however, provides the game with a decent amount of aesthetic diversity: there’s a lot more going on than the Ishimura’s endless metal corridors. And where Isaac haplessly assumed the role of back-and-forth courier over engineer in the original, now the game is mostly a linear progression through a whistle-stop tour of flashy sights and expensive-looking set pieces. A boss encounter early on is the game’s whizz-bang highlight, mixing up QTEs with cutscenes and quick-fire reflex actions.
The game betrays this potential near the end, however, where levels become padded affairs of regurgitated combat; the developmental desire to have Isaac shatter bones and tear sinew takes precedence over nervous exploration and slow-building tension. It basically feels like chunks of cheaper meat have been thrown in to add some unnecessary bulk to the Necromorph patty, and it doesn’t particularly work well as an example of great action, either. Each room contains another dense concentration of monsters, and then a couple more will routinely spring up behind you and shout boo. Simply kill and repeat. And the less said about the lacklustre final boss the better.
Still, by the time you reach Dead Space 2’s saggier later levels you’ll have committed yourself to finishing the course hours ago. Phenomenal production values, including perhaps the best use of sound in modern gaming, and an early barrage of rich environments, alongside the game’s satisfyingly weighty controls and returning dismemberment conceit, ensure the game stands tall amongst its peers. Most of the time, anyway.
Post-completion there’s the urge to go back and replay on a higher difficulty, though probably not on the punishing Hardcore mode, which unlocks after finishing the campaign, that limits you to three saves for the entire game and will be completed by next to nobody. I got a few levels in before dying and promptly concluding it to be too much work. It’s a far cry from the original, where maximum completion was an accessible uphill climb.
A wholly average multiplayer mode rounds out the package, which pits two teams of four against each other as humans versus Necromorphs in a standard objective-based gametype. It comes with your standard vertical progression system of persistent upgrades, and teamwork is an absolute must. While no single component feels notably faulty, I found my enjoyment of the mode completely exhausted before the end of the three hours of playtime EA provided on the game’s pre-release servers.
Dead Space 2 is sometimes a confused and disappointing production, but more often than not it’s tense and fascinating. Just make sure that, whatever you do, you don’t fzzfzgghzhghghghcrkrkkkckkkzzzzzzz…