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2011 looks like it could be one of the best years in gaming history, and Dead Space 2 starts that year right. Taking what made the original a scarily good reinvention of the action-horror genre while adding enough to keep things interesting, Dead Space 2 is an incredibly polished experience that falls just short of true greatness.
The first Dead Space did so many things right that only fools would completely turn their backs on that winning formula even if the original wasn’t the massive success it could have been. Fortunately Dead Space 2’s developers know what they’re doing, as the newest entry in the series builds on the foundation rather than tear it all down.
Picking up three years after the last game, Isaac finds himself trapped in the space colony the Sprawl as all hell has broken loose. Isaac has to slowly make his way through the city in hopes of finding out what happened and living long enough to escape his horrible circumstances. The hideous Necromorphs have returned too, and are just as eager to rip apart any living thing that stands in their way, while possibly hiding in every poorly lit corner of the city.
The core combat of Dead Space is pretty much unchanged, which is fine with us. The expertly done third-person camera meshes well with each new weapon you find, be it the standard Plasma Cutter or the crazy awesome Javelin Gun. The armory may not be incredibly deep, but each weapon has its uses and you’ll find yourself picking your favorite loadouts for blasting off the limbs of your enemies. The standard enemy types strike a pretty good balance between beatable one-on-one and pretty darn challenging when four or more show up. The newer baddies add some much needed depth to the returning roster, making most of your encounters with them pretty fresh throughout the game.
The game’s visual aesthetic only improves the combat, as there’s technically no HUD DS2, just like last time. Health, ammo, inventory, and waypoints are all mapped to Isaac’s suit in-game in a way that makes sense within the futuristic universe while simultaneously keeping the screen clear of anything that could get in the way of scaring the crap out of you. It makes for an immersive experience and keeps the intensity at a constant high, since you can’t take a virtual breather outside of quitting the game.
Dead Space 2 has some of the most perfectly realized atmosphere in gaming thanks to a focus not only on the great graphical detail of each forbidding surrounding, but on the audio landscape of each area too. Is that sound a monster creeping up on you or just a piece of metal rolling around? Isn’t it a little too quiet in the eerily empty auditorium? The musical score of DS2 is well implemented, naturally building during a heated confrontation, and then slowly calming down as you relax until HOLY SHIT THERE’S ANOTHER ONE BEHIND YOU!!!
Of course you can act like a tough guy and say, “no game scares me, I’m no wuss!” It’s true, if you’re dead set against something fictional not scaring you, then it probably won’t, but if you let Dead Space 2 in, it’s one of the more terrifying games around. Many of its scares are predictably based around a monster appearing when you least expect it, but DS2 gets the most fright mileage out of the anticipation of that monster appearing. This time around there’s no break between chapters which creates a steady intensity throughout, as the game rarely gives you a chance to breath. Maybe some will see Isaac’s journey as overly linear, but that direction is welcome as many games focus more on a plethora of choices instead of perfectly planned out ride.
The only things that deflate that intensity are the occasional difficulty spikes along the way. It’s a tricky equilibrium creating enemies that challenge you while at the same time being ultimately beatable, which Dead Space 2 manages most of the time. Still, on our normal playthrough there were enough times where we’d have to die and restart that replaced fear with frustration. But those were infrequent enough in the more 11-hour-long game that it didn’t ruin the whole endeavor.
So developer Visceral Games seemed to remember everything that made the first game great, what about those additions to the foundation we mentioned all those paragraphs ago? The biggest difference this time around is how everything feels much bigger than before. There are a few action set pieces in the game that feel more like Uncharted 2 than Dead Space, but they ultimately fit the modified tone of the series.
An early example is an amazing train battle unlike anything seen in the first game. So much is happening at once you need fast reflexes while keeping your eyes glued to the screen throughout. Just when you think it’s over some new twist comes to the sequence and when it finally is done, you exhale the breath you’ve been holding during the entire scene. There are several more like it, but not enough as to completely change the flavor of the game.
Many of the best set pieces involve the more harrowing boss battles of the game, though many can’t really be classified like a boss battle in the truest sense. A few are based around fighting some new enemy type that is overwhelming you now, but eventually you get used to them and then they start popping up all over the place. Other climactic moments are just based around you fighting a whole bunch of Necromorphs at once and narrowly surviving. The more traditional boss fights are few, but are pretty special when they happen, though personally DS2’s final battle is a little lacking when compared to the finale of the first game.
Sequences like the train’s also make things more varied this time around, as do the many different settings. We loved searching the Ishimura in the first game, but after a while looking at the same guts of the ship got a little stale. Since DS2 takes place in a city, you see many more unique areas that have a new spin on trying to scare the shit out of you. We don’t want to ruin them all for you, but probably the scariest to us was slowly searching an apartment and coming upon the bloody and eerily calm nursery. It gives us chills just thinking about it.
The Zero-G portions of the game are great too. In certain areas Isaac can leave the ground and more or less fly around an open area. These sections have a similarly slow pace to the rest and are usually based around solving some puzzle before your oxygen runs out. The Zero-G also shakes things up by the virtue of those areas normally being incredibly big and open, a real change from the cramped quarters inside the Sprawl.
The only complaint about the setting is that originality in area design fades away some in the last couple hours. Sure, the areas are still well-designed, but they aren’t different enough from all the other parts of the dying space colony you’ve seen already, though it picks up again in the homestretch. Overall these additions don’t make DS2 monumentally different from the original, but it does keep everything fresh.
Out of everything that changes in Dead Space 2, series hero Isaac is the one that has the most major transformation, and that change reminds us of Sigourney Weaver (stick with us here). Anyone who played the brilliant original knows the series owes more than a little to the Alien films. And just as Dead Space’s survivor protagonist and sterile hallways of a seemingly empty ship were similar to Alien, Dead Space 2 ramps up the action in a ruined city full of deadly creatures just like Aliens. Isaac goes on a similar journey to Alien’s Ripley too, from scared victim to tough ‘morph killer once he’s given a purpose outside of just living through the day.
Above: Just saying…
We don’t want to spoil too much of the first game, but even though Isaac successfully lived through it, he lost everything but his life. He starts in such a low place in DS2’s too-cool-to-reveal opening that he can only go up. As Isaac gets out of his haze and finds just the smallest sliver of hope to hold on to, you watch his character grow over the course of the game and you end up empathizing with him much more this time. Despite what some early coverage may have led you to believe, Isaac hasn’t become a Jason Statham or Master Chief-type action star, he’s just more confident.
Above: Isaac’s new friends (or are they?)
This connection is really facilitated by Isaac finally using his vocal cords. The whole silent hero thing was cool the first time, but now Isaac is a more active part of his own adventure. Instead of the repetitive nature of the original, as Isaac is told to travel to some new area to fix something else, he talks over decisions with whoever is telling him where to go, or he just decides on his own what to do next. Isaac won’t make a Top 7 list of most engrossing characters, but his characterization was easily good enough to keep us interested.
Above: Isaac has some personal baggage he needs to deal with
Isaac’s tale is about internal and external struggle as he slowly has to deal with his issues from the original. This usually manifests itself in pretty clever ways (see above), even if it gets a little repetitive towards the end. However, by that conclusion you feel like something really happened, which is a nice variation as part twos these days seem more interested in setting up part three than telling a good narrative. Here you’ll get a complete story, disregarding some Metal Gear-style teasers at the very end of the credits.
The campaign is a very fulfilling experience, one you’ll probably feel compelled to give a second run as soon as you beat it the first time, but that’s not enough in today’s game economy. Dead Space 2 adds the requisite multiplayer, which fortunately Visceral didn’t treat like an afterthought. With a set-up that works so well for Left 4 Dead, the online battles are based around four-on-four, humans versus monsters battles.
That may seem a little limiting, but just as concentrating on a great linear story helped the campaign, keeping the multiplayer focused to a handful of maps keeps the gameplay quality high. Human teams have set goals to complete in each map and are the more powerful side, but the Necromorphs just need to keep killing the humans to win and they respawn much faster. We had a fair share of intense fights online, and could see it being more than just a distraction. Though it almost certainly won’t get the following of Call of Duty, it’s tasty gravy on top of a great package.
Dead Space? Yes. It doesn’t put the original to shame, but it addressed of the few complaints, somewhat brightened the at times oppressively dark tone, and has some pretty nice multiplayer on top of that. Plus Dead Space 2 is a little clearer in its storytelling, not demanding you read up on tons of ancillary information to grasp the universe.
Resident Evil 5? Yes. Aside from the forum-baiting, “you can shoot a gun and walk at the same time in Dead Space 2,” DS2 just feels more modern. It understands the changes to games that have happened and tries to innovate, whereas RE5, while fun, felt like a half-step of progress at best.
BioShock 2? No, but it’s pretty close. Personally we find DS2’s multiplayer more compelling, but BioShock 2 was just a little bit better overall. The characters were more interesting, the shooter gameplay more varied, our emotional connection to the story deeper, and BioShock 2’s quality was more of a pleasant surprise.
Keeping almost everything that made the original great while taking suitable steps to amp up the fun, Dead Space 2 will please both the series’ fans and those just starting with this haunting adventure.
Jan 25, 2011
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