The general consensus among gamers is that horror works best when you’re weak, ill-equipped to take on the forces against you. Visceral Games disagrees. Dead Space 2 is their central argument, and it’s a mighty strong argument.
Any notion that Dead Space 2 might sacrifice horror for action is dispelled in the first five minutes. It has such a strong, terrifying opening that the rest of the game can’t help but fall a little short of expectations afterward. But that’s not to say the rest of the game is bad. Visceral knows how to pace a horror game, using the moments of action to complement the horror. There’s a constant rising and falling tension with stretches of exploration and ammo collection that are punctuated by small skirmishes that keep you paranoid, building up to a hell storm of violence. It builds you up only to break you down, over and over again.
But the original Dead Space did this as well, and the sequel doesn’t stray much from that winning formula. The biggest difference is the setting, as Dead Space 2 is set on a space station called the Sprawl instead of a mining ship. The game makes excellent use of this new setting. You’ll pass through apartment complexes, hospitals, schools, and more, and all of them share a realistically practical design, like they’re forced to conform to the structural standards of a space station, while remaining unique in style. The Sprawl is a well realized and disturbingly detailed world; from the Unitology graffiti to the blood splatters, it always feels like you’re arriving just after something horrible has happened. You’ll see evidence time and time again that nothing is sacred. These monsters are indifferent to age, race, or gender. In this way, the setting makes the monsters even scarier.
If the environment doesn’t convince you that the necromorphs are scary, your first encounter with them will. Combat has always been a strong part of Dead Space, and this sequel makes many minor improvements. This time around your telekinesis ability plays a much larger role. Instead of requiring an object to recharge, it recharges slowly over time, encouraging you to use it more often. There’s always something around to throw, and some items are extremely effective. Poles, broken pipes, or even a janitor’s mop, anything with a long point is just as good as a gun. Better yet, you can rip the talons off of dead necromorphs and use them against others or cut the limb off a live one and then shoot it back. This could easily have been a gimmicky addition to combat, but since the game takes care to ration out your ammo, in the beginning this actually becomes a necessary tactic. There are also moments when you can shoot out a window and suck everything into space, including yourself if you’re not careful. Unfortunately, this only happens a few times in the entire game, but when it does it’s thrilling.
Isaac Clarke as a character has a much stronger presence this time. He now has a voice and talks with the survivors that he meets. His dialogue is well written, and he comes across as a smart guy, asking the same questions that you’d be asking when he can. There’s no exposition or dumb “tough guy” talk. Isaac is, thankfully, still very much an everyman caught up in a disaster. He hasn’t yet become an Ellen Ripley-like heroic figure, which means you’ll still fear for his life throughout the game. It always seems plausible that he’ll be killed off.
The first several chapters are textbook examples of excellent pacing, and everything remains fine until the final four or five chapters. Around Chapter 10, the game seems to be building to a climax but that climax never happens. The game just keeps going. This happens a couple more time before the real end, and the game feels artificially drawn out as a result. It doesn’t help that at this point the game drops all of its horror elements and just goes for all out action. Every other room throws waves of necromorphs at you, and they just keep coming. I eventually got fed up with the extended battles and started running, which sadly worked surprisingly well. I ended up running past most enemies in the final chapter. There are also some environmental puzzles that are not as intuitive as the developers seem to think. They appear without warning, give you little indication of what to do, and halt your progression like a brick wall. Yet, despite these problems with its third act, Dead Space 2 never becomes a bad game. It just becomes a different kind of game that’s not as unique or scary as it once was.
The game ends on a low note, but the bonuses that you get for beating it are enticing enough to make a “new game+” worth your time. The game gets easier with every subsequent playthrough since you know what’s coming and your upgrades carry over, but if you don’t want to play the campaign again, there’s now multiplayer.
The multiplayer pits four humans against four player controlled necromorphs and a host of AI monsters. The humans are always after an objective, and the necromorphs are always trying to kill as many people as possible. The humans have designated spawn points, but in a nice twist, the necromorph players can choose to spawn from various vents on the map. You can either pop out on top of a guy or spawn ahead of him for a trap, it’s a clever mechanical twist that fits with the fiction of Dead Space. At first, things feel heavily weighted in the necromorphs favor, but that’s because it can confusing in being clear about what you’re supposed to do as a human. Once you learn the maps and objectives, things balance out, and this will happen pretty fast because there are only five maps and one game type. While multiplayer is a nice addition, it’s also quite sparse and suffers from the same problems that hurt the single player: When the game has an “all action, all the time” attitude, eventually what was once intense becomes rote.
It’s also worth noting that the PlayStation 3 version of the game comes with a copy of the once Wii exclusive Dead Space: Extraction that’s playable with a Move controller (or a normal controller if you don’t have a Move, but who wants to play a light gun game with an analog controller?). This bonus game can be installed from the cross-media bar but still requires the Dead Space 2 disc to play. Extraction is excellent, and you couldn’t ask for a better bonus. If you’re on the fence about which version of the game you should buy, Extraction is your answer.