Does this sequel adhere to the spooky spirit of the original, or take one liberty too many in trying to improve itself? Read to find out! The first Dead Space set a new standard for sci-fi horror in video games, taking classic rules of terror and twisting them into a new dimension of fear. Dead Space 2 sought to continue the franchise, putting players back in the boots of space engineer Isaac Clarke and pitting him against the Necromorph menace once more.
Of all the games in the Dead Space franchise, the second, Dead Space 2, is widely held as the best of the bunch. Developed by the newborn Visceral Games, the second entry in the series took the lessons of the first game and improved on them on a scale that few sequels ever accomplish. It’s no Mass Effect 2, but that’s an unfair comparison to make in any case, given the different themes Dead Space runs with. Regardless, it’s a vast improvement, and despite being almost seven years old at the time of this writing, it remains a fun, exciting and spooky experience. You can pick it up on Steam for $19.99, where it comes bundled with a bunch of integrated extra material that was originally only available as paid downloadable content, such as extra RIGs, weapon variants and more! Of course, a lot of other DLC isn’t available or supported for the PC version, but having looked into it myself, I can safely say you’re not missing anything by getting this edition. The scares are just as scary and the combat is just as gory, so don’t listen to anyone who says it’s better on consoles.
For those new to the universe of Dead Space, a handy synopsis of the original’s plot is immediately available from the main menu, and provides a rapid means of catching up for those who need it. Isaac Clarke, protagonist of the first game, is once again the hero, with opening scene placing him in a government-run mental ward, where he has been kept for the past three years, wracked with guilt over the death of his girlfriend Nicole on the Ishimura and haunted by the lasting mental scars of his contact with the mysterious Red Marker. Of course, it’s not Dead Space without Necromorphs, and this time the game skips most of the build-up, with Isaac’s unlucky rescuer getting skewered and infected right before Isaac’s eyes seconds into the plot. The initial chase scene as Isaac flees the ward, with Slashers bursting out of cells and other creatures lunging out of side passages while he struggles with his straight-jacket is heart-pounding, and is an excellent example of what sets the second Dead Space apart from the first. Where the original relied on dread, a heavy, oppressive atmosphere and a somewhat slower pacing, Dead Space 2 is like the second half of Pitch Black, where horror is still present, but takes on a more ‘thriller’ vibe. The game’s no less scary of course, and while the action is more intense, it retains a uniquely Dead Space vibe that no amount of shooting sequences can detract from.
The whole plot of Dead Space 2 ties very heavily into Isaac’s decaying grip on sanity.The first quarter of the game places you at the mercy of two unreliable narrators; Stross, a mental patient from the same lab Isaac was held in, and Daina, partner of Isaac’s unlucky would-be rescuer, who seems trustworthy, but quickly begins to project the sense that she has a hidden agenda. This battle of trust is overlaid on the fact that the Marker pattern in Isaac’s brain is taunting him with hallucinations of his dead girlfriend who mocks and degrades him for his guilt over his self-perceived involvement in her demise on the Ishimura. A heavy emphasis on eye imagery also helps set up the player for one of the most knee-knocking and nail-biting end sequences I have ever seen. On top of that, Isaac has to fight to stay alive in the midst of a massive Necromorph outbreak while at the same time being hunted by the forces of EarthGov. This layer cake of lunacy is delicious, and makes for a rich, engrossing experience.
Of course, there are some things that could’ve been done better. The involvement of the followers of Unitology (an in-universe religion rooted in the worship of the alien Markers) only lasts for a small portion of the game, and the game’s primary antagonist seems cartoonishly two-dimensional at times. It’s not until the last few minutes of the game that he gets any kind of real characterization, which is unfortunate, given how hard he seems to be trying to kill Isaac. Despite this, all the actors make stunning performances, including Isaac himself, who now has a voice despite being mute for the entirety of the first game. Normally when a silent protagonist gets a voice, it doesn’t go well, but Isaac is an exception, and comes across as a genuine human character with problems you can relate to. His voice actor does a great job of conveying the sense that he’s an everyman hero, an engineer caught in the midst of extraordinary events. It’s a great performance that only adds to some already-great writing. Overall, the whole plot works well to retain the sense of Lovecraftian mystery of Isaac’s situation while balancing it on top of a heavier diet of action than his previous adventure. Its human and sci-fi aspects still stand strong even today.
Dead Space 2 retains much of the play-style of its predecessor, with all the old weapons making a comeback, though many now have new alternate fire-modes that make them less situational and more versatile than in the previous game. This is refreshing, since while Dead Space had a creative and brutal arsenal, only the Plasma Cutter ever seemed to remain usable throughout the campaign. New weapons make an appearance as well, with my personal favorite being the viscerally-satisfying Javelin Gun, which when fully upgraded shoots yard-long spikes that can then be triggered to electrify and explode impaled enemies. Furthermore, as if it wasn’t enough fun nailing thing to other things with a high-tech nailgun, the game vastly improves on Isaac’s Kinesis power, letting him grab and toss all sorts of environmental objects to stun or kill attackers. This includes ripping the bone blades off of slain Necromorph Slashers, which can then by launched like a spear. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as turning the enemy’s weapons against them, especially when that weapon is part of their own body.
The game also introduces new enemies, which mix with the old roster in a remarkably well-crafted system of encounters that strive to test your tactical flexibility. Chief among these are Stalkers, crafty, almost alien-looking creatures that, as their name implies, take a stealthy approach to fighting you. They hide behind crates and attack in a hit-and-run fashion, working to unnerve you with their whale-like vocalizations while peeking out occasional to confirm your location. Another is the Pack, which is among the more controversial of the game’s already gruesome creature designs. These nasty critters are made from the adolescent and pubescent humans that fell to the Necromorphs, and charge at you in large numbers with bald, child-like faces set on lanky pale bodies with razor-sharp claws. They serve to occupy and distract you from the more heavy-hitting enemies, weighing you down in a frenzied dog-pile of death whole a Slasher or Leaper winds up for another attack.
Dead Space 2 also introduces a multiplayer component known as Outbreak Mode, where two teams of four human players compete against a third team of Necromorphs and each other in a race to complete objectives before time runs out. The mode contains much of what you’d expect to see from many modern multiplayer modes, with outfits, weapons and boosts to existing abilities locked behind a level-progression system which awards players for completing objectives and killing enemies in matches. It’s mostly defunct now, having never been hugely popular to start with, but it does make an interesting addition to a game that is chiefly action-horror. It’s not without its own element of terror either. As a Necromorph, players can use vent-access to ambush other players, making matches a tense affair, with environments seeming overtly hostile at every turn. Again, it’s not going to win any awards, and it never did, but it is an interesting experiment in trying to expand the series’ repertoire from a single-player focus.
Sound & Design
Dead Space 2’s art design is probably one of the best things about it. Despite being five years old at the time of this writing, it looks better than many other triple-A games, with its careful application of lighting, its butter-smooth frame-rate and its jaw-dropping scenery all well up to spec. Its a testament to what good environmental design can do for a game over the long term. Furthermore, the environment itself again feels like a living character, even moreso than the Ishimura of the first Dead Space. The game takes place on Titan Station, otherwise known as ‘the Sprawl’, a veritable city in space made from the ruins of Saturn’s titular moon. Text, audio and video logs all lend a bit to fleshing out the lore and helping with puzzles, but most of the character of the world comes from the visual and auditory storytelling you experience as you progress.
An excellent example is the segment after Isaac’s harrowing escape from the secure government wing of the station’s hospital at the game’s opening. Once outside the facility, he ends up in the Cassini Towers apartment complex, where he bears witness to the full-scale madness of the Necromorph outbreak sweeping the station. Panicking crowds flee from the swarm of the risen dead, while others lock themselves in their homes in fear. The sounds emanating from the sealed apartment units are like a window to the apocalypse. A man threatens to shoot anyone who tries to remove him from his home, while across the way, an abandoned infant screams and cries for a mother who isn’t there. Overlaid on this is an unusual amount of ominous Unitology imagery, with bloody alien writing that was established as the Church’s calling card in the original Dead Space scrawled all over the place in blood, hinting that the area might be thick with members of the pseudo-religious order.
This kind of artful design is a thing to be cherished, as it so rarely appears in games these days. Like the first game, Dead Space 2 is heavy with metaphors. It even continues the series’ tradition of spelling out a message in an acronym composed of the first letter of each of the game’s chapter titles. The sound and voice acting also shine, with the Necromorphs providing suitably creepy and disgusting audio cues. It also features one of the earliest forms of dynamic musical cues, with the various creatures all having signal sounds and themes equipped with dynamic triggers to help synchronize the soundtrack with the scares. It’s simply amazing, and deserves to be appreciated since many developers today still use the same techniques.
Dead Space 2 is to Dead Space what the later Resident Evil titles are to the first (though without the silly over-the-top convoluted plot). It’s a take on a similar scenario but compensates for the lack of that special first-time scare you get from something original and terrifying with an increase in the action. While it can’t truly capture the spine-tingling terror of that first time on the Ishimura, it still handles itself well, with a dread-filled atmosphere, a rip-roaring pacing and plenty of gruesome action in between. It also plays off the last game in a novel and heart-breaking manner, with Isaac’s emotional struggle serving to make him a very human and fragile character despite his swearing and zombie-stomping abilities. I actually feel it outdoes the first game in many areas, and for that reason, I highly recommend it, both for fans of horror and action. It’s rare a sequel does so much to improve while staying original. It deserves appreciation; your appreciation. So what are you waiting for? Put on your RIG…and m̲͔̮A̞̝̰̺̘̖͔k̵̬͍͈̳͉̻̬e͇̦̠͕̙̹̮ ̼̼͖ͅu̪̠S͙̼̬͝ ̡͍̠͓̙̣w̹̗̝̭͠H͚̹̖̦̖O̧̰̹͙͇̪̤͖l̝e̬͖!