By Marty Mulrooney
The long-awaited, much-anticipated return of improvisational Necromorph slayer Isaac Clarke has finally arrived. A direct follow-up to the critically acclaimed 2008 survival horror third-person shooter Dead Space, Dead Space 2 – developed by Visceral Games and published by Electronic Arts – sees a leaner, meaner, much more vocal Clarke grabbing his trusty Plasma Cutter once again to save the day… and hopefully this time, his dementia ridden mind.
The original Dead Space ended on something of a cliff-hanger when sole USG Ishimura survivor Isaac Clarke destroyed the mysterious ‘Marker’ behind the Necromorph infestation and escaped into space, only to have his dead girlfriend jump out at him from the shadows as the final credits rolled. If this all sounds somewhat vague – or perhaps entirely unfamiliar to you – fear not: the sequel offers a handy catch-up video for forgetful fans and newcomers alike to get themselves well and truly up to speed.
Which is just as well, as Dead Space 2 wastes no time getting started. As the game begins, Isaac finds himself waking up with no memory of the past three years. He is wearing a straitjacket in a hospital on the Sprawl, a densely populated metropolis built on a shard of Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Inevitably, there is an outbreak of Necromorphs and before long, Isaac is running down dark corridors without the use of his arms, fleeing from a whole host of unspeakable horrors. It is a superb opening that gets straight to the point and simultaneously showcases Isaac as a new, improved protagonist with both a face and a voice that players can emotionally buy into, iconic suit aside.
Dead Space 2 is a true sequel in nearly every sense of the word. Trusting that players will have already completed the first game and will therefore be relatively familiar with the franchise’s unique gameplay mechanics, developer Visceral Games makes the returning ‘Stasis’ and ‘Kinesis’ modules available very early on, allowing players to freely slow down enemies and manipulate objects as they hack off limbs – still the staple gameplay element. Although this is admittedly nothing new, it all works so much more fluidly here than it did in the original game. Isaac moves smoother and faster than ever before, the upgraded engine making slowing down an enemy Necromorph, shooting off its head, stasising its claw and then using said claw to impale a second enemy to the wall an entirely valid plan of attack. Players can now use a medipack (Circle) or refill their stasis (Triangle) with the click of a button too, negating the need for any clumsy mid-battle inventory juggling: in other words, an absolute godsend.
The zero-gravity sequences have also been given a complete overhaul. Where before Isaac could only walk on walls, he can now hover in-between them, anchoring himself to the nearest surface at will. Jets emit from the shoes of his suit, allowing him to fly through space like a darker, scarier version of Iron Man. At one point during an early level, Isaac reaches a missing carriage on a moving train. Whereas in the previous game this would have presented an impassable obstacle, Isaac now simply jets forward towards the next carriage. This is what a good sequel should always be about: familiarity mixing with genuine improvements to create an experience that still manages to amaze and delight. Sequences played alone in space are surprisingly peaceful and beautiful, contrasting starkly with the more adrenaline-fuelled sequences of quick-reflex freefalling. They offer much-needed respite in a game that is otherwise entirely relentless from beginning to end.
So, what else is new? The terrifying Velociraptor-style enemies, aka Stalkers, are a superb addition to the regular enemy roster. They peek around corners before charging at you and their pack mentality will present a real problem if you don’t keep your guard up at all times. Other enemy types are less powerful but quickly become a nuisance if they get too close, such as ‘The Pack’, horrific childlike Necromorphs that sprint towards you with claws for hands. Blow out a window and enemies – as well as anything else not bolted down – will be sucked out into space, with Isaac following to his death if you don’t manage to shoot the dangling red emergency button fast enough. The set pieces are also far more frequent and impressive, breaking up some of the repetition Dead Space was quite rightly criticised for, although they sadly cluster more towards the beginning of the game.
Elsewhere, The Sprawl as a location stands out as a marked improvement over the USG Ishimura, which often felt too mechanical and cold to be a real, lived-in place. Here, the realism – and therefore the horror – is amplified by the locations, which include a Unitologist Church, vast living quarters, a nursery and a shopping mall. Whilst none of these locations quite convey the depth seen in other environment-centric video games, such as Bioshock’s underwater city of Rapture for example, their inclusion certainly strengthens the illusion of the city overall and offers an enhanced sense of exploration. The disposal of self-contained chapters is a wise move too, making the game flow a lot smoother as a narrative whole.
The biggest improvement overall though is Isaac himself: he really grows as a character during Dead Space 2. The new hacking mini-games, as well as some of the larger puzzles, highlight Clarke as a resourceful, brilliant engineer. The fact that he is now voiced – and voiced well – also adds plenty of punch to his slipping sanity, as well as much-needed poignancy during scenes where it is shown he still hasn’t let go of his beloved Nicole. New female lead Ellie is wisely not inserted as a love interest either: instead, her interactions with Clarke sparkle with genuine comradery, as well as offering occasional comic relief. Jason Grave’s score glues everything together terrifically; the inclusion of sombre violins perfectly matching Isaac’s new, tormented persona.
The inclusion of a HD port of the previously Wii-exclusive on-rails shooter Dead Space: Extraction (PlayStation Move compatible) with the Limited Edition of Dead Space 2 on PlayStation 3 makes which console offers the best experience a no-brainer, especially as it is the same price as the regular edition. Although both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions offer comparable experiences otherwise, the fact that the latter is offered on one disk rather than two further sweetens the deal. Multiplayer is a new inclusion that although quite fun – Humans vs. Necromorphs deathmatches with varying objectives – doesn’t offer anything special and certainly doesn’t warrant its own paragraph here. EA seems keen to combat future losses via second-hand sales by making multiplayer require their Online Pass (retail copies come with a redeemable code) but honestly, I don’t think players will be missing out on much if they just stick with the main 10 hour single player game.
Overall, Dead Space 2 is a great sequel that does a hell of a lot of things right. Sure, it is somewhat unbalanced, with a strong first half followed by a slightly weaker second half that tends to rely on repetition (spawning enemies) and old tricks (dark, generic corridors) more than it should. However, none of this can take away from the fact that Visceral Games have taken risks with their central protagonist and ended up with a superbly realised hero that players can actually care about and relate to. Isaac Clarke is destined to become a gaming icon: he is a strong leading man that has hopefully now risen above being noticed merely due to the coolness of his various engineering suits. Add to this a surprisingly gripping storyline, breathtaking graphics and improved gameplay – as well as extensive weapon and upgrade options that add immense replay value – and we already have an early contender for game of the year. A sci-fi horror gaming classic.
9 OUT OF 10