Welcome to The Sprawl (an obvious nod to William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels), a city-sized base on Saturn’s sixth and largest moon, Titan. After the traumatizing events of the first Dead Space, Isaac Clarke finds himself wearing a straight jacket. Two years have passed since the horrors of the USG Ishimura and now the necromorphs have overrun The Sprawl. Titan has a marker… they BUILT a marker. Now Isaac has to get the hell off this rock, destroy the new marker, and maybe stop the hallucinations of his long-dead girlfriend Nicole from breaking his mind completely.
You’ll know right from the start that this new Dead Space is something different. It begins with a loving old video of Nicole, the girlfriend you discovered was already dead at the end of the first Dead Space. From there it’s a nice chat with a psychiatrist where the events of the USG Ishimura are detailed, including facial expressions and more lines from Isaac in the first few minutes than the total playtime of the first game. Isaac – as a character – maintains this level of involvement throughout the game, often doffing his helmet for interactions with other characters.
Story is one of the biggest problems we had with the first Dead Space and Dead Space 2 rectifies that with a vengeance. The exact nature of the marker, how it works, and where it came from is a convoluted thing and Dead Space 2 doesn’t seek to answer those questions but instead focuses on Isaac’s own internal (or perhaps supernatural) struggles as he tries to destroy the new marker and save those precious few survivors. Isaac is like Ripley in the film Aliens. He was the lone survivor of the first contact, now he’s the bad@$ they all have to turn to. Little do they know exactly how much his mind is breaking with the effort.
Most of the gameplay is exactly what you remember from the original Dead Space. Third-person, camera over Isaac’s right shoulder, no HUD, kinesis, stasis, health on his back and ammo on his gun are all elements returning to Dead Space 2. There are some new things, however. Hacking is now a minigame in which you rotate the left stick around an octagon to avoid red spaces and hit X when you find a blue space. This is repeated three times every time you hack. While it proved to be less annoying than its predecessor’s answer to hacking, it was incredibly easy. Zero gravity was good in the first Dead Space and it’s great in Dead Space 2. Instead of flying off in a straight line, Isaac’s new armor features vents for full movement in zero gravity. This makes for a lot more exploration, more complex zero-G puzzles, and more dynamic zero-G fighting.
Dead Space 2 introduces several new weapons to the fold. Returning are the ever-reliable plasma cutter and your other weapons, but with some new friends. The Javelin Gun fires a metal pike through enemies, pinning them against walls, while the alt-fire unleashes electricity on already fired javelins, potentially catching other foes in the torrent. The Detonator is a gun for setting up powerful mines, while the Seeker Rifle is the franchise’s first sniper rifle. Unlike the original Dead Space, the weapons have been altered and rebalanced to give you incentive to use more than just the plasma cutter from start to finish.
New necromorphs also crowd The Sprawl. All the standard enemies make a return, but now there are Crawlers (explosive babies), Pukers (caustic ranged attack), and the brilliantly devious Stalkers (think necromorph meets velociraptor), to name a few.
The biggest departure from the original Dead Space is the addition of an online multiplayer mode. This really feels like Visceral had no intention of putting multiplayer in the game but Electronic Arts insisted, as it’s a big part of their strategy for beating the secondary and rental markets. There is only one multiplayer mode with five maps. Each map has a team of four engineers trying to accomplish some objectives while the necromorphs are trying to tear them limb-from-limb. The games are all four-on-four with two rounds. One round your team will play engineers, the other round you’ll play necromorphs.
The multiplayer is not only bland but also a bit broken. Engineers rarely ever win a round. To accomplish an objective, one has to stand in front of an object and hold the X button for a while as his buddies defend him. Not only are there the four human-controlled necromorphs, but there are standard computer-controlled necromorphs running around too. The necros are easier to kill than the engineers, but necromorphs have numbers and respawn faster. There is no deathmatch, no king of the hill mode, nothing but this one mode. Hardly worth paying for an online pass should you pick one up second-hand.
Graphically, Dead Space 2 looks very much like the original Dead Space but with several artistic improvements. While the first game took place all on one ship with lots of backtracking, Dead Space 2 spans several sectors of The Sprawl. You start in a hospital but quickly find yourself in a large Church of Unitology with a Gothic-architecture-in-space vibe. The game takes many more chances to involve you in cinematic cutscenes that require some shooting or quicktime events to survive. Isaac seems prone to some rather suicidal choices this time around, but nothing is quite so impressive as launching yourself out of an ejector seat at high speed halfway across The Sprawl. The team spent a lot of time on this, with ne’er a glitch in sight.
The sound design for Dead Space 2 is more impressive than the first game. Full advantage is taken of surround sound, with whispering, scratching, and all other sorts of noises coming from all directions to keep you on edge. The music is perfect and the voice acting is much improved, a great compliment to the vastly improved script and story.
One bad decision on the part of Visceral Games was the extension of death scenes. Dead Space is known for gruesome death scenes andDead Space 2 ups the ante significantly with longer, more varied, and more vomit-inducing scenes than ever before. While this may sound good to the survival horror junkie in concept, it breaks down in actuality. If you’re having particular trouble with a section, replaying the same drawn-out death scene over and over without the ability to skip grows tedious very quickly.
Fortunately, Dead Space 2 makes up for the multiplayer and overdone death scenes by being everything the original was and more. The single-player campaign will run 12-15 hours depending on your skill, but you’ll have only begun upgrading all your potential equipment. Like the original, Dead Space 2 offers new game plus, so you can carry all your upgrades and purchases into the next playthrough, which also offers new upgrades. There’s even a masochistic hardcore mode which amps up the difficulty, makes you restart from the last save when you die, and only lets you save three times over the course of the game.
This puts Dead Space 2 at well over 30 hours of gameplay for a true completionist, plus the addition of a multiplayer – no matter how bland – puts the value a bit higher than the original Dead Space.
Some have said that outside some niche Japanese games, survival horror is dead. Before sitting down for Isaac Clarke’s second go-round with the necromorphs, I may have agreed. After getting my inner child ravaged for 15 hours in The Sprawl, I am reminded of what survival horror really means. Not only being scared out of your mind, but struggling to survive as every shot has to count… or else. Dead Space 2 resuscitates the survival horror genre and then claims the throne for its own.