The Dead Space series seems to live by the motto “Mediocre Games borrow. Great Games Steal.” Fortunately, it takes from the best. It cribs Alien’s aesthetics, boosts its gunplay from Resident Evil 4 and pilfers Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid system for upgrading weapons. It sounds like a winning recipe, but I felt that the first game was not equal to the sum of its parts.
So how does Dead Space 2 compare? The single-player campaign starts off with its strongest moment. Our engineer-hero Isaac Clarke is helplessly bound in a straightjacket and running for his life as the space colony is over-run with necromorphs. Clarke has a bit more baggage than your typical survival-horror hero. He is stricken with grief over his girlfriend’s death in the events of the first game, and these issues are made manifest in the sequel through creepy hallucinations and conversations with her ghost. I also want to applaud Visceral Games’ decision to give Isaac a face and voice the second time around. He’s no Nathan Drake, but I actually felt like I was controlling an actual character as opposed to a mannequin.
Another area where Dead Space 2 has improved is level-design, though it is a case of two steps forward and one step back. Setting the game on a colony as opposed to a space-ship has allowed developers to throw in a little more variation, though most of the new sites are outer-space takes on typical horror destinations. We have a creepy space church level, a creepy space kindergarten level and a few creepy space streets. It is an improvement over the endless sea of dark industrial corridors in the first game, but all the environments still feel like hallways, with the exception of the fantastic zero-g sections, which are greatly improved over the first game.
In Dead Space 2, Combat is very similar to its predecessor. The main innovation the series brings to the table is the novelty of shooting off enemies’ limbs to weaken them. There is more depth there than you might think, since all of the weapons have geometric firing patterns that help distinguish them from your typical third-person shooter arsenal, and picking the right gun for the right tentacled horror involves some strategy. You must also mix in time-slowing stasis fields and bursts of telekinetic energy to thwart the mutant space zombie hoards, and everything feels a little faster and more cohesive this time around.
Due to the scarcity of resources, you have to be very careful about which weapons you choose to buy and upgrade. Consequently, you are punished for experimenting and trying different weapons. The game attempts to alleviate the situation by allowing you to re-allocate your upgrades later on in the campaign, but that service also comes at a cost.
Visceral expects you to love the game so much that you will play through it multiple times, upgrading your gear and expanding your arsenal each time, and the higher difficulty settings are calibrated with these replays in mind. The campaign is only about 10 hours long, so three runs is still a lighter time-investment than Dragon Age or Mass Effect, but it is still frustrating to have to wait for the second go-round to try out that flamethrower.
But is it scary? It is scarier than the latest installments of the Resident Evil franchise, though it is less frightening than games like Silent Hill and Fatal Frame. Limited resources and firepower help establish tension, but the bombastic blood and gore will wear you out. Some of Isaac’s death animations are so drawn-out that you will grow numb to the violence before the necromorphs finish dismembering him. For the inevitable follow-up, I would love to see Visceral take a page from Eternal Darkness’ book and do some more with Isaac’s mind games.
As with the single player, Dead Space 2’s new multiplayer mode is a mixture of other titles’ successes. Each game is divided into two rounds, where two teams take turns playing as human soldiers and necromorphs. Imagine a lighter, quicker version of Left 4 Dead’s competitive multiplayer overlaid with Call of Duty’s rank-based unlockables. There is quite a lot to unlock too, but with only five maps, the core game lacks the depth to hold your attention for long.
While it is initially thrilling to rip through stronger human opponents as a necromorph, that manic bloodlust will abate over the course of a week of play. It would be the perfect rental if EA had not locked access to the multiplayer with a one-use-per-copy registration key.
All in all, Dead Space 2 is a very polished addition to the survival horror genre. If you enjoyed the first game, you will love this one. But for me, it is still missing that spark of innovation that would set it apart from the titles that inspired it.