I’ll be honest, I’m not the biggest fan of horror, let alone the survival-horror videogame genre. So it is rather strange that the original Dead Space managed to hit all of the same notes that made a film like Alien so haunting and memorable. It was a fantastic game and left me eagerly anticipating the sequel. Luckily EA and Visceral Games have delivered to us Dead Space 2, and only made things better.
Dead Space 2 begins 3 years after the events that took place on the USG Ishimura during Dead Space. The protagonist, Isaac Clarke wakes up in a mental institution on The Sprawl, a massive space station located in the mined out remains of Saturn’s moon Titan, with no recollection of the intervening years. Things are not as they seem, of course, as just as he is about to be rescued by some supposed friends, a new necromorph outbreak is beginning on the station. The story follows as Isaac tries in vain to escape the station and in the process uncovers more of the continuing machinations and conflict between the Earth Government and the Unitology Church over the alien Marker.
Now, the original Dead Space was already impressive on a visual and audio level. It had some of the most impressive visuals for the year it was released, and is still one of the best implementations of 5.1 positional/directional audio in any game, even now. The style was that of an homage to Ridley Scott’s Alien, with the claustrophobic, techno-industrial interiors with low, sometimes no, lighting, and lots of sound to keep the player jumping, even when there are no enemies around. Gameplay was very much about using weapons to dismember your opponents and survive to escape the ship. Its only real problems were that the overall objectives were rather same-y throughout, and that most of the enemies spawned from rather obvious monster closets.
So if Dead Space is Alien, then Dead Space 2 would definitely be James Cameron’s Aliens. By all accounts bigger, louder, and often just as harrowing and tense as the first. Dead Space 2 takes the same basic formula and improves on it without breaking anything in the process.
The first and most obvious improvements are on the graphical fidelity. In the original Dead Space, no character was ever shown close-up in frame, even main character Isaac. Lighting helped obscure creatures on the rare occasions when they managed to get into full frame. So even though the models were all impressive, the player could never be quite that sure about the appearances of the few human characters. This time, there is no question, as the first things the player sees are Isaac close-up from the side, followed shortly by another character (from a related title) being turned into a necromorph, also close-up in frame, which is meant to be both shocking and disturbing.
But simple polygons and texture maps are not everything. What really provides the kind of visual atmosphere the game requires is the lighting. One place where many modern generation games have furthered is dynamic lighting: multiple lightsources, usually moving, capable of casting shadows of varying degrees across multiple surfaces. Some games do it well, but Dead Space 2 does it phenomenally. Every area, no matter how intricate or simple, contains large numbers of lights of varying colors and intensity. Many areas are dark, with a small number in spots designed to let the player see just enough to know something is there, and not much else.
What sets the Sprawl further apart is the sets themselves. While the Ishimura did include some some sections in the crew quarters, most of the areas were utilitarian industrial corridors and complexes. Though they did have some special touches, they could become rather similar as they went on. While the Sprawl does have its own industrial sections, there is a greater variety areas. The developers pull no punches by putting Isaac in civilian areas straight away after the opening section. Areas that look old, lived in, and fragile compared to the Ishimura. Areas that include family apartments, shopping areas, a rather unsettling trip through a children’s school and a Unitology Church (that looks largely untouched by most of the chaos).
But all the graphics in the world would not mean anything without sound and music to go along with it. Again, like the original, Dead Space 2 has probably the best 5.1 directional audio mixing of anything I have ever played. Necromorphs howl and roar in the background, always making the player feel uneasy, though the beginnings of the more bombastic cues that signal actual attacks can be a little obvious at times.
When there are no enemies around, every sound is there to accentuate the quiet. The fact that this is a place where there should be alot of noise from all the people that live there, and yet those people are no longer there. Instead in its place are the advertisements, the hum of ventilation and electricity, and even on occasion a children’s toy. It is all intended to make the player feel uneasy with all the sounds that should be there, but are not.
The voice acting is top notch as well. All of the characters are well written, with very few wall banger moments. The big change from Dead Space here is that Isaac is no longer a silent protagonist. Alot of the story is about Isaac trying to deal with the events on the Ishimura, as well as the guilt over the death of his girlfriend, who was only there due to his insistence. He is given a significant amount of character development. While his voice-acting is occasionally a bit flat, it is obvious that he is trying, and the writers thankfully avoid giving him any witty one-liners. Everything is played completely straight.
When paired with the graphics, everything just comes together with the atmosphere and style. That hallway is just a little darker and the flashlight does not illuminate far enough. Was that a necromorph skittering across that doorway? Is that howling close or far away? You know you saw something there, behind the crates, almost cackling as it peeks out, before another screams and rushes from the opposite direction you never expected.
The controls are largely the same from Dead Space, and those are themselves a modern generation refinement of the Resident Evil 4 control scheme. Players have full control of movement and camera. Regardless of movement or not, pressing the key to aim the weapon immediately faces the player in the direction of the camera, with only a loss in movement speed, instead of being rooted in place. Players can switch weapons, pull up the inventory quickly, though inventory management is lessened here than previous. The 3D map has been removed in favor of the objective marker also showing paths to the nearest shops and save stations. All of the game’s HUD elements exist within the world somewhere, instead of on the player’s screen, from health to ammo. Even the inventory and communications are represented as holograms that appear within the game world instead of simply on the screen.
The Kinesis ability is still a glorified Gravity Gun, but its ability to throw weapon-like objects is emphasised early on, as most players do not seem to have thought of it in the original game. An early section even requires the player to survive a small attack with nothing but Kinesis and some rod-like objects. The Stasis ability, at first, seems to be only semi-useful, but becomes more useful as the game goes on, as it now splashes to hit multiple objects instead of just what it actually hits. As well, Stasis now automatically regenerates, the timer can be upgraded, but the initial timer is rather long.
One rather noticeable, though welcome change, is that the game actually plays faster. Its not terribly noticeable at first. Here, Isaac simply moves faster in every way. Walking and running no longer feel plodding, and the difference in setting gives his movement a different weightiness. The melee attacks are even faster, and that is definitely helpful. The basic melee swing is faster, and no longer has the tendency to clip into and be blocked by scenery. The curbstomp happens faster and now moves Isaac forward instead of standing in place, as proper distance to use it is not always easy to judge, and it can be chained together quickly.
More weapons have been added to the mix as well. While the trusty Plasma Cutter is still the go-to weapon in a pinch, the returning weapons are more useful. The new weapons also have a more real weapon feel, as opposed to the improvised tools-as-weapons approach of the original. Also, the Flamethrower is no longer useless before upgrading.
Dead Space 2 also includes a competitive online multiplayer mode. The mode is all team objective based, humans versus necromorphs. There are five maps included with the game, and they are all objective based. With one or two exceptions, all maps involve the human players attempting to complete objectives within a time limit, while the necromorph players have to kill them, alot. The objectives seem to involve transporting an item between places, a single player activating a point for a set amount of time, or destroying an object, similar to other online multiplayer games.
Humans control exactly like Isaac does in the main game, while the necromorphs move around the same, but use different attacks, primarily melee. There are four different types of necromorphs available, each with their own unique abilities. The necromorphs are much more fragile than the humans, so they have shorter respawn timers. Like most other online games, there is a leveling system, with awards at various levels. Awards seem to be skins, weapons, and weapon and character perks for humans, and perks for the various forms for the necromorphs. Judging from my time spent with it, its fun, a little Left 4 Dead-ish, but without an influx of alot more maps, I don’t see a community lasting for very long. If anything, a Gears of War or Halo: Reach style Hoard Mode would be a welcome and an interesting addition for online play.
If there is anything that can be said about Dead Space 2, it is that it is one of those few sequels that improves on original without doing anything worse than the original. It is an incredible audio and visual presentation in equal respects. Dead Space 2 is a phenomenal addition to this relatively new franchise, as well as to the collection of any gamer that likes Resident Evil 4 style survival-horror/action games.