The original Dead Space is a rather hard act to follow; a lone new IP cast out into a harsh uncaring market where anything that doesn’t have a big number at the end of its name is usually destined for failure, especially if it’s trying to do something unique. But I suppose the secret to Dead Space’s success was that it didn’t really do anything we hadn’t seen before, it was mostly just lots of tried and tested mechanics and tropes copied from other games and a good few classic sci-fi movies. Instead of innovation, what really earned it that catalogue of awards and impressive sales figures was the enormous production values it in every aspect of its execution.
It’s a shame then that the level of quality in other Dead Space products since the original has been nothing short of dire. As such, I was really beginning to have doubts that Visceral Entertainment would be able to pull it all off a second time around with Dead Space 2. I think I managed to put those doubts to rest at roundabout the same time I first blasted a zombie’s legs off with a surgical laser, or maybe it was a bit before that when I pined one to a wall using a giant metal rod I threw at it with telekinesis, I don’t really recall which.
Dead Space’s unique augmented reality style UI is just as impressive as ever, but now with even more elaborate 3D effects
Set 3 years after the ambiguous endings of Dead Space and Dead Space: Extraction our protagonist Isaac Clark awakes on a giant space station known as “The Sprawl” with no memories of how he got there (how original!) or what he’s been doing in the meantime. It then eschews the traditional low-key opening segment and instead immediately thrusts you straight into the action with Isaac’s arch-nemeses, the zombie like Necromorphs, already ripping off limbs left right and centre before your very eyes. And if that wasn’t bad enough you’re also being perused by a small army of trigger happy space marines lead by the antagonistic station chief Hans Tiedemann. So yeah, your usual sci-fi stuff. Well written, superbly voice acted (very unlike other Dead Space projects) engrossing and above all entertaining, but still pretty predictable. But just like its predecessor, Dead Space 2 isn’t about showing you something new, it’s about showing you something generic but doing it better than the rest.
Take the Sprawl itself for instance. As a gamer you’ve probably seen a fair few space stations in your time, but I bet there weren’t many of them even close to being as varied as the one on show here. It’s very rare for a sci-fi setting to put a strong emphasis on believable locations that you’d reasonably expect a real space station to actually have, yet Dead Space 2 sends you through anything from a shopping mall to a nursery on your quest for sanctuary. A quest that’s all the better now that Dead Space has dropped its gimmick of having the end of every chapter involve an arbitrary tram ride to the next area. Now the narrative is just a series of seamless transition from one chapter to the next, and without any major interludes running the sense of immersion. I tell you what though, not being able to say to yourself “oh I’ll just play up till the next tram ride” anymore makes it as hard as hell to stop playing, it’s a miracle I managed to pull myself away to write this review! Although it’s a bit of a let-down that all this refinement came at the cost of freedom.
The graphics go far beyond the highest of standards you could reasonably expect from a modern console game. The dozens of development teams currently working on generic shooters should take heed.
At first I was a bit confused as to why the map function on the UI wasn’t visible anymore, but I just put it down to me being too early in the game to have access to it and decided to patiently wait for the inevitable unlock. But sadly that moment never came. Dead Space doesn’t have a map anymore because it doesn’t need one; the levels are so extremely linear now that all a map would show is a straight line with a few right angle turns. The game even locks a lot of the doors behind you, just in case you dared to try and backtrack or do anything that could be considered exploring. And while I suppose there’s nothing intrinsically bad with the concept of linearity as such, it’s still very sad to see all these wonderful environments restricted to one unidirectional critical path, especially when the game keeps teasing me with huge backdrops of the gigantic space station that I know I’ll never get to properly investigate.
The other big disappointment in Dead Space 2 comes when we finally get to hear Isaac speak, as apparently he’s now cured of whatever caused him to be tongue-tied in the years prior. Normally I hate the whole silent protagonist trope with a fiery passion, so I should be over the moon that they decided to give him a voice this time around. But to be honest, I already wish Isaac would shut up. He really doesn’t really have anything to say that’s worth saying. “Who are you?” “Where am I?” “What should we do now?” that’s about as complex as his characterisation gets most of the time, a rather harsh contrast when a lot of the other Dead Space characters are pretty well fleshed out. He also helps reinforce my belief that whoever writes dialog for these games has an unhealthy obsession with the word “Shit” considering Isaac (and a few others) seems intent on ending or starting every single sentence with it.
Quick time events are usually not something worthy of praise, but they’re so spectacular in Dead Space 2 that I can let it slide.
Good news is, other than that I really can’t think of anything massively negative to say about Dead Space 2. It’s mostly just improvements all round! Which is funny, because if you’ve seen a lot of screen shots and videos of it already, you’d be forgiven (by me at least) for complaining that the gameplay has been left completely unchanged. But from the very moment you get your hands back on that trusty plasma cutter, you’re hopefully goanna feel a world of difference.
They haven’t turned the whole game on its head as such; it’s still your standard 3rd person shooter over-the-shoulder perspective sorta thing. It’s just that it’s all so much smoother and more efficient in a lot of subtle but significant ways: UI elements loading instantly, melee attacks being speedy enough to be useful, much more fluid movement controls, the run button actually resulting in something close to a run and now you’re even allowed to reload while not in aiming mode! Ok I know that last one might sound a bit silly to some people, but you have no idea what a difference that makes after years of Resident Evil 4 clones.
Oh yeah, and now there’s a Left 4 Dead “inspired” multiplayer mode tacked on. It’s not too bad I guess, but it’s clear it was somewhat of an after tough due to the small number of maps and really poor balancing of unlockable upgrades between the necromorph and human teams.
Isaac’s arsenal of improvised weapons has seen a huge improvement too; many have been significantly powered up and given far more effective alternate firing modes than they had before. You even get a few new cool toys for the collection too, although their usefulness in a game like this is a little…….. questionable. I doubt there’s many people who played through the original Dead Space and though to themselves “You know what this game about fighting zombies at close range really needs? A sniper rifle, a harpoon launcher and ANOTHER gun that shoots bombs”. But at least they’re all still built around Dead Space’s unique and rather gruesome concept of “Strategic Dismemberment” i.e. that the zombies take far more damage when you shoot off their arms and legs than they do from body or head shots, and boy do they like reminding you. I know they’re just pandering to those who skipped the first game and all, but they really didn’t need to spell the whole thing out quite so many times.
Zero gravity sections make a return, but now instead of jumping from place to place you can jet around with the new rocket boosters in Isaac’s suit. It’s less atmospheric but makes combat a lot more exiting, something that’s a good analogy for the game as a whole.
Comparatively the necromorphs themselves haven’t really received much of an upgrade. Although there’s a few new types lying in wait to turn Isaac into meaty chunks, their basic strategy is still the same as its always been: run towards the player and try to stab, vomit or explode, none of which are things you want to happen. So to try and balance things out against Isaac 2.0, the game now throws a far greater number of them at you at any one time than it ever did before. And while this new design paradigm definitely does a good job of evening odds back in their favour, it also creates a very different kind of experience, one that significantly downplays the whole horror element the first Dead Space made such good use of.
Walking down a deserted corridor in Dead Space 2 invokes feelings less along the lines of “Oh crap! If something’s round this corner then it’s going kill me!” and more like “Oh crap! If there’s something round this corner then which of my weapons of mass evisceration am I going to kill it and all its friends with?” Sure, it’s a little startling every now and then when a Zombie jumps out of one of the innumerable monster closets, and the game can still gross you out with some spectacularly grotesque death sequences, but that’s really not the same as being scared by something.
It tries to mix things up a bit by introducing some dementia induced hallucinations that certainly look great and help convey Isaac’s worsening mental state in a convincing way. But are they scary? Not really no. You don’t even need to fear the ammo counter that much anymore, the game showers you with such an absurd amounts of items that you’d have to be a pretty lame shot to ever have to worry about running out. Don’t get the wrong idea though, Isaac may be better, faster, stronger but he sure ain’t harder. You’re still very much a glass cannon; let one or two of those monstrosities get within spitting distance and you can wave your health bar and at least half you limbs goodbye.
It’s pretty hard for the necromorphs to get the jump on you when almost every encounter is neatly telegraphed by an audio cue just a few seconds before they shamble into view.
But that still leaves the big question, has this change of pace made Dead Space 2 better or worse than the original? Well…. I honestly don’t think that it’s fair compare them like that anymore. Although a lot of the components are very similar, the way they’ve been put together has created a radically different type of game. You’re not that confused vulnerable engineer that everyone used as a pawn anymore, the one that struggled to survive alone on a desolate spaceship against impossible odds. No, now your more like a badass shit talking space marine that’s gotta save the universe, one dead alien at a time. And much like Isaac’s innocence, any illusions Dead Space had of being based around concepts of either Survival or Horror have long since been abandoned, turning into more of a generic sci-fi action game. But you know what? It’s one of the best generic sci-fi action games there is, one I’d strongly recommend to both returning fans and newcomers alike, especially if they felt the original wasn’t quite their cup of tea. Just don’t go in there expecting this Dead Space to be the same beast you played in 2008.
- Gameplay has been massively improved.
- Stunning environments.
- Streamlined narrative.
- Extremely linear.
- Isaac is disappointing as a character.
Recommended similar games
System Shock 2 (PC)
Dead Space (PC/Xbox360/PS3)
Resident Evil 4 (PS2/Wii/GameCube)
Space Hulk (PC/Amiga)
Space Hulk: Vengeance of the Blood Angels (PS1/3DO/PC/Saturn)