Isaac Clarke returns in Visceral Game's action horror sequel Dead Space 2, where you can take your Necromorph slaying skills online or play through one of the most masochistically hardcore modes ever made.
They must have known when they finished production that there would be divergent opinions among the franchises already impressive following. It's likely, in fact, that they anticipated the new fans they'd draw in would more than offset those that left because the series had gone in a direction that wasn't consistent with the tone of the original. What happened to the claustrophobic atmosphere and the suffocating darkness? Why does the main character seem different now? Why did they get rid of the horror and add so much action? Are they doing it just to sell more?
Of course, fifteen years later it's easy to look back on James Cameron's thrilling action film, Aliens, and recognize that not only did it sell well it also brought the wonderful franchise to a whole new audience that would learn to respect its lineage. You either love Alien and its sci-fi horror or you're an Aliens first kind of person and nothing excites you more than watching heavy assault weapons decimate the revolting spawns of hell. What used to be a point of contention has grown into a pillar of mutual respect for fans by even the most loyal of Alien purists around. Now, keep that in mind...
Monday's are Hell
Dead Space 2 picks up a few years after our series hero, Isaac Clarke, barely escaped the Ishimura slaughter which saw an alien infestation, known as the necromorphs, kill and reanimate everybody on the spaceship that Isaac was sent to rescue. This time things start with Isaac in a hospital somewhere in The Sprawl, a major metropolis built on Saturn's largest moon that's in the middle of its own necromorph outbreak. To ensure things are a little crazier this time around Isaac can't remember anything except his dead girlfriend, and he's psychologically coming apart at the seams and struggling to hide it. But after being contacted by a woman who promises to cure Isaac's dementia, you take control with this new purpose and direction in mind, you just need to survive long enough to find her. No problem, right?
Dead Space 2 avoids any unnecessary story exposition and gets right to the action and atmosphere. You wake up, things have gone to hell, and you grab a plasma cutter and start shooting. If there's one lingering issue I had with Dead Space 2 it's that everything is very seat-of-your-pants. That makes sense to a certain point but it also works against Isaac and the characters that surround him when their decisions start to go against basic survival common sense. It's surprising then that Isaac, who actually speaks in the sequel, is so likable. I felt compelled to stay with him as he worked through his fragile mental state, no matter where that led us or what bad choices he was making.
Visceral Games have included a "Previously on Dead Space" video that recaps the series so that anyone can jump right in and understand most of what's going on. Helping to keep things simple during the campaign is the clever in-game interface from the original, which has been tweaked for the better. All the information a player needs comes directly off of Isaac, so what you usually get in a heads-up display comes from his back and wrist. Isaac's life bar, air tank and stasis reserves are display along his spine while his inventory, communicator and waypoint finder is all done from a device on his wrist. Since information is easy to spot you can remain focused on the matter at hand, which is great because the matter at hand is action and the action is crazy amounts of pure awesome.
Exiting Zero Gravity
The game plays very similar to the original with a few subtle improvements that make it tighter, faster and more diverse. The better control over Isaac might be hard to distinguish if you haven't played Dead Space in a long time, but he's lighter on his feet, and more accurate with his guns, as if every motion is purposefully economical. You'll still be squishing necromorph corpses beneath your feet to severe their limbs, Dead Space's angle on how you deal with aliens, but at least now you'll make contact when you stomp instead of standing like a jackass because you missed and the corpse rag-dolled out into space anyway. The take away to this is that you're able to react quicker to the hoards of enemies that swarm you and, if you can't tell already, that matters - a lot. Like Aliens, Dead Space 2 is less about the one enemy that springs from the dark than it is about the constant barrage of clusters of enemies working together to flank you.
It's a good thing then that Visceral has iterated on the original necromorph types to come up with even more diverse opponents that test your skill but still reflect the change in location. The first game was an isolated event on a derelict spaceship, but The Sprawl is a huge city filled with residential skyscrapers, hospitals, space ports, schools, and industrial factories, torn through and ravaged by the necromorphs. Since the idea behind these monsters is that they reanimate corpses you'll witness atrocities that once inhabited the city.
My favorite, hands down, is the Stalker, the first enemy type to show any real form of intelligence. The Stalker is reminiscent of a famous movie reptile which the game gives a nod to with an achievement and trophy. Other small necromorph types like The Pack are easy to tear through with the right tools but will rip you to shreds if you let them surround you, while the Crawlers are an explosive addition that you'll first meet in one of the games more disturbing scenes. I won't spoil more than that but I will remind you that this is a mature game and the rating is more than earned - keep this away from impressionable children.
For the most part the additional enemies force you to change things up instead of relying on the same weapon for each of them. Mind you, one thing the sequel still lets you do is level up weapons, like the Ripper for instance, to a max level that can take out virtually any enemy with ease. Even still, with well over two dozen enemy variations now you'll have to act quickly and be able to adjust strategies for each situation. If you kept a cool head during Dead Space there weren't a lot of areas that were tough to get through. This time the crush of smarter enemies the action intense and ensures you stay on edge all the way to the insane ending. There's a few spots that are really hard to get through and should be welcomed by gamers looking for a test. If you're not right in the head you can also try playing the games hardcore mode where basic necromorphs can kill you in a couple swipes, ammo and health is rare, and to top it off you can save just three times through the whole game.
Make Us While Again
Dead Space 2 and its predecessor are similar to the Dead Rising franchise in that they're some of the only titles on the market that give you real incentive to play through the game again and again. In New Game + mode you restart the campaign with all of the upgrades from your previous run. Given the difficulty, the oppressive nature of the combat and the unnerving story it's pretty awesome to be able to jump back into the action with beefed up toys so you can mop the floor with a stack of bloody limbs from every necromorph that crosses you. That type of empowerment is usually superficially fabricated or the result of poor AI, but here it feels like a just reward for battling hard for twelve to fourteen hours.
When you're done cracking reanimated skulls in the single player there's a new multiplayer mode accompanying the game. I'm not going to lie: Dead Space 2 multiplayer is a love it or hate it addition and one that feels forced. Players break up into two teams, necromorphs and humans, and battle over two rounds, switching halfway through. Humans are tasked with completing objectives like uploading data or setting up bombs while the opposing necromorphs just have to stop them. It's hard as the aliens though because the assault rifle toting humans are much more powerful and can generally plow through a small group of necromorphs with ease.
To compensate for their limited strength and frail bodies, the necromorphs come in wave after wave and can approach the battle from virtually anywhere. Players choose one of four types of monsters and then select which vent to spawn from. You can, very literally, spawn right behind, above or below the human players, giving well-coordinated teams a particular advantage. The dichotomy of having a weak but relentless team against a more powerful foe that has only to manage time is an intriguing one but it's also awkwardly uneven. If you need a better example it's essentially Left 4 Dead 2 online, but without as much depth. There's definite potential here but it's not for everybody and shouldn't be the reason you purchase the game.
The Beauty of the Beast's
I decided to go back and play the original recently - you receive a special unlock if you have a Dead Space save on your system - and I was reminded of how well crafted the Ishimura was. Though the gameplay changes of the sequel are mostly nuanced the graphical polish and art direction of the game has improved by leaps and bounds. The Sprawl resonates on a familiar level by representing what we commonly associate as home life, and the sci-fi liberties taken with the world pay dividends by adding a little dose of wonderment to the surroundings. As much as I loved the space ship, and I think they did a wonderful job varying the decks to feel different, it was hard not to recognize that each area was essentially a redressed version of the last. Dead Space 2 has some of that but it's nowhere near as prevalent, and given that you're spending anywhere from 10 to 15 hours playing through the single player campaign, and the game begs to be replayed, it makes a big difference that the locations stay fresh.
On top of the greatly realized world the character models and animations have been substantially improved upon. By no means did Dead Space look bad but when you compare them now it's easy to distinguish how finely detailed sequel is. This extends to the lighting of the environments throughout the game, which is cool not because of technical prowess but because of stylistic direction. It isn't just about turning off the lights to spook you either, as the developers have allowed for more colorful and unique light sources that don't hide the world, but showcase it in fascinating ways.
As I mentioned above Isaac Clarke is now fully voice, a strange choice to make for a sequel, but the right one. It's great to make the everyday engineer turned action hero a silent protagonist so that players can identify with them but it limits the narrative and creates awkward scenarios where you're keenly aware of the silence. By casting Gunner Wright in the role of Clarke, Visceral instantly lends credence to the story, past and present, and makes it easier than before to relate to Clarke. What makes Wright's work even more impressive is that even without Isaac speaking during the first game it's easy to believe that he always sounded like this. He isn't the only great performance though: Tanya Clarke, as the ex-girlfriend Nicole Brennan, Sonita Henry, as the smart and beautiful Ellie Langford, and Leila Birch, as the ethereal and ever present Sprawl Computer, all deliver notable characters while Brian Bloom, Patrick Cavanaugh, Andy Chanley, Aimee Miles, Richard Doyle and April Jones round out the games many talented actors.
Roster Updates Are Ruining Games
For a long time Electronic Arts was criticized as a company that did little to push new IP's and relied heavily on bought licenses. That's changed and it's because of games like Dead Space, which people should remember is a game that sold very poorly when it was released even though it was critically lauded. As someone that has taken shots at the corporate giant in the past let me be the first to praise EA for sticking with a franchise that may grow into a mainstream favorite - something it more than deserves.
Dead Space 2 polishes and refines the gameplay of the first and cranks up the action with tighter controls, impressive set pieces and better overall design. It looks superior, plays better, the story is more engaging and even if you're not blown away by the multiplayer it's still a worthier package. The only downside is that players are going to have to trade the pure scares of the first for the faster action of the second. It's the Aliens of the Dead Space series - an expertly crafted action fright-fest that stands among the most exquisitely produced video games in recent years and is the first must play game of the year.
How does it Sound: EA's studios are among the leaders in audio design. 10/10
How does it Look: A more polished and realized world 9.5/10
How does it Play: Swifter action & better enemies. Online isn't as tight though. 8.5/10
How is it Presented: The story and acting is strong, more ways to play the game. 9/10
How long it Lasts: 12-14 hr campaign worth playing again, and multiplayer. 10/10
Final Score: 91%
Final Score is not an average but a rating of the entire game.