Imagine this: You volunteer to go on a rescue mission to not only discover the ship infested with the most horrific kinds of monsters that the imagination can conjure, but that it’s all part of a larger conspiracy involving a pseudo-cult that believes these monsters are the next phase of evolution. Oh wait, it gets worse. You manage to escape with your life, destroy the giant marker device that drove everyone insane and led to this mess, and find yourself suffering from delusions and severe mental trauma as a result. Finally, once you make it back to civilization, the first thing anyone does is lock you up because they’re convinced you’re crazy and that these ‘Necromorphs’ are just figments of your damaged mind.
This is Isaac Clarke’s situation at the beginning of Dead Space 2. The real problem for him, and everyone else for that matter, is that just because he’s losing his mind doesn’t mean he’s not right.
Dead Space 2, in the story as well as in real life, picks up a couple of years after the original game, which had been released in a period in which EA was doing some exploring of its own; trying out some original games instead of solely relying on tried and true franchises. Dead Space, a pretty damn decent game in its own right, was a modest hit but was a little too linear in its structure and wore its influences just a bit too prominently on its sleeve. Thankfully, it was successful enough that Visceral Games was given the chance to continue the story and expand on an already strong foundation of rock-solid gameplay, a well-realized universe, and genuinely creepy enemies. Boy oh boy, did they ever do that.
The basic gameplay is mostly unchanged from the original; it’s an over-the-shoulder 3rd person shooter in which you have a variety of makeshift weapons with which to dismember and kill a variety of truly horrifying enemies. Visceral did however make a number of design and story choices that, on the surface, must have sounded like terrible ideas. First, protagonist Isaac Clarke would no longer be silent. He is given the full voice-over treatment and a ton of dialogue to wade through. I don’t recall anyone out there thinking it would turn out particularly well at the time, but they did a really excellent job by finding a strong voice actor and giving him a good script to work with. Making Isaac less of a cipher and more of an actual character actually turned out to be exactly what Dead Space 2 needed.
The other big decision they made was to take the cardinal rule of horror movies/games/etc. — you know, the one that says you should never show the enemy until the final act? The idea goes that what a person can imagine is always far scarier than what can be seen, and if an author shows his/her hand too early, it will ruin its overall effect as the story wears on. — Well, they took that rule and just tossed it out the window. Hell, in the first five minutes of this game they show a character get transformed into a Necromorph inches from your face. Believe me, it does absolutely nothing to dull the effect of encounters with Necromorphs during the course of the game.
The Sprawl is incredibly well designed as a game space in that it gives the illusion of being open-ended while nudging you down a linear path. Unlike the USS Ishimura of the first game, different parts of this environment are distinctive and look less like scary corridors than like lived-in spaces formerly populated by people.
As for the monster designs, well, what is there to say really? Few boundaries are left uncrossed in this game, as evidenced by Isaac’s detour through the Elementary School. I applaud Visceral to have the balls to take a situation like this and go all the way with it instead of creating some kind of excuse about why there are no children in The Sprawl. On the other hand, seeing baby and infant Necromorphs…especially the babies…was almost too much for me to take.
There are people who turn their noses up at a game like Dead Space 2 because ‘it relies on jump scares’ and ‘because it’s just and action game’. Well, my response to that is that jump scares are still scares, and this game does them better than anyone. As for the action game accusation? Sure, you have a variety of weapons at your disposal, but on difficulties of ‘Normal’ and above, there are many occasions where that isn’t enough. Once you beat the game, it unlocks a special difficulty level in which you are only able to save three times in the entire game. Is it ‘traditional’ survival horror? Well no, but this is a big industry and there’s room for all kinds of games out there. What Dead Space 2 does, it does exquisitely.
As a general rule, I try to avoid talking about a game’s ‘polish’ as something to be singled out for praise because frankly it should be something that’s just expected. I feel compelled to mention it here however, because Dead Space 2 is just so well put together. From the first few (literally) in-your-face moments to the thrilling finale, every moment of this game is expertly paced and scripted. On top of that, the visuals, controls, frame rate, level design, HUD, and sound design are absolutely top-shelf. Finally, add some fine supporting characters and an inspired injection (oh God….needles…ugh) of genuine personality into the protagonist and you have yourself a prime example of how to make a phenomenal video game.
Dead Space 3 is coming soon, and there has been concern from some about its co-op mode and an apparent greater focus on action in trailers and other promotional material. We’ll all know in the next few weeks whether or not there’s any substance to these claims, but what I do know is that if the upcoming title is 75% as good as Dead Space 2, it will assuredly be well-placed on many of 2013’s Game of the Year lists.
[+Impeccably polished] [+Tense and thrilling throughout] [+Excellent voice acting] [+’New Game Plus’ and unlockable difficulty offer new challenges] [-Highly disturbing content…even for a horror game]