We rather liked our first go at the rotting mess – and we mean that in the best way! – that was Dead Space. There was a lot to like, from the fact that it was EA taking a risk on an actual new IP that wasn’t to do with sports, The Sims or something by DICE, to the somewhat blunt but appreciated homage to hard sci-fi that was the protagonist’s name. And, in between all that, there was an actually quite effective horror action game. It wasn’t perfect, but really, what is?
So now we have Dead Space 2, and it’s delivering, well... pretty much more of the same, plus some hate for the Church of Scientology. In other words, it’s pretty bloody – and we mean that literally – good fun.
Gaming needs more straitjackets
To say that Isaac Clarke’s not had a great time since the first game is bit of understatement. Dead Space 2 opens with our hero in what looks to be an asylum, being questioned heavily about the incidents aboard the planet cracker USG Ishimura. In fact, things get even worse when you next wake up, haunted by visions of the past – and in the middle of some kind of station-wide power failure.
But, of course, it’s actually a necromorph outbreak.
It all happens very fast too, which is an interesting decision. The classic horror trick is to try and hold off on the reveal of the big bad, but Dead Space 2 pretty much rams the outbreak down your throat very early on. It’s not a game-breaker, by any means, but perhaps a mild flirtation from the dead and mutated necromorphs might have made for a more effective reveal later down the track.
That said, the game wastes no time in highlighting your peril – in fact, when you first get control of Clarke you spend the first ten or so minutes of the game in a straightjacket. It’s a neat trick to make you feel particularly helpless, but it also highlights the at times arbitrary nature of game’s challenge level.
That initial fear-mad run through a necromorph gauntlet is a real ball-grabber, but the fact that there seems no rhyme or reason to what can kill you in it is annoying. You shouldn’t need to be resorting to previous check-points this early in the game, and killing you – when it’s the developers’ decision to start you out unarmed and helpless – seems pretty churlish.
There are many other moments like that. They’re the exception, to be sure, but that doesn’t stop them becoming the kinds of moments where you’d rather quit and fire up another game rather than persevere.
For the most part, though, Dead Space 2 delivers pretty much more of the same – a lot of dark corridors, some heinously hideous monsters, and an interesting array of weapons and tools for the dismemberment thereof. By ramping up so soon to the action, however, the sense of horror and mood established in the first game is replaced by a faster, more thrill-like pace. It’s like comparing Alien to Aliens, though, so the change in pace is not a bad thing.
The tools for the job
Dead Space 2’s gameplay is, again, more of an evolution than a revolution. You have much the same spread of weapons – cutters, ballistic weapons, and eventually an array of more exotic beam weapons – and your trusty telekinesis to pick up sharp things and ram them at explosive force up the fundament of various ‘things beyond the ken of man’. The weaponry does seem a little more balanced this time around, however, so it’s not quite a case of one weapon beating being the be-all-and-end-all of monster killing. Plus, many of the game’s achievements tie in to the different weapons, so if you’re the kind of player who must have ALL those blessed ‘chievos, you’ll be swapping weapons in and out of your limited four-clot arsenal all the time.
The Stasis ability is back, too, so when you combine all your many powers to generally mess up a necromorph, you can have some pretty intense battles. You’ll slow down one wave, only to turn and focus on dismembering another beasty, and then judge whether or not to reload before focusing on one or the other. Much of the game’s tension comes from just that kind of conundrum, and many of the weapons are quite limited in their loadouts.
It’s not a constant battle, either. There are many quiet moments – or quietly horrific ones, at least – where you have time to contemplate your dim, shattered surroundings. In many ways, it Dead Space 2’s setting which is the real star.
Every detail of Titan Station, where the game takes placed, is beautifully realised. The locking mechanisms with inset video-screens on apartment doors, the array of equipment and monitors in a hospital lab, even the posters and signs that dot the station’s common areas... it all combines to create a sense of place that is truly rare in games. We’re almost hoping that someone will release a mod that removes the monsters, lights the place up, and just lets us roam about and explore.
Of course, it would look even better with a properly optimised PC engine... but we’re getting used to inherently crippled games on PC these days. What, us? Bitter?
Monster of a game
So not only do you get this great singleplayer experience, but you also get multiplayer... but, sadly, that’s not a plus. Dead Space 2’s claustrophobia and tension is wasted on a game with other players. What it ends up playing like is both a feature-stripped version of the single-player, and a poorly executed mod for Left4Dead.
It’s just not fun. It’s a shame, because it’s things like this that really hold the game back from greatness.
That and those damn shoot-the-glowy-bit challenges. Some of us are bloody colourblind!!! Ahem. Otherwise, good job EA and Visceral Games, and roll on Dead Space 3.