Dead Space 2, by EA and Visceral Games is not for the faint of heart. As the sequel to 2008′s Dead Space, arguably the best survival horror game of this console generation, Dead Space 2 has big, magnetic boots to fill. Of course, Dead Space was not perfect, featuring a lot of backtracking and somewhat repetitive missions, so there was plenty of room for improvement. Does Dead Space 2 feature enough improvements to make it truly great, or does Visceral’s…visceral sequel succumb to the dreaded sophomore slump?
Dead Space 2, like its predecessor, stars nerdy space engineer Isaac Clark. Unlike the original Dead Space, however, Isaac has a voice and a personality this time. Dead Space 2 begins 3 years after the events of the original game, with Isaac waking up in a straight jacket on a giant space station called "The Sprawl". Things go immediately awry as Isaac wakes up to a scene of nightmarish proportions. Seriously, the first 15 minutes are about as intense an opening as I’ve seen in a game. The Necromorphs (dead humans who have been mutated into grotesque creatures) are at it again, loose on The Sprawl killing everything in sight. As if the threat of crazed mutants wasn’t bad enough, Isaac must also cope with his failing sanity as he is confronted by increasingly intense hallucinations.
The Sprawl itself is a massive place located on Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. As such, every time you get to look out into space, you’re greeted by a spectacular view of the great, ringed planet. The original Dead Space took place entirely aboard the mining ship "Ishimura", so the environments were rather dreary and lacked variety. Not so in Dead Space 2, fortunately. The Sprawl is more like an actual city that just happens to be in space. It’s a place that feels lived in, providing a much wider variety of locations for you to travel ranging from a mall, a church, more industrialized areas, residential complexes, even an incredibly creepy school filled with exploding babies (yes, you read that right) and Necromorph toddlers. The scenes of a once thriving metropolis that has suffered a major catastrophe almost gives the game a look that is reminiscent of something like Bioshock.
The variety doesn’t end with the game’s locations, however. The gameplay itself is now a much more varied affair. While it’s true that as an engineer, much of Isaac’s essential tasks boil down to repair work, but it’s made more interesting in Dead Space 2 in a few ways. Most notably is the way the Zero-G gameplay has been improved. No longer are you restricted to jumping from point A to point B without much control. In Dead Space 2, you are granted full movement in zero gravity and it’s used to great effect. Whether you’re out in the vacuum of space aligning huge solar panels, or using your thrusters to maneuver through a deadly obstacle course of grinding gears, Zero-G gameplay in Dead Space 2 is fun every time.
Another way Dead Space 2 mixes things up is by providing a wider variety of enemies in larger numbers as well as the tools you’ll need to dispatch them. Having a problem with swarming Necromorph toddlers? Fire off a round from the Javelin Gun to send him flying and electrify it as he passes his little school mates. Being ambushed by fleet-footed Lurkers? Lay some proximity mines in their path and give them a nasty surprise. Out of ammo? Use kinesis to grab a sharp claw off a defeated enemy to shoot through the head of another. As in the original Dead Space, you’ll happen upon the occasional shop or work bench where you can stock up on supplies and upgrade your equipment using Power Nodes. New to Dead Space 2, however, is the ability to "re-spec" weapons you’ve already upgraded. For a nominal fee, you can remove any power nodes you’ve spent on the selected item and use them elsewhere, allowing you to change up your playing style. It really goes a long way toward keeping things interesting.
Most importantly, the campaign simply feels fun and intense from beginning to end. Unlike its predecessor which had a tendency to drag on and repeat itself, Dead Space 2 will keep your full attention the entire time. When the developers said they’d be focusing more on action this time, it was unclear what exactly that would entail. As it turns out, all they meant was that Dead Space 2 would be expertly paced instead of somewhat lopsided. As soon as you start to feel safe, you’re reminded of just how hostile The Sprawl has become. Clocking in at around 8 – 9 hours, Dead Space 2 also encourages multiple playthrough by offering new sets of armor and equipment to buy on subsequent runs. Also a nice touch is that the New Game+ option allows you to pick a different difficulty setting so that you’re not stuck playing the same way a second time.
Once you’ve finished with Dead Space 2′s campaign, you’ll find that Visceral Games has, curiously, seen fit to include a multiplayer option. When I first heard Dead Space 2 would have multiplayer, I was skeptical. I reacted to it the same way I did when I found out Bioshock 2 would have multiplayer: "Is that really necessary?" Now, as then, I remain unconvinced that multiplayer was really necessary. It is, however, fun in its own right. Dead Space 2′s multiplayer is a bit like Left 4 Dead’s Versus mode. 4 players control engineers attempting to gather data from certain control points, activate escape pods, etc. The other team can choose from a handful of Necromorphs to play as in an attempt to stop the engineers from accomplishing their goals. As you level up, you’ll unlock new weapons and armor for engineers, as well as upgraded Necromorph abilities. It’s somewhat unbalanced, but it’s fun to hang from the ceiling firing little thorns at unsuspecting engineers down below, or chomping down on their neck as a Necromorph toddler. So while Dead Space 2′s multiplayer may not add much to the game, it doesn’t really mar the experience either. Still, it would have been nice to have a few more gameplay modes.
Among its many other merits, Dead Space 2 is a treat for the eyes and the ears. The game makes superb use of lighting, in particular to create some truly foreboding environments. It can be pretty unnerving having to carry a small glow rod through complete darkness while murderous creatures are jumping at you. Aside from the occasional physics bug, Dead Space 2′s graphical presentation is flawless. Dead Space 2′s audio might even be more important than the visuals. From the sound of a crying baby abandoned in apartment, to the desperate screams of a child locked in a washing machine, to the frantic shrieks of Necromorph children, you’ll want to play this game with good speakers or a nice set of headphones. It really helps you to truly appreciate the atmosphere in Dead Space 2.
Dead Space 2 is the very definition of what a great sequel should be. Visceral Games clearly listened to customer and critical feedback about the original Dead Space, because literally every aspect of the sequel is an improvement. Better gameplay, better graphics and sound, better scares, better pacing, better variety, and they even managed to make Isaac Clark a more interesting and versatile character. Multiplayer, though somewhat lacking in features, is just the icing on the delicious cake that is Dead Space 2. It’s one seriously complete package and one you won’t want to miss. It may only be January, but Dead Space 2 is already in the running for game of the year.
Dead Space 2 was released on January 25th, 2011 for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Review is based on the Xbox 360 version.