Life is hard.
Dead Space 2 is harder.
After surviving the horrors of the necromorph infestation aboard the USG Ishimura in the original Dead Space, you'd expect protagonist Isaac Clarke to want nothing more than a quiet life on some tropical island. Instead, at the start of DS2, we see our favorite space engineer being poked and prodded by government scientists intent on harnessing the power of the Marker, the alien artifact that saw hundreds of people turned into bloodthirsty killing machines. Oh, and said prodding is happening in a secret facility on a space station inhabited by countless thousands. Well done, government scientists. What could possibly go wrong?
By Stu Horvath
Isaac, strapped into a straitjacket, has to escape a hospital filled with patients that are quickly turning homicidal and growing blades for limbs. (Expect to die at least once during the first 30 seconds of the game. Seriously.) Once free of his restraints, he still has to escape the space station, the evil intentions of the government, and the machinations of the equally nefarious Church of Unitology (who believe that submitting to the necromorphs is the next step in human spiritual evolution)—not to mention his own suicidal impulses, which are played out in a series of disturbing psychotic episodes sprinkled throughout the action.
Along the way, Visceral Games has created what can only be described as a celebration of grisly death. From the awful suffering of random bystanders to the myriad ends met by Clarke (I have been killed no less than four different ways by blast doors closing—if I have to start recounting the endless ways the necromorphs have done me in, I may be ill), Dead Space 2 constantly reminds players that death comes quickly and without ceremony, usually to rip one part of you from another part of you.
The game boasts the standard renovations audiences now expect from a sequel. The graphics are much improved, there are new weapons, the environments are more varied and expansive (no more rusting bulkheads!) and the tedious fetch-and-repair quests of the original game have been removed in favor of a more narrative-driven game, complete with dynamic setpieces that will leave your jaw at your feet (possibly severed). The zero gravity portions, now re-worked to allow for free-floating movement, are particularly well done.
There's also a sturdy, if unremarkable, multiplayer mode that pits teams of necromorphs against teams of human soldiers. It's essentially one part Gears of War and one part Left 4 Dead, with objective-based maps making for fast-paced and strategic cooperative play—but ultimately, it's the single-player experience and its creepy creepy creepiness that has the drawing power.
Of some concern is the game's pervasive darkness (literal darkness, not tonal darkness), which hampers the action at times. And while it's nice to hear Clarke talking in the sequel, his voice doesn't fit a character who by now is horror-hardened and half-mad with post-traumatic stress disorder. He comes off, on occasion, like John McClane in space. And out here, dying is anything but hard. [Ed.—zing!]
Those are small criticisms in light of the oppressive atmosphere that Dead Space 2 has mastered (well, almost mastered—the school area with its exploding zombie babies was more eye-rolling than pulse-quickening). The first game was terrifying to a fault: Players found themselves under constant assault, both physically and psychologically, leaving many (me included) able to play only in small bursts. Dead Space 2 has paced its horror more effectively, allowing for longer sessions and a broader palette of horror. Where Dead Space was about desperation, Dead Space 2 is in turns about desperation, isolation, disgust, frustration, and hysteria.
More than anything, Visceral has created an environment that truly gives a sense of disaster and manages a pace and a scope of fear well beyond the first game. It's picking through the ruins left behind—seeing the evidence of panic and chaos and the frantic struggle for survival—that you find the game's true impact. Because it's not death, but the spectre thereof, where the most chilling horrors of Dead Space 2 lie.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.