Dead Space 2 Review

The existence of Dead Space 2 is a bit of a Cinderella story. The only survivor of EA’s 2008 push for new intellectual property, the Dead Space franchise already sports four games, despite only moderate financial success. Dead Space struggles (much like the game‘s hero) against a market filled with mindless multiplayer shooters – lumbering zombie games drained of their emotional impact, stamped out in cookie cutter yearly productions.

Thankfully, Dead Space 2 mostly resists the downfalls of a cash-in clone and advances the deeply personal story of protagonist Isaac Clarke as he and the world around him devolve into madness. Players familiar with the story of the original game (and/or its Wii prequel) will feel very much at home with this outing, but it still makes a good jump-in point for anyone who passed on Dead Space. The universe established in the previous games, animated movies and tie-in novels is expanded right away in Dead Space 2: Isaac awakens from delirium to discover himself committed to a medical facility on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.


Dead Space 2 (XBox360 [Reviewed], PS3, PC)
Developer: Visceral Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: January 25, 2011
MSRP: $59.99

Dead Space 2 wastes little time bringing you up to speed on the events of the past. From the moment the game begins, Isaac is moving to survive. I entered into the game expecting the usual build up of stress, or some triggering event that launched Isaac into this latest crisis, but the game surprised me by offering none of that.

In fact, the opening sequence is brutally unforgiving, and sets the tone within ten seconds of dialog. Things have gone horribly wrong, three years of Isaac’s life are a muddled haze–he is fighting to survive without any understanding of the forces arrayed against him or his importance to the events.

A key change from the “Gordon Freeman” mute hero approach of the original is the addition of a personality for Isaac. No longer does the player get to sit back while people talk at Isaac. Instead, we get a fully voiced Isaac here that interacts with the supporting cast. This new voice work, along with the exposure of Isaac’s face early on, really made me care more about the character. Most games that try to vocalize the main character accomplish a sort of emotional distancing if the character is too “front and center,” but Dead Space 2 walks that line well. Though Isaac now speaks, he is still a man of few words.

Where Dead Space 2 really shines is its pacing. The game’s levels are more linear this time, and there are fewer “boss battles,” but both the emotional and action beats are pitch perfect. The Machiavellian plot behind Isaac’s lost 3 years is somewhat predictable, though, and reminded me of similar approaches used in the F.E.A.R. games. Still, the screenwriting manages to deliver these plot points and conversations in an almost completely believable way.

Dead Space 2 stands out thanks to its use of natural language. I was never dropped out of my investment in the game due to some hokey, hackneyed dialog or badly written “infodump,” problems that plague a lot of games these days.

I can’t really say enough about how well the writers execute the story elements of Dead Space 2. Folks coming to the franchise with this outing can look forward to a wild ride. Knowledge of Dead Space enhances the experience, but enjoying yourself isn’t dependent on that understanding.

Isaac Clarke’s need to survive while struggling against the shadows of his actions is a central part of the story. By the end of the game, Clarke is far from the blank slate generic hero. I really felt that he wasn’t just a convenient collection of character traits, but a complex personality whose intermingling of events with past traumas had shaped him.

The original Dead Space was criticized for its gameplay and controls, and it seems as though Visceral listened to the feedback. Dead Space 2 features tighter, more streamlined controls. They are very similar to the original, but little tweaks seem to make the game feel different.

Isaac can reload on the run and moves with more fluidity than in Dead Space. These are necessary tweaks, and despite them it’s still a game of odds when you know you’re at the end of your clip and can hear a mass of Necros approaching. Just beware the occasional rag doll glitch – I was actually blocked by flying junk in a zero-gravity area at one point.

There are still times when I found myself wishing I had an extra finger or two when using the game’s Kenesis mechanic, but the need to shift fingers from the right thumbstick or trigger felt like a purposeful design. When the adrenaline is pumping and the Necromorph enemies are charging, it seems natural to feel a bit of stress dropping your guard to use this ability.

Dead Space 2 also continues to promote the RPG-like inventory and upgrade mechanics. There are a few new weapons, and throughout the game I never really felt like I was required to hoard ammunition or resources, like you do in most survival horror games. The hard choices come in deciding your upgrade options. The key items used to upgrade weapons and abilities – power cores – are not abundant, so decide how you want to shape your character early on.

Along with refining the core game from the original, Dead Space 2 is also visually enhanced. The environments of the game are more varied and enemies more diverse. New additions to the roster include wailing children, and even more grotesque amalgams of corpses. Isaac Clarke receives a visual update as well and the new suit and upgrades subtly show his changed appearance.

Dead Space 2 also features a multiplayer mode in line with industry expectations these days. Like Bioshock 2, it seems to follow the expectation that every game be playable with friends, even when the game does not really support it. Honestly, it just feels unneeded here. Multiplayer in Dead Space 2 follows the traditional model and delivers a passable experience. It’s not bad per se, but it’s nothing that can or should overshadow the single-player experience.

Multiplayer is team-based and while I was initially very excited by it during the beta test a few months back, I’ve somewhat cooled on the concept since. Players are either necros or humans, and it reminds me a bit of Natural Selection. The experience unlock system is also included. A few hours spent on either team and there is little left to experience here. None of the tension built in the isolation of Isaac’s tale is present for human players and necros end up being little more than wildly slashing space zombies.

I highly recommend Dead Space 2 to anyone with a stomach for action horror. The improved pacing and refined controls make this the best example of a current-gen action horror title. While the single-player story can be completed in about 8-10 hours, I did not feel cheated by a truncated experience. It’s hard to keep up that level of stress and fear for longer than Dead Space 2′s length. Gamers looking for a weekend long marathon experience should adjust expectations accordingly.

Even after the last scenes I’m left interested and looking forward to the future of Dead Space. Fresh from my marathon session for this review, the impact of the story and its characters are still crisp in my mind and I can’t see them fading quickly.

Pros:

  • Great, tense pace for brisk story
  • Enhanced storytelling humanizes Isaac
  • Control & Gameplay enhancements
  • Still makes Space Zombies scary

Cons:

  • Passable but not outstanding MP
  • Ragdoll oddities
  • Fewer “event” battles

Final Score: 95/100

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1 Comment on Dead Space 2 Review

Steve

On March 18, 2011 at 2:46 am

This is my favorite PC game thus far in 2011. I went in with lowered expectations (sequels tends to disappoint, historically speaking) and came out satisfied. This is a more streamlined version compared to the original. They didn’t mess with the formula too much either, which is either good or bad depending on point of view.

While the engine tech doesn’t take a leap forward, Visceral did have a little more fun with the level design this time around – less “hey this room/hall looks the same”. Where the first game uses alot of repeated artwork and level design, the sequel is all over the place artistically. The few early chapters dealing with the Unitologist areas gave me flashbacks to Bioshock’s Rapture. But then, you move on to something new.

There are some parts in the game where you half expect stuff to jump out at you (I guess you just get trained from the first one to expect every so many areas to have stuff jump out at you) and yet no response. While these “breather” parts were a nice touch, they were eventually spoiled by your annoying dead girlfriend haunting you. I understand why and what Visceral was going for there, but by about Chapter 5, the got annoying. Nonetheless, I noticed the game keeps a faster paced tempo compared to the original (or the illusion of such).

Some of the new baddies were a bit disappointing. The little blob things that explode when you get near them? Yeah… that’s right out of Half-Life. The screaming children and rolly polly babies? Yeah… their intimidating factor wore off quick. As I was playing, I kept finding things that resembled other fps game of the past. So much for originality there.

And what was with the flamethrower working in a vacuum?

This game has a little bit of everything in it: creepy atmosphere, mutant/zombie killing, physics puzzles, good story, varied level design & artworks, neat toys. I guess that’s why, even though I consider it an inferior sequel to the first, it still somehow works. While DS2 is a little more bombastic in its approach, the entertaiment value is pretty much the same. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say they dumbed the sequel down, the combat does seem a bit easier – meaning, I found the first game A LOT more challenging.

Some of the weapons in DS2 I found a bit overpowered – the detonator in particular. Why does it take an entire clip from a fully upgraded plasma pistol to take one of those brutes down and only two (sometimes one) well placed grenade to do the same? *scratches head*

I’ve yet to try hardcore mode in DS2, but I did my initial run on Zealot with only a certain elevator sequence giving me a problem (you hardcore people probably know which one I’m referring to).

I do miss reading the data logs (maybe I’m brainy, but it gave the first game more soul this way). I feel some of the things that most people didn’t care about in DS1, I did care about (reading emails?). But I suppose that’s why I represent the 1% extreme fanbase. If I had my way, both games would be a bit more hardcore in their approach (monsters jumping you while still at the shop, anyone?) So while I have alot of nitpick things I scratch my head over, I still give Visceral props for pulling off a successful sequel that homages the first.

Anyway, looking forward to DS3.