Dead Space 2 Xbox 360, PS3, PC Review

The opening fifteen minutes of Resident Evil 4 will forever be part of videogaming legend; encountering the Ganados, the long walk to the village, and the sudden siege of villagers coming at you in ways you’d never experienced before. You’re subjected to this with only a bare bones understanding of how the game works. You’re left going on pure instinct – a baptism of fire – and few games come close to the heart-in-mouth intensity of this introductory sequence. Even its direct sequel couldn’t better it, despite practically copying it scene for scene.

One of the games that came close was the original Dead Space. In Dead Space 2 you pick up the story of Isaac Clarke, A simple engineer stuck with a ham-fisted tribute name, who ended up on board the ‘Planet Cracker’ class spaceship; the Ishimura. Dead Space was pretty much Event Horizon. However, instead of finding Alan Grant from Jurassic Park gouging out his own eyeballs, he found that the crew had dug up some alien artefact called “The Marker” during their expeditions and an outbreak of a horrible alien virus had turned them all into disgusting, meaty monsters – the Necromorph. Also, his missus was on board the ship and is, predictably, dead.

Understandably, he was pretty traumatized by all this, and has gone a bit mental. After being picked up and dumped into a hospital for a few years, you pick up control of him as he wakes up, bound to a table and strapped tightly into a straitjacket. And then something to goes horrible wrong; the Necromorph turn up and start murdering everyone in sight. Time for the baptism of fire.

This opening salvo has you running through the psychiatric ward as all hell breaks loose, unable to free your arms and defend yourself. It is an incredibly tense sequence, as you duck and weave past explosions, and dodge the spiky limbs of the Necromorphs trying to impale you. Arms free, you still have to find a way to defend yourself, and relief only comes when you finally get hold of your first weapon. Heart-stopping stuff, and just one of many memorable moments.

Isaac talks now – no longer a silent protagonist, he’s a very vocal part of the Dead Space storyline. I’m sure somewhere, out there, in a darkened corner of the internet, some Dead Space purist (if such a thing exists) is absolute furious that their precious character has been changed in some way. Really though, no harm has been done. There are a few more human characters to interact with in this sequel, and Isaac’s struggle with his own inner demons bring a nice extra level to his otherwise non existent persona. The story is cribbed from a handful of Sci-Fi horror standards, such as The Thing, Alien and the aforementioned Event Horizon, so although not the most original of tales, it borrows from good stock.

Dead Space 2 has one key ingredient at the core of its gameplay. All of the combat is based on this combination of precision and panic, and is what makes it so thrilling. Every encounter or setpiece can be dealt with, quite simply, if you keep your cool. Sounds easy, but when you’ve got what appears to be the mutated offspring of the creatures from The Thing and a bin bag full of rotten bacon rushing at you headlong (usually screaming), it’s pretty hard to NOT PANIC. By completely eliminating the standard “aim for the head” combat, and introducing the Necromorph; a bunch of horribly mutated undead aliens that can be best disposed of by shooting off all of their not-insubstantial limbs, it means that each creature has to be tackled in a certain way for optimum results. With several of them all running at you screaming in the dark, it is often hard to keep the composure required to effeciently deal with them.

The weapons you have at your disposal to deal with this threat are ingenious. Much like the original, they’re a mix of actual firepower and maintenance tools used for cutting through heavy metals. All of them have an alternative fire, be that simply switching the shot from a vertical to a horizontal beam – perfect for removing those spindly limbs – to some more advanced features. For instance, the javelin gun fires lethal spears that can pin necromorph to bits of scenery. Useful. The secondary fire causes the last launched javelin to pump out electricity, so a savvy player can quickly pin an enemy to a spot and use him to shock other advancing foes.

Another excellent decision was to give you everything you need to survive very quickly. Instead of faffing around drip feeding you new abilities, you get them all in the first hour. The stasis shot that slows anything down – be that enemies or fast moving objects – and kinesis, which allows Isaac to pick things up, much like the gravity gun in Half Life 2, can both be used as a projectile weapon or to solve puzzles. This means you will have learned all the basics of the combat and puzzle solving within the first few chapters, meaning that Visceral Games can spend the rest of the game throwing increasingly more interesting and clever scenarios at you, rather than have you struggling with a new ability halfway through the game.

Dead Space 2 is full of great little gameplay ideas. Little pockets of risk/reward moments that keep you thinking, even throughout the intense action. Found yourself stuck in a room full of horrible things trying to tear you into tiny pieces? Shooting out the glass window, exposing the vacuum of space will suck all of them out into the void in a split second. However, failure to quickly shoot the emergency release switch will result in experiencing the same instant death. Should you be succesful, you can carry on your way, but all of the lovely ammo and health drops that the necromorphs would’ve yielded should you have dispatched them all individually, will have been sucked away with them. Some enemies have explosive pockets on them that can be shot for an instant kill, but a more skilled shot can take them out without damaging their lethal innards, giving you the option to blow it up like a landmine or launch it into any other foes.

You still pick up credits as you progress, allowing you to purchase new weapons and power-ups at scattered vendors throughout, and you still find power nodes which can be used to increase the stats of Isaac and his many weapons. You can sacrifice a power node to open some locked container rooms, some of which yield a motherload of pick ups, and some that are less bountiful. These nodes add another element to the gameplay – do you spread them evenly across your entire weapon collection, keeping a few back for any locked doors you may encounter, or do you risk spunking them all onto one weapon, creating a death-dealing ultra-gun that may not be ideal for every situation you find yourself in?

It looks and sounds incredible, too. Anyone who played the original will remember the opening sequence and the approach to the Ishimura, and that awesome money shot of the ship hanging in space. Every time you look out of a window in the sequel, across the lunar landscape and The Sprawl’s high rise buildings reflecting the sunlight – Saturn sitting in the distance – you get a moment of complete awe. The sounds is also at the ridiculously high standard that EA seem to be pumping out these days. The strange, muffled vacuum of deep space is still just as effective as it was the first time you heard it.

Upon logging into the multiplayer mode for the first time and being confronted with the sparse selection of options, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a tacked on afterthought of a mode, put in to accomodate EA’s ‘Project Ten Dollar’ initiative. In reality, it is anything but.

Eight players are split across two teams, one human and one Necromorph, with only one objective-based game mode. The human team must complete a series of objectives against the clock, whilst the Necromorph have only the task of stopping the humans progress until the timer runs out. The objectives vary slightly over the five maps on offer, but the gameplay is the same. Playing as the human, you can carry health packs and change weapon loadouts, as well as unlocking new costumes with the Call of Duty/every game ever-style ranking system.

The clever part comes as playing as one of the Necromorph. When waiting to respawn, a timer begins to count down. At different intervals, different Necromorph become playable. Strategy boils down to whether you think it is worth waiting those crucial seconds to spawn as a specific type, or just overwhelm the human team with lots of quick respawns. Much like Left 4 Dead, teamwork is the key to victory, and a well organized team can easily dominate a game.

The multiplayer isn’t going to replace Call of Duty on anyone’s schedule any time soon. But while limited, you get the impression that they’ve released a focused and fun product, rather than aiming for something much loftier and sacrificing some of the astounding quality of the main campaign, which clocks in at around nine hours, first time through.

Thing is, it is nine hours of flawless pacing and quality. Throwing in more environments than the first game helps, as well as some stunning set-pieces. Dead Space 2 is gripping from start to finish. The new game-plus mode is well implemented, too, letting you keep upgrades from previous playthroughs and gun your way towards those final unlocks and trophies/achievements.

A final, special mention should go to the gore on display in Dead Space 2; There is a lot of it. Unlike something like Splatterhouse where the red stuff is flying around at the touch of a button, here it is a horrible, dark, realistic crimson that ejects itself from the various dismembered corpses – including yours, if you’re not careful. It is certainly not a game for the squeamish. Despite being a survival horror game, it isn’t scary in the same way that say, Silent Hill 2 is.

The atmosphere is more intense and the combat too action packed for it to be really unsettling, so it relies on a lot of cheap jump-scares. Much like Resident Evil 4, and the sequence described at the very start of this review, Dead Space 2 is about the tension of fighting for survival against insurmountable odds. It gets the adrenaline going, and every time you clear a room of Necromorphs, you feel a definite satisfaction, especially if you then take it out on your fallen enemies with a couple of stomps from Isaac’s mighty boot.

EA have become some kind of master of this mid-January release window, and much like Bayonetta last year, I fully expect to see Dead Space 2 appearing in quite a few ‘Game of the Year’ lists in twelve months time. I played the original game after I had finished Resident Evil 5 for the first time a few years ago and it was clear that, although similar in gameplay, Dead Space had a few more good ideas. Dead Space 2 simply adds more to that already excellent foundation, and in doing so, it has become the survival horror franchise to beat. An absolutely brilliant video game, and certainly the best survival horror game since Resident Evil 4.

Your move, Capcom.


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