For all the escapism they bring, most video game universes probably aren’t places we would actually ever want to go. For as much of a thrill as we might get from being hunkered down in the middle of a firefight against the Reapers or witnessing the aftermath of an EMP blast over Washington, D.C., in reality most video games are a painless way to live an exciting and often desperate struggle for survival—an experience, assuming that the various fictions of gaming could actually be re-visited in the real world, that few of us would actually want to have in our waking lives.
Visceral’s Dead Space universe is particularly unpleasant by this metric: an oppressive religious cult has a seeming majority of the universe in its throng, and even worse, is devoted to an alien artifact that violently transforms its followers into horrific, necrotic monstrosities through a rapidly-spreading recombinant virus. Even aside from what could be a subtly pointed (if rueful) commentary on organized religion, though, the world of Dead Space is still frightening at face value. The original game’s use of lighting and aural design often meant you would hear the necromorphs long before you would see them, and exploring the often poorly-lit Alien-esque environs held the promise of many surprise attacks. But it’s hard to make a good horror game, and despite Dead Space’s pervading sense of isolation—still an atmospheric landmark for the genre—in the end it didn’t turn out as scary as I had hoped.
For their sequel, Visceral said they had listened to their fans and were making Isaac an action hero who should have a fair fight against the necromorphs. They emphasized it would still be horror game, but with the bitter aftertaste of Resident Evil 5’s summer action film tone still in my mouth, the news was still somewhat hard to swallow. After all, taking away control is far and away the scariest thing a developer can do to a player, especially when there are freakish flesh-ripping monsters lurking (literally) in the walls all around you. But as it turns out, whatever it was that the developers were talking about when news of Dead Space 2 first hit doesn’t really matter.
Yes, there are more (far more) necromorph encounters, but instead of typifying the feel as an action game, it just makes battles that much more intense and often nerve-racking. The formerly silent Isaac Clarke now has a voice and a personality (and is suffering from dementia), but that hardly makes him Marcus Fenix. And as for having more of a fair fight against the necromorph infestation, Isaac gets some new weapons (such as a handy promixity mine launcher), but unless you’re going around every corner laying traps for whatever ambush may lay in wait, it’s not going to bring you much comfort until you’re already aware of what’s immediately coming up.
The intense panic you’ll feel in combat, especially in the later parts of the game, may make Dead Space 2 feel at times more like the Wii’s Extraction (an HD redux of which comes with DS2’s PS3 first run), but don’t think that means it’s any less scary or atmospheric than the original—quite the opposite. It comes down to a matter of implementation, and it’s obvious to what lengths the development team spent thinking about the best way to ensure that where and when Dead Space 2’s scripted design—from explosive setpieces to even the most basic placement of where a horde of necromorphs may pop out—would be most evocative. As in the original, sound design and lighting are key in unsettling you even in safety, and when the bodies you thought were corpses do snap up and start sprinting at you (a mistake you’ll quickly learn to avoid if you’re smart), the heightened anxiety may send you into a blind shooting episode or have you doubling back, praying that by running you were able to put at least a couple feet between you and whatever horror you know is right on your heels.
Unlike on the Ishimura, though, dropping a couple of necrotic beasties and retreating probably isn’t going to give you any temporary respite; Visceral thought of that, too, and regularly staggers encounters accordingly. Believe me, when you’re waiting for a power outage to resolve itself and using a moment of calm to prevent corpse re-animation by stomping on them, catching a split-second glimpse of a large black shape quickly skittering across your sole source of light seconds before it strikes from cloaked darkness is the kind of heart-in-your-throat moment Dead Space 2 excels at. Needless to say, between the ambient shrieks and cacophony of background noise, the invasive dread of never knowing where your exactly your enemies are (let alone what directions they’re going to come from) makes for a tense experience, even when you’re not face to face with corporeal death.
Constantly straddling that line between tension and terror is where this sequel is a vast improvement over the original. The Ishimura was a great setting for the first game, but its essentially uniform aesthetic at times left too much weight on the effect of the design when it came to consistently scaring players. Also adding to the overall feel here are the much more varied sets, which keep Dead Space 2 from feeling too much like a corridor horror game. The settings in general here are also creepier, with necromorph-overrun hospitals, churches, apartment complexes, and schools all bearing witness to the blood-soaked carnage and cultish decorum widespread across the ravaged space station of the Sprawl. The moody environs actually make the game feel like classic survival horror, right up there with Silent Hill 2 and 3, the Resident Evil GC remake, and the original Fatal Frame—a welcome feeling the ailing genre has been missing for some time.
Finally, scenes in total darkness, something the original was somewhat oddly lacking in, are far more prevalent this time around, and the comparative whimper of light Isaac’s flashlight casts in pitch blackness, if not a direct nod to Doom 3, has the same effect on your psyche. Without getting into spoiler territory, about a quarter into the game you’re introduced to a new breed of necromorph that sound and behave like velociraptors, running back and forth behind cover to avoid your shots, tracking Isaac’s position, and charging with a bloodcurdling scream only when you’re not facing them or are otherwise vulnerable. These encounters, as many scenarios throughout the game, will likely leave a terror pit in your stomach and make your chest hurt, at least when played in the dark, for sometime afterward.
The more varied scenarios and better atmosphere are of course endemic to EA’s typical multi-million dollar production values, and as a result Dead Space 2 unsurprisingly looks a great deal better than its already good-looking older brother. The graphic details of the necromorphs (the game opens with a close-up of a transforming victim, a process which literally leaves the tissue of the man’s face visibly exposed beyond the ragged, limp skin that’s left hanging around it) are especially horrifying, with even the most basic enemies presented as a disgusting mess of ripped and rotting flesh, exposed bone, and other unnatural mutations. The violence is important to maintain combat intensity, but even just the aesthetic improvements to the necromorphs’ appearances go a long way in creating a nerve-racking feel.
It’s safe to say that Dead Space 2 is the somewhat rare case where the sequel is better in just about every way than the original. Not everything it does works perfectly—it’s kind of a shame that (minor spoiler alert) Isaac’s dementia (rather than being a potentially more interesting case of full-blown PTSD) doesn’t really reach the point of truly becoming its own mechanic used to, say, screw with your psyche, and traveling through vents, an opportunity Half-Life players know is ripe for exploitative scares, never really goes anywhere. But other additions of agency you may be worried about, like Isaac’s improved total-freedom Zero-G navigation, don’t detract from the game’s solid horror feel, and thankfully Visceral doesn’t get too bogged down in its own narrative mythology, either. Though you can theoretically buy as much ammo and health packs as you can afford at store kiosks, I would advice against doing so: just as this game is meant to be played in the dead of night, you should also treat it as the true horror game Visceral worked so hard to create. (The game seems to give you even less supplies from combat that the original, though, and I was frequently struggling to survive in the last third of the game.)
Survival horror may be a dead genre, or a dying one, and other than improving its personal formula (which it does very well), Dead Space 2 doesn’t offer that much in the way of innovation. Chances are likely that once you start playing it though, you’ll be scared enough that you won’t care—or even be aware of a difference.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 5.0 Graphics
EA threw money at Visceral, and Dead Space 2 is as gorgeous as it is horrifying as a result. 4.3 Control
Controls are almost the same as the original, which works fine unless you’re trying to reload, switch weapons, or use Isaac’s stasis or kinesis abilities while running away. 4.8 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Superb use of background noise and shrieking necromorphs create a thoroughly unsettling atmosphere. The voice acting (particularly Isaac) and music are also excellent. 4.7 Play Value
Dead Space, improved. Not just a great sequel, but a great horror game. Isaac’s dementia and the underused impaling in combat mechanic are the only disappointments, and they’re pretty slight. 4.7 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best