Review by uberschveinen
"Playing to its strengths keeps the Dead Space franchise strong"
Dead Space 2, the direct sequel to the original Dead Space, remains a science-fiction survival horror game. It returns with everything that was notable about it emphasised, many of its defects remedied, and enough new mechanics to keep the game reasonably fresh without compromising what made its predecessor such a good game.
Graphics, performance, and presentation: 10/10
Dead Space 2 has remarkable graphics, markedly improved from the former. Textures are much more varied with fewer obvious repeats, lines are neat and crisp, and the lighting effects in particular set a benchmark for other games on the 360 to approach. This upgrade in lighting technology greatly serves the increased focus on dark areas in the game, and feeds the immersion that is the game's greatest feature. Graphical performance is exemplary; even with encounters involving far more enemies and much larger active spaces than the previous game, and occasionally both, not once in the game did I observe any perceptible slowdown. Given the level of detail and complexity in some of the areas, this is a particularly notable accomplishment. Animations remain excellent, and particularly helpful to immersion. The way Isaac stands and walks differently in zero gravity, the way he turns as though he was actually a heavy man carrying a small armoury in a huge suit, and the way that everything in the game reacts to being hit the way you'd expect really sustains immersion. Isaac has more stages of different animations as he becomes wounded, which once more highlights the immersion of the game, and the greatly increased array of death animations, often entirely unnecessarily long, keep his deaths unpleasant. Facial animations and body movements have been improved, which aids the much greater character focus in this game.
The worldbuilding is where most of the progress has been made, and it is excellent. Instead of the single location of the Ishimura, there are now a bevy of locations Isaac visits, each with its own feel. Residential areas look like actual living spaces, with signs of former habitation everywhere. The mining sector has the same industrial and efficient feel as the Ishimura, but much more dated. Government sector feels clinical, clean, and high-tech. And, most notably, the return of a former location as halfway through decontamination, with some clean rooms, some partly-cleaned, and some lit with blacklights with signs of violence everywhere, is particularly effective. These improvements aid the overall experience quite well.
Sound, music, and voices: 10/10
Once more, the Dead Space franchise sustains the reputation for incredible sound work it has earned. The sound library has expanded massively in this game, giving more detail and complexity to all of the interactive sounds that kept such immersion in the game. The environmental sounds; all those little pings, scratchings and bangs that kept you on your toes in the last game, are back and with much more detail. Now you can hear them close, distant, small, and large. The variety really helps them contribute to the tension. Once area deserves particular mention, a vast and cavernous hallway following on from a good fifteen minutes in which you aren't attacked once, is full of distant sounds echoing in the hallway. The tension of knowing that there is a LOT of them in there with you, and all beyond your sight, is a very effective sequence. Everything else that made the sounds works before, particularly the vacuum silence, is still here, and still keeping tension high.
One area of considerable improvement is in the voicework. Fair enough, as this is a much more character-driven game. Most of the voices are quite well-done, and thankfully, the best among them are the characters you will be dealing with most often. The developers, luckily, did not skimp on getting actual talent into the game, which is the sad fate of most horror titles these days. Not all of the voices are as strong, but the weaker ones don't last long. Giving Isaac a voice was a risky choice, but his voice was chosen well. I was never bothered with him not fitting the notional voice we all construct for silent characters, which is all too often a real letdown.
The music is one area of real improvement. As well as the musical stings that were so effective before, the greater array of actual set scenes, particularly Isaac's quiet moments, allows for actual pieces to be included in the game. Generally, these are well-done, feeling as though they flow naturally from the quiet chords and loud stings of the rest of the game, and add to many of the more emotional sequences of the game.
Story and characters: 10/10
The story is the greatest area of improvement over the original game. The narrative takes a much more central place in this game, with a heavier focus on Isaac and his by-now spectacular issues. That in particular was an enjoyable addition, as having a main character who's seen some incredibly horrific scenes of carnage, watched everybody around him die, and been directly exposed to an enormously potent insanity-inducing artifact actually suffer the consequences of this is gratifying. The story is much more integrated into the plot proper this time around, instead of happening in the breaks between killings, which is very helpful. Isaac's dealings with the other characters, particularly one apparition, really aid the game. Isaac's relationship with the deceased Nicole plays a very heavy role in this game, and it's one that plays through quite satisfyingly. The story is emotionally powerful at times, mostly because it brings you to genuinely care about some of the characters.
The characters in this game are better than the former, feeling more like complete personalities, and have their own discrete objectives and ideas. Their interaction becomes a significant part of the game, and enjoyable to watch. The level of characterisation gets you to feel for them, which is where much of the effectiveness of the story comes from. Particularly well done is watching one of the characters slowly descend into complete insanity, and Isaac's relationship with the figures of his own madness.
There seem to be fewer audio logs this time around, and mostly centered on the main set of characters, but they are better done. They also tend to run in sequence, telling brief stories instead of shorter moments. The video logs are much improved too, with more actual animation involved. The level of effort put into the logs was such that one of the more emotionally powerful moments for me was a videolog, intended to explain TK impalement. They aren't simply contrived excuses to explain, but actual people with stories, who you only see briefly. That you can feel something for a person you see for so little time shows excellent design.
My only concern here is the way in which the superplot began to be involved. There were plenty of elements raised, mostly in the latter stages of the game, but almost none actually resolved. This is something I don't particularly think is good planning, because all too often doing this means that by the time it comes time to resolve the superplot, so many elements were left up in the air for so long it is no longer possible to put it all together without ignoring much of it. However, I can't really reduce the game's score because of this, given it hasn't failed yet.
The gameplay here is mostly the same, with a few elements significantly improved. The UI remains incredibly immersive, and the shooting difficult, but it wouldn't be enough for the game to simply leave everything as it was. The vacuum elements of the game have changed, with the removal of oxygen tanks, but the greater provision of oxygen stations. This allowed for much larger open-space elements of the game, which are often some of the better sequences you encounter, but the fact that this means you will never run out of oxygen unless you do something very strange means that the tension of the meter is much reduced. More satisfyingly, Isaac's new suits include thrusters, allowing him to move in zero gravity areas, which unlocks a whole array of new areas of huge size, and complex puzzles and trap sequences to negotiate. It also feels very natural to move around in.
This tension is more than made up for in other areas. Dead Space 2's main change over the original game in gameplay terms is that it now includes a much greater number of set-pieces, something the original lacked. These set-pieces comes just as the tension in normal play builds up to its limit, and are often particularly intense. A number involve you desperately fighting off enemies while trapped, low on oxygen, or fleeing. Others involve boss-like encounters, and quick sequences of the quick-time events of the former, mercifully kept to brief but intense encounters. Some involve fewer difficult enemies, others involve vast hordes. My personal favourite was one sequence in which you are dangling upside-down from a train, on low health, under relentless attack, and completely unable to reach the ammunition dropped because you are attacked too fast to TK it over to you. These greatly add to the tension of the game, allowing it to 'cap off' large chunks the way other franchises, most notably the FEAR franchise, did so well. However, the highly action-based nature of these sequences makes the game feel much more like an action horror game. These sequences generally replace the huge-boss enemies of the former game, a contentious change but one I feel is for the better. After all, there's only so many variations on the HUGE BOSS SHOOT WEAKPOINTS theme before it simply gets old.
The addition of new enemies was crucial, and done generally rather well. There are many more of the larger class of foes, and many more of the horde. Tormentors and Tripods offer more large foe variation than simple Brutes, and very different adversaries to fight. Pukers have potent ranged attacks that stop your running, and extremely powerful close-ranged attacks, offering some variety in foe type. There are a larger range of Slashers and Leapers available, though all variations on the theme. The biggest variation is in the smaller foes, with the appearance of the Pack, very fast and fragile enemies that appear in huge numbers, and exploding baby-things that are no threat by themselves, but a huge nuisance with other foes nearby. Stalkers are one particularly new adversary, appearing in small packs and attacking you from ambush, instead of the traditional rush. The much expanded range and style of foes really helps the settings of sequences, keeping the tension fresh. Conspicuous absences include the Stasis Slasher, which is odd given its terrifying nature in previous games, and the Tentacle things, which were very effective adversaries. I'm not sure why they're gone, given they were personal favourites.
Luckily, you do have new tools to deal with new threats. This time around, your stasis slowly recharges. Very slowly, as in two minutes a shot unless you upgrade it. This is, I think, a huge advantage for this game over the predecessor. There, you hardly ever used Stasis because you were 'saving it', and the recharges were so expensive. I think I never used it beyond obvious bosses and places with recharge. Now, even though it hasn't changed that much, that psychological hoarding effect is gone, and it becomes a proper tool in your arsenal. More notably, your Telekinesis module is now a weapon in its own right. Instead of mere heavy objects and exploding barrels, there is a whole range of nasty things to throw. Spikes litter the floor in some areas, and can be used to impale Necromorphs for substantial damage, and pinning them to walls if it is lethal. More significantly, you can tear off Necromorph limbs and use them in the same way. Stasis bombs are fantastically useful weapons that are basically a Stasis attack set of maximum overdrive. This particularly aids the survival horror element of the game, because the presence of so much improvised ammunition means they can be more stingy with the real stuff.
New weapons appear, and many old ones return with changes. The Plasma Cutter can, fully upgraded, set enemies on fire, and the Contact Beam's secondary fire can be upgraded to inflict stasis on everything it hits, making it almost worth a thousand credits a pop. The Pulse Rifle is now actually useful, doing a little more damage, but better, having a Grenade Launcher secondary fire. Maybe more importantly, the much higher number of pack-attacking weak foes give it more useful targets. The Ripper's blade is wider but much closer, making it better at controlling foes but much worse against anything with ranged attacks. The Force Gun loses the crappy grenade for a single-target attack that works at range, making it a much more useful gun to have. New weapons include the Seeker Rifle, basically a sniper rifle, which balances huge power against no situational awareness and no control, the Detonator, a remote-detonated grenade launcher perfect for the trap-minded, and the Javelin Gun, which is basically TK impalement with BYO electric spikes.
Again, it pays to be careful with the difficulty. The standard of Normal offers such common drops that the game is effectively action-horror, or suited for more casual gamers. Like many modern games, the hard difficulty, in this case Survivalist, offers the intended experience. It's particularly well-designed, as I spent most of the first half of the game with less than full health and half-empty weapons. It wasn't until well into the game that I could afford upgrades at all, and I spent a period of maybe an hour straight in which I never went above yellow health. The drops are particularly well-designed in that when you're very low on ammunition you get more ammunition drops, and likewise for health, so the game can sustain stringing you along on such light drops. It's well designed. For those who had found Dead Space easy, the Zealot difficulty ups the ante again. The New Game + option allows you to change difficulties to anything except the worst, which makes achievement hunting more satisfying. There is also a final game mode which goes far beyond the Impossible of the original. It has Zealot drops and Survivalist enemies, but most importantly, it has no checkpoints anywhere, reverting you to save on death. Worse, you can save your game only three times ever. This is the sort of thing that was okay back when games were 2 hours long tops, but in an 8-10 hour game, that's just cruel.
I'll get this out of the way now - Dead Space 2's multiplayer just isn't much good. It's not bad, per se, it's just not really exciting. The game consists of humans trying to complete a number of objectives against time, and the Necromorphs trying to stop them. Necromorphs respawn much faster, but are weaker. Humans have decent weapons, and most crucially, health packs, but must actively pursue the objectives to win. It's decent, and novel, but it has two problems. The first is that the humans are generally more powerful, and get moreso as they get upgrades. A high-level game requires that the Necromorphs just have outright better teamwork to win at all, which makes for bad balance. This is particularly as the community kind of sucks, with unpleasant numbers of quitters and K/D farmers for such a small community. The saving grace is that, with friendly fire on, Griefers haven't found the game yet. The bigger problem is that playing earns you straight-out upgrades, not just advantages, meaning that unless you got in on the start, or have a bunch of friends that own this game, you're at a huge disadvantage, and one you can't really earn back.
With a bit of work, the multiplayer could be fine. The thing is, though, why is it there at all? Dead Space is a singleplayer game, and having a multiplayer feature doesn't really add that much to it at all. I don't resent the multiplayer, and its presence doesn't make the game worse, but I can't help but feel that the developer hours that went into it would have been better spent making the game an hour or two longer.
Dead Space 2 is marginally shorter than the original. Don't be fooled by the chapter numbers, some of them are very short, especially the final two. I don't resent this, as much of the shorter play comes because there is much less irksome backtracking through the same areas, and I've always been of the opinion that one good hour of game is better than any number of mediocre ones. However, it's the nature of the game, and mostly the interesting array of weapons, that almost as soon as you finish it you wonder what else you could have used to win it. The fact that you can now up your difficulty for New Game +, and the weapons and suits only available there, strongly encourages more play, and most people ought to get at least two plays out of the game. The story is strong enough that many will want to play it again to pick up the extra details, other logs, or just for the particularly good sequences. Those with the inclination will probably get a huge amount of time out of a single Hardcore playthrough, given the brutal difficulty, and others will enjoy the multiplayer enough to get value from it. It's a worthwhile buy, and I'd suggest the buy over the rent for anyone interested enough to pick it up.
Everything good about Dead Space remains, which is a nice change from sequels that give away the original atmosphere for the new. The new weapons are a nice tough, but I think the best addition is in the nature of puzzles Isaac solves. Many of them are actually more than click-button, actually involving assembling this, taking them apart, or other tasks that actually feel like something and engineer would do. Having Isaac actually use his skills really adds to the game. Most impressive in the sequence in which he builds a plasma cutter out of a surgical laser cutter to arm himself with a weapon. Also very satisfying is that the developers have learned to use set-pieces to use the tension they've built up, which was one of the biggest flaws in the last game. In fact, the game was often so tense it went entirely beyond edge-of-your-seat to standing-up-and-screaming-at-the-television, and gave that rare and wonderful sensation each time you stop playing of mixed 'thank GOD that's over' and 'just one more chapter'. Once the end-credits rolled, I had this amazing feeling of relief that it was done, paired with almost immediately planning my second playthrough.
The level of polish in the game is such that any complaints aren't so much what the developers did as what they could have but didn't. I don't understand the decision to take out the Tentacles. Sure, the new quick-time event sequences are just as common and much better, but the Tentacle scenes were so sudden and savage they really worked. The Stasis Slashers were good, too, offering a threat to even high-level players. I would have also appreciated having another of the vast bosses. Although the intense sequences worked well to replace them, I still liked having the absurdly massive foes in the game.
Not much to say, really. The only real weakness of the game is the multiplayer, which has much less polish than the rest and is reasonably visibly tacked-on. It would have been better to simply not have it at all, and spend the developer-hours on another hour or two of game.
Dead Space 2 is, in every sense, a worthy successor to its predecessor. It keeps what made it work, improves what was weak, and manages to refresh the game without changing the core formula. Dead Space 2 is a very strong and highly-polished horror game, well balanced between survival and action, that offers perhaps the most intense horror experience available today.
Also, watch the end credits. There's two sets, and BOTH have something after them.
Weighted score: 93%
Adjusted score: 9/10
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 02/14/11
Game Release: Dead Space 2 (US, 01/25/11)
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