Review by sixgears2
Potentially the best atmospheric shooter since Bioshock. Dead Space 2 delivers on every front.
The original Dead Space caught me off guard back when it was released in 2008. It was one of those titles that I had heard a little about but that hadn't really managed to grab my attention. I picked it up during a slow stretch for other releases and hopped in with little in the way of expectations. It didn't take long, however, for me to realize that I had hit upon a gaming classic. I'm happy to report that despite a few shortcomings Dead Space 2 delivers everything that its fantastic predecessor did while still managing to build upon the immersive Dead Space universe and improving its gameplay foundations.
The game opens three years after the events aboard the USG Ishimura, the necromorph-ridden setting of the first Dead Space. Isaac Clarke now finds himself aboard a space station in orbit above Saturn known as Titan Station or simply "The Sprawl." It quickly becomes apparent that Isaac has had a rough few years, and it isn't long before you are introduced to Dead Space 2's biggest story modifier: Isaac's psychosis.
It appears that although Mr. Clarke managed to escape the Ishimura with his life, the combined effects of the Marker and the horrific experience aboard the ship itself have altered his mind and sent him into a downward psychiatric spiral. The story is punctuated by periodic psychotic episodes in which Isaac is frequently spoken to (or perhaps taunted by would be a more apt description) by his lost love, Nicole. If you'll remember, Nicole was corrupted by the Marker on the Ishimura and losing her has quite clearly taken it's toll on our hero. The hallucinations (or are they?) never really alter the game in any way major way, but still they are a nice touch and go a long way towards humanizing Mr. Clarke for the player.
Of course, it wouldn't be much of a game if things simply focused on Isaac's emotional or mental state, so it doesn't take long for things to go horribly wrong aboard Titan Station. Before you know it you find yourself stalking the darkened hallways of the Sprawl as strange screams and muffled growls perforate the silence. The necromorph infection has broken out once again, and once again Clarke will have to slice, dice, and mutilate his way through hordes of the undead aliens if he wants to make it out alive.
Before I get to that, however, I'll cover the technical aspects of the game. Graphically, Dead Space 2 is phenomenal. Everything in the game has obviously been lovingly created with a very unique artistic vision in mind, and even the smallest, most obscure areas of the Sprawl are rendered exquisitely. The effects are top notch, the lighting is extremely good at making you uncomfortable, the enemies look suitably disgusting, and the environments themselves look amazing. In fact, I struggle to find a single thing to complain about graphically, so let's just move on.
In terms of sound, Dead Space 2 also delivers in spades. Of course, this is no surprise given that the first Dead Space boasted some of the best sound in gaming. Expect to be unnerved by rustling and grunting in the walls, screaming in the distance, and ambiguous growling around every corner. Weapons sound powerful, necromorphs splatter satisfyingly, and the tinny, echo-like anti-gravity sections actually make you feel as if you are free floating in a vacuum.The voice acting is also superb, and I have to applaud the decision to voice Isaac this time--he is a far more sympathetic hero than he was in Dead Space because of it. There isn't much in the way of music, but I feel that too much would have detracted from the atmosphere anyway. What little is there is good, and what isn't there you won't miss. The only downside I found in the audio was that I occasionally struggled to understand certain conversations, especially those involving the ghostly Nicole, due to some sort of strange audio distortion over the voices. I'm sure it was intentional, but it's a little frustrating to feel as if you missed something important over something so silly.
Now, on to the gameplay. Though the opening segments feel almost disturbingly similar to the first Dead Space, it quickly becomes apparent that the gameplay focus has shifted. While the slower, lumbering varieties of necromorphs are still here in abundance, new enemies have been added that really increase the pace of the combat. For instance, you'll find yourself facing mutated school children (yes, they went there) that run screaming at you in packs. This forces you constantly keep moving and shooting and reloading rather than making use of the old tried-and-true Dead Space 1 tactic of backing into the nearest corner and holding on for dear life. Yet another group of enemies resembles the velociraptors from Jurassic Park. They stalk you through the darkened rooms of Titan Station, laying traps and waiting for the right moment to rush you and claim their dinner. Here again, you are forced to continue moving and really be able to think on your feet.
While I enjoyed the increase in the gameplay tempo and the new variety in enemy types, they didn't come without a price. The new emphasis on larger groups of enemies sort of removes the shock value from the first Dead Space. In that game, you would spend many a lonely minute in a hallway listening to things crawling in a vent and waiting for something to pop out at you only to make it safely to the next area. At other times, you would feel relatively safe only to have a necromorph that you thought was dead leap up and assault you in pitch darkness. It was the sense of never knowing whether or not something was out to get you that gave Dead Space it's unique survival horror feeling. In Dead Space 2, it is generally readily apparent when you are going to be attacked (though there are quite a few cheap shock moments) because the areas that the larger groups of enemies occupy (particularly the stalkers) were clearly designed for a fight and most areas are populated by at least a few enemies. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does wind up making Dead Space 2 feel more like a creepy action game than a survival horror title.
I did have a few issues with Dead Space 2's gameplay, as well. The first of these is that although the speed of the game has increased, Isaac is still quite difficult to control during hectic situations. I often found myself getting stuck on objects due to the lack of reponsiveness during sprinting, and on a couple of occasions I actually died becuase I spent too much time fumbling around with the weapon selection mechanics after running out of ammo for a gun. Secondly, there are more than a few areas where the game spawns enemies both in front of and behind you at the same time. While I understand that this is to induce panic and increase tension, on the harder difficulty levels it usually results in a quick death and a trial and error sort of feel until you memorize the spawning patterns. Lastly, there are a few lengthy elevator rides that involve endlessly spawning necromorphs assaulting you from all sides. These were more often than not an exercise in frustration, and I found myself having to back into a corner with a flamethrower for 2-3 minutes just to survive, which is hardly what I would call fun. These are minor gripes and they don't often hinder the experience, but be prepared for a little frustration here and there.
Despite some loss of its genre identity to the gameplay changes, Dead Space 2 really nails its atmosphere. Every area in the game has been painstakingly detailed. Bodies litter the floor, some of which actually have names and must be picked up and used to open certain doors--a morbid feature that nicely lends a little humanity to the veritable sea of dead masses in the game. Additionally, most areas have been designed to feel lived in and it shows. In an apartment complex relatively early in the game, one can hear mysterious noises echoing from within locked apartments along with shouting, screaming, and crying, while audio and text logs paint pictures of what went wrong. A later section involving an elementary school (an old survival horror standby done very well here) has a woman trying to cradle her horribly mutated infant before it bursts, pasting her all over the window through which you are looking. It's moments like this that really make Dead Space feel believable despite its sometimes overwhelming melancholy, and the end result is a game that actually feels less like a game and more like an experience.
Aside from all the fantastic detail, the environments themselves are, in general, larger and more open than they were in Dead Space. Not only do you visit more interesting locations (a Unitarian cult compound being one of my favorites), but those locations now feel far more authentic. While it is by no means an open world game, Dead Space 2 manages to be just non-linear enough that you feel as if you are in an actual location rather than a video game level. While this new, more open design can lead to some frustration due to the lack of a map, the helpful objective pointer is always available to get you back on the right track. This means that you are essentially free to explore without needing to stress about remembering how to get back to your objective--a nice touch in a game that encourages you with items and goodies to explore every inch of it and soak up the brilliant atmosphere it offers. Combine this with the breathtaking vistas offered through some of Titan Station's windows and the epic free form anti-gravity segments (a vast improvement over the wall hopping of Dead Space 1), and you have a game that really feels much larger than it is. There are still some very linear corridor sections that are highly reminiscent of the Ishimura (including some memorable ones that actually ARE aboard the Ishimura), but for the most part the world has been opened up and I think the game is better for it.
The story is fairly interesting, though it is nothing to get overly excited about. I won't spoil too much here, but suffice it to say that a Marker has appeared on Titan Station and its up to you to stay alive long enough to destroy it. You will meet a few interesting characters along the way, including a psychotic medical patient, a corrupt politician, and a feisty female engineer. One also can't forget about the astoundingly creepy Nicole, who seems to pick the most inappropriate times to show up and harass/guide Isaac during his journey. These segments are extremely well done, although as I mentioned I sometimes struggled to actually make out what Nicole was saying because of the distortion used on her voice. The problem was easily solved by turning on subtitles, but seeing text scroll at the bottom of the screen is a little bit of an immersion killer. Overall, the story does its job and even though it culminates in a surprisingly weak ending sequence, it essentially stays pretty interesting for the length of the game. Once you've finished (my playthrough clocked in a 8.5 hours), you have the option of entering new game + and doing it all again, a nice nod towards replayability.
I have to tack on here that I did not try out Dead Space 2's multiplayer before writing this review. I regard multiplayer in atmospheric single player experiences like Bioshock and Dead Space to be an abomination in gaming and little more than a "must do" box that has to be checked off before the game ships to maximize sales. From the accounts I've heard, it is moderately fun if a little imbalanced. Even so, there simply isn't the kind of community behind Dead Space that is necessary to keep a multiplayer suite healthy, so I would not recommend a purchase based in any way on that aspect of the game. Fortunately, however, Dead Space 2 is more than worth its asking price for the single player experience alone. This is one of the best single player titles on any current system and absolutely should not be missed. Enjoy!
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Dead Space 2 (US, 01/25/11)
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