Dead Space was born into considerable adversity. A brand new title for a dormant genre from an unproven development studio could have easily been swept under the rug. Defiant as it was resilient, Dead Space ignored the odds and yanked said rug out from under its expectations. Certain storytelling methods and gameplay mechanics were familiar, but written into a memorable experience filled with tension and terror. Dead Space was scary as hell, and while Visceral's entry into survival-horror wasn't perfect, it's foundation flashed plenty of potential. The inevitable sequel, surely, was going to be awesome.
Three years have passed since Isaac Clarke escaped the USG Ishimura, a huge space ship where a routine rescue operation became a struggle for survival against an army of Necromorphs hell-bent on goring any living creature. Isaac survived, but the realization that his girlfriend was dead and actually an apparition spawned by a Church of Unitology relic known as "The Marker" has rendered him comatose. Awoken on the Sprawl, a sprawling (sorry) space station near one of Saturn’s moons, his perspective never resets; for Isaac, the horror seems to pick up right where it left off.
Dead Space 2 thrives on its fiction. Standard issue means of narrative conveyance arrive in the form data logs, voice logs, and conversations with survivors of questionable reliability, but the unnerving intangibles broadcast through the Sprawl tell a more interesting tale. Visceral rarely sacrifices an environment to pure player progression, instead selecting each set piece as an opportunity to crank the creepy to ten and attempt to scare the crap out of the player. This could have been a one trick pony, a person can only see the same scare so many times before it starts to feel routine, but each scenario in Dead Space 2 strives to defy the player's expectations. Psychological terror, jump-scares, and strength in numbers (along the realization that one never seems to have enough ammunition to properly deal with any of it) all enforce a complete lack of safety.
On a personal level, the lived-in space of the Sprawl is easier to relate to than the industrial, utilitarian trappings of the Ishimura. Strolling through a hastily abandoned apartment hall, Isaac is exposed to the harsh realities of an immediate evacuation. A forgotten infant cries to no one, a man barricaded behind a door threatens to murder anyone who comes in, and a woman trapped in her apartment pleads for rescue. Later, Isaac waits for a train car only to see it blow by unmanned and on fire. These instances and dozens of others are scripted, but disguised with clever context to make the player feel as if each encounter is unique. It's all transmitted with a haunting sense of authenticity, and gives credence to Visceral understanding that buckets of blood and guts aren’t the only way to terrorize Isaac’s state of being.
That being said, Dead Space 2 is still one of the most violent games I have ever played. Necromorph children and infants are frequent weapon fodder, sharp objects are rammed through eyeballs, some guy slit his throat in front of me, and an absurd number of grizzly, drawn-out death sequences are summoned whenever Isaac fails. While I undoubtedly enjoyed the game's more subtle stabs at terrorizing my psyche, the thick layer of chilling gore on top is at least consistent with its mission. Its reputation is pushed even harder by the fantastic foley work, somehow every sound, no matter what its origin, is menacing, and works in tandem with the macabre visuals to create a (for better or worse) unforgettable experience. The constant onslaught of carnage probably isn’t for everyone, but Dead Space 2 appears unconcerned.
All the while, Dead Space 2 remains fully committed to its aesthetic. Different districts of the Sprawl give way to a variety of environments, including (but certainly not limited to) a day care center, a mall, and a large Church of Unitology complex, but they all remain uniquely homogenous. The consistent architecture makes everything feel vaguely connected, which isn't easy to do in a game with so many huge set pieces. Additionally, the constant state of darkness not only conceals potential blemishes, but also boasts the fantastic light effects. Almost everything on the Sprawl is ruined and dark, and, while a flashlight mechanic is nothing new, it's certainly hard to find a better implementation than in Dead Space 2.
It's also worth mentioning that Isaac, formerly of the silent protagonist variety, has been granted a voice. Expectations for this were rather grim, jaded action heroes are a dime-a-dozen, but Isaac actually emerges better for it. His dialogue is unobtrusive and his personality is uncompromised. Isaac doesn't have much time for moronic one-liner's or witty banter and, while he occasionally loses his damn mind, he remains focused on his means of progression. Moderate interaction exists between a few guiding friends and foes but the only relationship of merit is Isaac’s dead girlfriend, Nicole. Her apparition appears with light shooting out of her mouth and eyes while she mumbles terrible, almost unintelligible musings in Isaac's ear. There is finality to their relationship, but its lack of originality and borderline lazy plot implications render it one of the weaker aspects of Dead Space 2. Isaac was at his best when he was mirroring the thoughts and emotions of the player, which typically included a massive amount of profanity and constant uneasiness.
Seemingly practical tools repurposed for combat return as the primary means of gunplay. You'd be hard pressed to conceive a functional purpose for The Ripper, Contact Beam, or even the Plasma Cutter, but I can't fault the attempted fiction. Each weapon still features an alt-fire and upgrade tree, and all the old favorites are joined by the likes of the Javelin Gun and Seeker Rifle, which suffer no delusions concerning their weaponized purpose. In terms of combat Dead Space's unique brand of "strategic dismemberment" still favors shooting off limbs instead of straight-up headshots, but as the game presses on the sheer hoards of Necromorphs beg to be blown to smithereens with everything in Isaac's arsenal.
Combat is the realm where Dead Space 2 grants the most amount of freedom to the player. While the experience is guided, your means of dealing with the opposition isn't. Exploiting every weapon and potential upgrade requires more than one play-through (a process that's now much more appealing with a revamped New Game+) and it's a safe bet that the experience could change dramatically with your chosen arsenal. The first time I played Dead Space 2 I remained almost exclusive to the Plasma Cutter, Line Gun, Ripper, and the Detonator, but you can bet your ass I'll have a completely different load-out when I go for round two.
The Necromorphs have also seen a few biological upgrades. Standard issue Lurkers are frequently joined by Slashers, but their implementation this time around seems to be less about pure vent-crawling surprise and more toward speed and strength in numbers. Crowd control was a constant struggle and I was rarely able to find a pocket of architecture where I could post-up and shoot until nothing moved. New Necro's were expected, but the best of which had to be Stalker. Though restricted to a handful of maze-like rooms, their shy demeanor translates to a glimpse of their heads poking in and out of view before they gave in and charged at Isaac. The trophy tied to these guys was actually called "Clever Girl..." and the velociraptor reference couldn't have been more perfect. They're exciting and represent a great, dynamic approach to Dead Space 2’s particular brand of combat.
If there's any fault to combat, the Slashers, by far the most common Necromoprh, always seemed to be bursting out of closets to catch me off guard. After a few deaths I started to suspect they were assigned to triggers, and replaying certain sequences wiped away the illusion of spontaneity and revealed their scripting. Monster closets aren't necessarily a bad thing, but in the original Dead Space I always felt like the Necromorphs were hunting me instead of waiting for me. A conscious difference in approach is arguable, the Alien versus Aliens comparisons are right on point, but I preferred the former.
Dead Space 2's pacing has seen significant refinement. Awkward asteroid blasting and bland shooting ranges have been replaced with divergences that work better into the fiction. The A to B jump mechanic that used to comprise the zero-gravity segments has been mothballed in favor of true 360 degree motion. Nearly exchanging Isaac's suit for Iron Man's, the controls are super tight without the need to be forgiving. Zero-g segments are used for puzzles, combat, and other context not worth spoiling, but it's safe to say their nature (and brevity) works in Dead Space 2's favor.
Other mechanics return as expected. Isaac's Kinesis module not only allows him to grab objects from afar, but also to rip limbs off of downed Necromorphs and hurl them back at others. It sounds a bit gimmicky, but with a constant ammo crunch the very act of popping off a few shots, tearing off a limb, and firing it back, all in just a few seconds, can be incredibly gratifying. Stasis, the ability for Isaac to cast slow on anything, returns virtually unchanged as well. The means of navigation has seen the greatest revision, as map has been completely removed and replaced with lines toward not only Isaac’s objective, but also save points, work benches, and a store.
An underappreciated facet of Dead Space 2 is its adjustable difficulty curve. The game is at its absolute best when ammunition is kept to a minimum and the player is shuffling weapons around and firing each bullet as if it’s a precious resource. Compounding the tension of Isaac's horrific surroundings with a constant ammo crisis makes for a phenomenal survival-horror experience, one that might not be appreciated on median difficulty levels. To some that might be nerve wracking, but it's also kind of the point. Dead Space 2 works because of its combat, but its foreboding atmosphere pushes it’s value to the next level. Do you want a fun shooter to blow by in a weekend? Stick with Normal difficulty. Would you rather take an exhilarating ride through an interactive hell that could potentially compromise the integrity of your dreams? Then Survivalist might be the best means of initial consumption.
Competitive multiplayer is also a part of Dead Space 2. We got a chance to preview it last fall, and the rotating Engineers versus Necromorphs layout bleeds inspiration from Left 4 Dead; it's better than it has any right to be, but it's not likely going to last as long as more popular shooters. This isn't necessarily Visceral's fault, player progression is reasonably well constructed and there are a few cool ideas here and there, but when stripped of its fiction Dead Space 2 doesn't feel as accomplished. Furthermore, the prevailing whiff of its inception being tied to EA's bottom line (even more detectable if you buy Dead Space 2 used and have to pay $10 for the pleasure) leads to the suspicion than it was born for a bullet point, not endearment.
On the other hand, I can't express what a generous offering PlayStation 3 owners are treated to. Dead Space: Extraction, a guided experience on-rails shooter prequel released for Wii in 2009, is on the disc with the first run of Dead Space 2 pressings. I reviewed it last year and found it to be a great game on the wrong platform (and price), but it's a tremendous value if you've never played it. Up-res'd visuals, trophies, and Move support are added bonuses. Xbox 360 owners get the short end of the stick, though having a Dead Space: Ignition file does unlock cool bonuses for Dead Space 2.