It’s a pretty well-established fact that humans as a species have a few deeply ingrained phobias: darkness, solitude, death and vicious beasts, to name a few.
“Dead Space 2,” just like the original “Dead Space,” exploits those primal fears to great effect.
Every aspect of the game’s design is directed at a singular purpose: to wear down players’ nerves, until we’re as twitchy and paranoid as our main character, Isaac Clarke. And with its incredibly detailed graphics, atmospheric lighting and haunting audio, “Dead Space 2” succeeds admirably at meeting that goal.
Here’s a game where every step I take forward fills me with gut-wrenching apprehension. What was that skittering noise, that muffled squeal, that pained moan? My brain automatically begins to classify the sounds. Some are put down as harmlessly disturbing background noise, others as precursors to a real threat. I’m right maybe half the time.
Abominations WILL be coming after me at some point. But will it be this moment or the next? Will I have some warning, or are they stealthily slinking up behind me? Unsure, I keep a weapon in hand, locked and loaded, the attached flashlight’s beam cleaving the darkness, sweeping to and fro as I watch for the next threat.
For all my fears, my racing pulse, that lump in my throat, I can’t put the controller down. I must take that next step forward, regardless of the cost. Maybe I’ll get Isaac killed; maybe I won’t. But I must see what happens next.
I felt the same way about the original. That’s where I first stepped into Isaac’s shoes, as he and a small crew ventured onto the derelict USG Ishimura, a planet-cracking deep-space mining vessel, to find out what had gone wrong. It was quickly apparent: Everybody onboard was dead, and their transformed corpses were running amuck, trying to kill us.
These weren’t your standard zombies either, where headshots would do the trick. No, these guys only died if you thoroughly dismembered them, and you had to stomp them into bloody kibble if you wanted to be really sure you got the job done.
“Dead Space 2” picks up several years after Isaac dealt with that threat, though the ordeal thoroughly traumatized him. Unfortunately, the monsters — called Necromorphs — have returned, thanks to more than a bit of governmental hubris and religious zealotry.
The result is one of the better games in the survival horror genre, as “Dead Space 2” satisfies on multiple levels.
It all begins with the setting: The Sprawl, a sweeping space outpost situated on a fragment of Saturn’s moon Titan. The developers created a gleaming metropolis — complete with residence areas, business districts, schools, churches and industrial zones — then soiled it with splashes of blood and viscera, the filth of its inhabitants’ sudden slaughter.
Discarded luggage crowds hallways, abandoned by the station’s occupants during their headlong flight from the Necromorphs. But the bodies that similarly litter the passages prove most people didn’t get far. Yet some of the fallen still have stories to tell, in the form of text and audio logs they’ve left behind, alternate viewpoints that offer new insights into this tragedy.
Lights flicker on and off, briefly driving back the pervading darkness, as systems falter, absent their human caretakers. In some sections of the station, life support systems have failed, leaving whole areas devoid of air and/or gravity. Isaac’s suit is a sealed environment, with thrusters for maneuvering in the void as well as a small self-contained air supply, so brief trips “outside” are certainly survivable. But those moments are claustrophobic; the world becomes muted, with only Isaac’s breathing breaking the silence.
One of the cleverest elements of the “Dead Space” series is that it has done away with many of the usual trappings of video games. You don’t have stray indicators — health gauges, ammo counts and the like — cluttering up the corners of the screen. Instead, all of that information is directly represented in Isaac’s reality. His physical status is represented by a bar of light running up the back of his suit. Various menus are presented as holographic projections in front of him, as if he were the one interacting with them. Even his weapons emit holographic projections of how much ammo remains in the current clip. The net effect is that suspension of disbelief is far more easily accomplished, especially as scythe-armed horrors surround you.
The weapons of the “Dead Space” games are also fairly original, as the series supposes that regular armaments wouldn’t be all that effective at killing what’s already dead. So Isaac must employ industrial tools — surgical lasers, cutters for slicing through metal plates, hole-punching “javelins,” rotary saws and the like — to chop up the monsters most of the time, rather than relying on lots of relatively ineffective bullets.
And, frankly, even death is enjoyable in "Dead Space 2," as it's when you've gotten Isaac killed that you're treated to some gruesomely awesome animations of his final moments. I really don't want to spoil those with descriptions of what happens, but trust me when I say you've got to let him get sucked into the void of space at least once, and you'll also want to fail when it's time to "stick a needle in your eye."
Some players might complain that there’s nothing really new in “Dead Space 2”: The monsters haven’t really changed, nor have the weapons or Isaac’s abilities — unless you count his ability to fly around in zero gravity.
I don’t see it that way however. The previous game wasn’t broken in any way, so I’m glad they didn’t try to “fix” it. I’m more than happy to keep playing this series just as it is now, as long as the story continues to make sense — and rattle my nerves.
Well, one thing is new, I suppose. They’ve also added a multiplayer component to the game, and they’ve managed to do it in a way that integrates quite well with the overall mood of the single-player game.
The online multiplayer is a mission-based experience quite similar to the multiplayer part of the “Left 4 Dead” series. Each mission is a game of four-on-four, with one team playing as humans, the other as Necromorphs. The human players must race the clock while trying to accomplish a multistep goal and fighting off the Necromorph players; each time they accomplish a step, they get some time back on the clock. Meanwhile, Team Necromorph must try to stymie the humans’ progress. When that match concludes, the teams switch roles and play through the scenario again.
In my experience, which team wins has a lot to do with how much teamwork they exhibit — and very little to do with how skilled individual players are.
My only complaint with the multiplayer is that I have a lot of difficulty getting into a match in the first place. Basically, you pick the scenario you want to play (or tell the game to pick for you), then wait to be assigned a match. But most of the time, the machine tells me the match it was trying to put me into isn’t available, and I’ve got to try again and again and again. (And I’ve had that happen for a half-hour straight before, at which point I gave up and moved on with my life.)
Final notes: The PlayStation 3 version of “Dead Space 2” has an exclusive extra that you won’t find on the Xbox 360. It comes with a copy of “Dead Space: Extraction,” a first-person rail-shooter compatible with the PlayStation Move control system. Also, while you are missing out if you haven't played the original "Dead Space," you'll still be able to understand what's going in the sequel, as it includes an optional recap of the original to bring you up to speed.
“Dead Space 2”
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC. Reviewed on Xbox 360.
Publisher: Electronic Arts.
Rating: M for mature.
Recommendation: Unless you really hate the horror genre or third-person shooters, this is a must-experience game. I think there’s enough value here, with or without the multiplayer, to make it a purchase, but as it can be beaten in a standard rental period too, that’s a viable option too.
Images courtesy of Electronic Arts
First image: An unfortunate accident has left Isaac Clarke in a precarious position, with Necromorphs coming out of the proverbial woodwork.
Second image: Clarke fights monsters aboard a train. The line of blue light along his spine indicates that he's at full health, and the holographic display on his weapon shows how much ammo is left in that clip.
Third image: Two teams clash in a multiplayer match, with one group playing as humans, the other as Necromorphs.