Dead Space 2 now has me thinking video games may not be a healthy pursuit after all. Despite playing through the original Dead Space twice, my heart was not as well-conditioned to its horrors as I originally thought.
Visceral Games' newest sci-fi fright-fest piles on the spooks and scares just as well as its predecessor, a 12 hour long deep dive into the insanity of engineer Isaac Clarke. In Dead Space 2, Clarke, the unlucky engineer who tore alien undead limb from limb in the original Dead Space, faces a new Necromorph onslaught on a space station dubbed the Sprawl. Even Isaac's mental state, shattered after the events of the first game, is conspiring against him in his attempts stop the Necromorph infestation.
Isaac arms himself with new weapons and faces new, ghastly foes; but Dead Space 2 doesn't bring many new tricks to the survival horror formula—save for its online multiplayer mode. It does, however, keep the thrills coming.
Brave souls who want to be stressed out by their entertainment, who like a good scare and who don't mind closets bursting with undead monsters. Those who may have given up on the "survival horror" brand of video game when other contenders started to feel less fresh—even if Dead Space is already starting to feel less exciting and new.
The original Dead Space is one of this generation's great horror games, a masterpiece of terrifying sound design, great atmosphere and bristling tension. Dead Space 2 matches its predecessor in those departments and fixes a few of its unlovable quirks.
What's new in Dead Space 2? Not a whole lot. Isaac Clarke still has access to a long list of weapons, many of them familiar (plasma cutter, line rack, flamethrower) and can upgrade those weapons and his space suit to boost his power as he faces hundreds of deadly Necromorphs. Visceral does add more to Clarke's arsenal and gives him a few new outfits, some with unique characteristics, to play with. But the core gameplay is pure Dead Space. Isaac can stop Necromorphs dead in their tracks with a time-slowing stasis field and use a telekinetic beam to throw things around. Improved is Dead Space 2's zero gravity movement, which gives Isaac the chance to float and fly through space. Sacrificed in that change is the disorientation of Dead Space's original zero G movement, which had an appeal of its own.
New strains of Necromorphs, please! While the old, reliable, blade-limbed Necromorphs from the first Dead Space reappear in droves, a few new variations on the undead make the sequel much more challenging. One particularly loathsome type is the Pack, childlike undead that quickly swarm the player in groups. The Puker uses one of Isaac's own tricks against him, with a vomit attack that slows the player's movements. Crawlers, infants turned Necromorph, are little more than sad suicide bombers. Stalkers hide in the shadows, then charge at the player with the speed of a velociraptor. There are no duds among the dead.
But still the same gory amputation-based gameplay of the original? Definitely. The core gameplay remains unchanged. Necromorphs will burst forth from closets and air ducts, surround Isaac and leap from the shadows; slicing off their limbs is still the best tactic. Despite Isaac's ever increasing power, you'll still feel as if you're in constant danger throughout. Hacking mini-games, zero G space flight and light puzzle solving serve to break up the action. One thankful deletion in Dead Space 2 is its total lack of turret gun shooting galleries.
And the atmosphere? Still as strong as ever, with brilliant lighting effects and sound design tricks that regularly unnerve. Dead Space 2's audiovisual suspense put me on edge for a 12 hour stretch. That can't be healthy, can it?
How's the story in Dead Space 2? It starts well and ends well, with thrilling action sequences that don't feel like repeats from the original Dead Space. The sequel actually opens with Isaac Clarke in a straitjacket, running for his life from Necromorph hordes, a smartly scary introduction to the world of Dead Space 2 and the state of our hero's mind. The game sometimes looses its step with uninteresting side missions and fetch quests—and some of the creepy environments Isaac finds himself in border on silly instead of truly scary—but if you've enjoyed the fiction of Dead Space, the sequel delivers more of its lore in spades. (For those who haven't played the original, a "previously on Dead Space" short will get them up to speed quickly.)
How's the multiplayer? It doesn't feel necessary, because Dead Space 2 can stand on its own as a single-player game, but it is not an unwelcome addition. Where Dead Space 2's story-driven mode comes in waves tense and terrifying, then quiet, its multiplayer side pits a team of humans against a team of Necromorphs in an objective-based mode that's a constant frenzy. Humans have access to unlockable weapons and upgrades through a familiar experience points system, while Necromorphs have Left 4 Dead-like sight and the ability to spawn at the location of their choosing. Teamwork is key here and multiplayer can be great fun. But single-player is really the draw.
Does Dead Space 2 do anything wrong? Other than feeling perhaps too similar to its predecessor, Dead Space 2 is a great horror game. There's little in the way of innovation in this entry, if that matters to you, which is only disheartening because the original felt so refreshing. Dead Space 2 also shares some of the annoying camera quirks of the original game, which can obscure Isaac's heads up display and make it even harder to see and fight Necromorphs.
Dead Space 2 is as much a hallmark of great terror engineering as the 2008 original, a satisfying, heart-racing trip through a hellish environment, full of haunting sight and sound. Like its predecessor, Dead Space 2 hooks the player into a second playthrough ("new game plus"), in which Isaac is just as powerful as he was at the conclusion of the first completion. Ripping through Necromorphs as a buffed up Isaac Clarke can be very cathartic. While it may not feel as unique as Visceral Games' first terrifying space adventure, Dead Space 2's genuine scares, its speedier play and big, broad scope will leave you wanting more. Just not anytime soon, please, Visceral Game. My heart simply can't take it.
Dead Space 2 was developed by Visceral Games and published by EA for the PlayStation 3, PC and Xbox 360, released on January 25, 2011. Retails for $49.99 to $59.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through single-player campaign on Normal and tested multiplayer component on PlayStation 3.