By Kristen Levine
The Dead Space franchise is built on brutality. Anyone familiar with the series is acquainted with its savage combat and terrifying atmosphere, bent on disturbing the player. Dead Space 2 takes this determination to disgust and horrify to new levels.
After several years of filler material in the form of comics, an animated movie, and the Wii-exclusive rail shooter Dead Space: Extraction, we have returned to the meat of the series with the direct sequel to 2008’s Dead Space. The first game’s protagonist Isaac Clarke makes his return with several major improvements; no longer is he a voiceless, emotionless and faceless avatar, but a developed character with a believable and sympathetic personality.
The game opens with Isaac committed in an asylum on the Sprawl, a massive space station made out of the remains of one of Saturn’s moons. The player is acquainted with the basics of the original game’s story in a disturbing therapy session, revealing that Isaac has been in the asylum for three years suffering from amnesia. After reliving the trauma of his experiences, it proves too much and Isaac blacks out. There is no subtle integration of the main antagonists of the series, called necromorphs, versus humans as the real game play begins. Not five minutes into the game’s start and the necromorphs are running rampant and spreading mayhem. Isaac has a straitjacket-restrained gauntlet run to safety, dodging monsters crazed for his blood in the darkened, debris-strewn asylum.
Such claustrophobic, panic-inducing maps are a keynote tactic of Dead Space 2’s design. This is an ordered world turned on its head, made to make the player feel edgy and anxious about the horrors that are lurking behind every corner. The lighting is harsh and sporadic – never has a flashlight been more appreciated than in a dark room full of enemies that play dead alongside their victims.
The combat is intense and never-ending. A player must resist the kneejerk reaction to spray an attacking necromorph with bullets and move on – Dead Space’s famous ‘strategic dismemberment’ fight mechanic is vital to survival beyond a few minutes. If a necromorph loses an arm, it will simply swing at you with the other. Take off its legs and it will wriggle like a centipede after you. Even beheading the creatures does not stop them – armed with a plasma cutter, a basic weapon that was a lifeline in the original title, Isaac must tear into necromorphs and completely deconstruct them. The player needs to think two steps ahead of the enemy, dismembering with focus rather than blindly slashing.
Alongside all the stress of combat and environment, Isaac himself is an obstacle. He’s in the asylum for a reason; he’s suffering from dementia that is slowly eating away at his sanity. Exposure to an alien artifact designed to quell the necromorphs at the end of the first game has twisted Isaac’s mind, leaving him vulnerable to disturbing hallucinations that alter his reality. Among these visions is a murderous illusion of his dead girlfriend Nicole Brennan –a key character in the original game. Nicole is a merciless tormentor as Isaac explores the Sprawl, antagonizing him at every turn. This would be debilitating for anyone, but Isaac must go on even as his perception of the world shatters around him.
With three-years’ worth of refining animation, combat, and storytelling, Dead Space 2 is the sequel fans of the original have been hoping for. It is an atmospheric journey into a living hell with a flawed, believable main character. The player never gets to feel like they can own a room of enemies, because the enemies are stronger and tougher than you are. It takes cunning, strategy and a healthy amount of luck to escape the Sprawl, but with such a rich atmosphere of terrifying, highly polished game play, even the meekest of players will feel reluctant to make a quick retreat.
Dead Space 2 is rated M for blood and gore, strong language, and intense violence. It was released January 25th at $59.99 for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC.