Dead Space 2 Review by Michael Olavarria

Isaac is in trouble. The health bar on his spinal cord is dangerously low, and he’s limping along the desecrated halls of an apartment complex. His plasma cutter has only six rounds left, and he can hear the grunts and moans of something in the walls, walls covered in the chalky-white gibberish of the insane. Is that a vent over there? Vents are bad. Enemies can pop out of them and eviscerate you. He pushes his locator to see where he should be headed. Of course, the blue line races past the vent and around the corner. Crap. Isaac ambles along, gun drawn, waiting for the inevitable attack. He inches past blood stains and dead bodies until—

Nothing happens. He walks past unscathed. Curious. A bit more optimistic now, Isaac walks over to an elevator, calls it, and prepares to leave this little slice of hell behind. He steps in, pushes the button, and the elevator lurches to life. Suddenly, a Necromorph pops out from the ceiling, blades ready to cut into Isaac’s engineering suit. Welcome to the Sprawl.

“Welcome to the Sprawl!”

Like Gordon Freeman in Half Life 2, Isaac is a member of the “every-man” elite. He’s an engineer. Who can kill aliens. With tools. And weapons. Soldiers trained for combat die around you. You survive.  And you know what? I love it. It makes Isaac far more relatable than if he were a hardened soldier with a heart of gold, an assassin trying to perfect his craft, or a king trying to rule his kingdom. Isaac primarily wants one thing: to be out.

In the sequel to the first Dead Space, players are able to guide Isaac to relative safety through a large station named The Sprawl, which is located on Saturn’s Titan moon. A Necromorph infestation has suddenly appeared on this colony, and Isaac is stuck in the middle of it, trying to figure out what in the world is going on. The story also centers on his quest for closure and for freedom from the demons of his past, including his girlfriend Nicole. Isaac is going to go through hell and back in order to find some peace as its evident from the first few minutes that his time on the Ishimura has scarred him deeply.

Unlike his trek through the Ishimura, however, we can actually see and hear the man behind the mask. The choice to give Isaac a face and a voice has paid off in dividends. In Dead Space 1, I didn’t really care whether Isaac died or not. It was my time that was on the line whenever he was about to bite the dust; I didn’t want to restart at the last checkpoint or save station. Now, however, Isaac gives back to the world he inhabits; he argues, he questions, he pleads, and he reassures. His face, whenever you get the chance to see it, is a mirror of his emotions. It’s not noteworthy in and of itself (every game worth its weight has face animations), but in contrast to the original, it serves to tether the player to Isaac’s fate, emotional and physical.

Sup, I’m Issac.”

Like his personality, Isaac’s arsenal has been beefed up as well. Series mainstays like the plasma cutter, pulse rifle, and line gun make their return, but they are joined by the javelin, which shoots out, you guessed it, javelins that can be electrified using the alt fire button. Another new weapon is the Detonator, which allows you to plant mines that, well, blow enemies into meat chunks; this is especially useful during some of the later levels when enemies really start to swarm you in numbers.

Every weapon has a “heft” to it that makes each shot impressive and believable; I feel as though I could run down to Walmart and buy a Line Gun. What’s even more important is that the weapon variety ties directly into combat. It’s not advisable to kill every enemy you come across with the same weapon: you’ll waste ammo and get hit—a lot. The plasma cutter works best on enemies with exposed weakspots or flailing limbs while the pulse rifle makes quick work of small, weak enemies. However, when those small enemies are in packs, the line gun would be the best choice. The player constantly has to adjust his arsenal for the right Necromorph/situation.

And you’re going to need every weapon you can lay your grease and blood covered hands on. The Necromorphs seem much more aggressive, and the AI on some of the creatures is truly impressive. The little demon children that scream at you will swarm and surround you if you’re not careful. The dog-like creatures that inhabit some areas are also particularly clever. They will peak out behind a pillar to see what you’re doing; when they feel they have an opportunity to strike, they rush you, knock you to the ground, and then run and hide again.

Other enemies are a bit more . . . controversial? I have to give EA credit for pushing the envelope with a particular enemy type that you encounter deep into Chapter 6. Let’s just say that it involves a school/nursery/day care. I was honestly disturbed by these enemies; not “start a protest to save the minds of our youth” disturbed, but “wow, that’s messed up yet fitting” disturbed.  In the realm of videogames, few things are being left sacred or ambiguous . . .

“….wtf is that ?! “

Isaac also has an advanced locator. Instead of simply showing a glowing blue line to his next objective, the locator on his arm can now show a green line to the nearest save point, purple to a bench, and orange to a store. It’s an intuitive and welcome system that spared a few of my brain cells the need to remember too much.

Now onto the AV section. Dead Space 2 is a beautiful game. The creepy ambience is perfectly conveyed through ever present shadows, overturned light sources, unintelligible scribbles in blood and stone, and corpses—lots of corpses. The atmosphere drips with tension, and as you admire the little details in the environments, you’re constantly wary of what could jump out at you from every corner, vent, or window. In terms of its presentation, Dead Space 2 frequently violates your expectations throughout the game, tricking you into thinking that an attack is coming, dropping items near you so that you overreact and perhaps even turn the wrong way. None of this would have been possible if the graphic fidelity were low, but as I mentioned above, this is one pretty game. Splashes of blood remain on Isaac’s clothing after he survives an especially brutal attack; the textures that make up Isaac’s model are expectedly well done (though some of the weapons, like the plasma cutter, are lower res), but each enemy also has its own terrifyingly awesome look.  The creature animations are eerie in their liveliness: watching a headless Necromorph flail his arms about as he tries to cut you to pieces is a treat.  Many of the Necromorphs return from the first Dead Space, and they look pretty much the same, but that’s more of a testament to how great the first Dead Space looked and moved, and if it ain’t broke . . .

“Have we met before?”

Also, the development team at Visceral Games has gone to great lengths to convince you that the Sprawl was inhabited by relatively normal and happy living human beings just hours ago; shops beckon you to eat sushi and meditate, and those crazy Unitologists even have a church somewhere on the Sprawl which has some of my favorite pieces of architecture in the game. Candles, bleach bottles, alarm clocks, and all kinds of nick-knacks pepper the game world, and they ground this fantastical tale in reality. These were average Joes who were set upon by truly terrible beings, and various parts of their previous lives are desecrated at every turn.

On the PC, everything runs smoothly on the highest settings, and I’m not running a monster of a rig either. Overall, everything comes together very well visually. Just look at this rocket scene, its beautiful!

The same can be said of the audio. Walking through a day care center and hearing babies wailing is among the creepiest sounds I’ve heard in a videogame. This is in addition to the screams for help from residents stuck in their apartments only moments before they are torn to shreds by an unseen monstrosity. Meanwhile, security audio warnings update you on what’s malfunctioning around you, and Isaac forges thin alliances with the people he meets over his communicator. The voice acting is top notch though I’m getting a bit tired of the overuse of British, Australian, and New Zealand actors in videogames and other media. I get it: they sound cool; some even act well. But does having a British accent really add more legitimacy to the character?

As for the soundtrack, it rarely made itself known outside of high stress moment such as an impending attack. For the most part, the music was a quiet observer that caressed me as I played only to grab me by the throat when a Necromorph popped out of a hole in the wall and threw up goo at me. It’s stringy (gotta love the violin type screeches that are a staple of the horror genre whether its movies or games), brassy at some points, and just plain creepy. It’s nothing you’d tap your toes to or whistle on your way to work, but the music is effective and intriguing.

I also feel comfortable with the sound effects. “Comfort” is also what I would describe the “hidden treasure!” noise in Zelda, the “you’ve been spotted” brap! in Metal Gear Solid, and the “you just got smaller” noise in Mario. When Isaac opens a door, receives an updated objective, or stomps a corpse, it’s Dead Space. No other game makes these noises, and it speaks to the game’s uniqueness when you can identify what’s going on in your environment just by listening. Try it: close your eyes, walk around pushing buttons, and see if you can’t tell what’s going on. The environmental sounds give off the futuristic sci-fi vibe perfectly, and the Necromorphs sound as terrifying and unique as ever. You can immediately tell what enemy is attacking you by listening to his coughs, growls, or yelps. It’s a feat of sound design that I don’t appreciate as much as I should, but Dead Space 2 rewards astute gamers for their attention since some weapons work better on some enemy types than others.
Dead Space 2 gets so much right. However, not all is perfect in the Sprawl, and I’m not referring to the Necromorph blitzkrieg. One of the more annoying aspects of the game is how Telekinesis (TK) projectile throwing is handled in certain situations. Namely, when I pick up a severed claw or a sharp, metallic spear, I expect it to slice through an enemy even when he’s near me. Not so in DeadSpace 2. Often, enemies will crowd you in an attempt to lay a kiss of death, and when I shot a metal rod at them, it would pass through them and lodge itself into the floor or wall.  It SHOULD have sliced ‘em up reaaaal good like. I’m pretty sure that Game Informer mentioned a similar concern regarding TK targeting when it covered DeadSpace 2 months ago, so it’s a bit of a shame that Visceral Games didn’t take the criticism to heart. To be fair, I’m playing it on a PC; maybe the Xbox 360 or PS3 version offers acceptable up-close TK action. If so, let me know on the comments below.

Also, the story, while it did resonate with me, had a couple of clichéd moments. One in particular, at the end of Chapter Five, had me groaning with its predictability. It was followed by a lot of frantic action and explosions, pretty enough to almost make me forget, but the lingering disappointment was still there. Worse still, it made me question Isaac’s intelligence. I won’t go on about it since I abhor when someone spoils a storyline for me, but keep your eyes and ears peeled when playing.

Also, and this may be a shot against horror films and games in general, but how many times can you come up with a reason to separate people? There always seems to be SOMETHING that keeps a group of people from sticking together and covering one another. I get that this isn’t an action game, but perhaps there were cleverer ways of keeping Isaac by himself for most of his adventure than some of the scenarios presented in the game. It became far too, well, predictable! Isaac volunteered to realign the satellite arrays; of course, something is going to go wrong on his way back to his pals, and he’ll have to take the long way back. Were you able to restart that tram? Good luck getting back to your companions because something is going to keep it from being a smooth ride. Conflict and obstacles are important in fiction, but when the devices are overused, they become transparent, and a gamer realizes that he is playing a game in which developers are consciously trying to find ways to keep him isolated and scared. This was a gripe of mine with the first Dead Space, and I’m hoping that in Dead Space 3, Visceral Games comes up with cleverer plot devices to keep me all alone in the dark.

“Always at the wrong place at the wrong time, FML”

Finally, and this one is a bit nitpicky, there’s a hacking mini-game. Now, I really like the presentation of the mini-game since it’s an LCD, futuristic version of safe cracking. However, it leaves me to wonder why it’s here. Isaac is an engineer, and he’s able to manipulate the electronics he finds throughout the Sprawl to a greater extent than he could on the Ishimura. I get and appreciate that. But these segments are too brief to be palette cleansers (at least to me), and they aren’t difficult or even challenging, so it’s not as though they provide an engaging experience. My point, I suppose, is that they could have been completely removed from the game, and gamers probably wouldn’t care, or they could have been automated and, again, gamers wouldn’t have cared. The minigame in no way detracts from the overall experience, but since it does present itself on more than one occasion, it left me wondering “why is it here?”

Oh, and I would like a jump button. You’re able to jump and move around freely in Zero Gravity (an awesome addition, by the way), but to clear lower objects or get down from a higher one, it’d be nice if I could simply hop around a bit. We did get Isaac’s face and voice this time around, so maybe his magic legs was asking too much, but next round, EA, prove this white man can jump.

There’s also the multiplayer component of the game, which I’ve only briefly delved into. It can be fun to group up with friends and swarm the army of Isaac-esque engineers; it reminds me of Left 4 Dead in that coordination is the key to success. Not all of the Necromorphs are built equally, so if you’re one of the smaller, bald demon children, and you try to run at an engineer who ISN’T engaged with a larger foe, he’s simply going to blast you to dust.

Hopefully I can provide a more comprehensive discussion of the multiplayer component in the near future, but honestly, it’s the single player experience that shines.

Overall, Dead Space 2 is well worth the purchase price, and fans of the original Dead Space receive quite a bit of fan service throughout the game, especially in Chapter 10.  The graphics, soundtrack, and voice acting unite to create a creepy atmosphere that pulses with personality. The gameplay is fun and expanded upon well from the first game, especially the new Zero gravity sections. Everything feels much more refined. The game is not a cake walk even on the normal difficulty, but every victory feels as though it’s earned, particularly in the later chapters. Unfortunately, there are some rough spots like the spotty TK mechanics and certain story aspects, but these do little to detract from the overall experience.

Dead Space newbies, you’ll have fun with this game too. Before beginning the game, there is an option to get up to speed with the franchise, and most of what you need to know about the story thus far is given during the gameplay itself through dialogue, audio logs, and text logs. Thus, you have little reason NOT to join the franchise beginning with the second installment.

“Issac’s got a new suit and a kick-ass 2nd installment”

So what are you waiting for?, Steam, Gamestop,, and several other retailers/search engines are ready to take your Dead Space 2 order!!!