In 2008, the original Dead Space was undoubtedly the year’s sleeper hit. Although initial sales failed to reach publisher EA’s expectations, a steady stream of critical praise and glowing word-of-mouth impressions served to keep the game on people’s minds. An impressive multi-media assault encompassing comics, animated movies and games has helped to flesh out the universe but now we have finally received the next chapter in the series and arguably the year’s first major release.
Dead Space 2 picks up three years after the original, with protagonist Isaac Clarke incarcerated in a medical centre suffering from psychological trauma due to the influence of the Marker. The Marker is an artefact worshiped by The Church of Unitology, the cult religion whose fanatical observers are responsible for the game’s major threat. Unitologists believe this marker will lead them to salvation; however, it also has the unfortunate side effect of driving everyone around it mad and turning dead bodies into one of a variety of disgusting monsters.
A memorable opening sequence sees Isaac struggling to evade these monstrosities while bound in a straitjacket. The feeling of helplessness as you are forced to run for your life only makes it all the more satisfying when you finally do get your hands on Isaac’s weapon of choice, the Plasma Cutter. As before, Dead Space distinguishes itself from most shooters by not asking you to go for headshots. Instead, the most effective way to defeat the game’s enemies is “Strategic Dismemberment”, blasting off their arms and legs using the cutting tools that comprise Clarke’s arsenal. The only way to guarantee a felled necromorph or human corpse won’t suddenly spring back to life is by delivering a firm boot to the cadaver in a gruesome but strangely satisfying manner.
Dead Space 2 maintains and builds upon its predecessor’s exemplary third-person shooting and tense atmosphere by combining it with a wider cast of characters and a few extra layers of polish. Transplanting the action from the repetitive industrial corridors of the Ishimura to the city of Sprawl has allowed for much more visual diversity. Although you still spend most of your time in confined spaces, the action is now set against the backdrop of a bustling city. A level inside a deserted Unitology church sheds some light on the history of the religion while another particularly memorable chapter has you exploring an abandoned elementary school. Here the game introduces one of several new varieties of necromorph, The Crawler, these baby-like creatures with glowing, explosive bodies crawl towards you in packs before detonating themselves.
Some of the tensest encounters come courtesy of another new enemy, The Stalker; these bipedal hunters hide behind scenery waiting for you to turn you back on them before sprinting out of cover. Their speed makes your ability to slow enemies using stasis fields invaluable and their clever AI will keep you on your toes as soon as your hear their distinctive screeches. Ammo and health packs are meted out sparingly to ensure that you’re always on the verge of running out, but there’s always just enough to get you to the next safe place.
As mechanically sound as the action is, it can get repetitive, especially towards the end of the game when it starts to throw larger waves of enemies at you. Great set-pieces break up the monotony, such as one where you’re forced to fend off waves of monsters while suspended upside down from the ceiling.
The most striking change is that Isaac is no longer a silent protagonist. Most of the character development is concentrated on Isaac and his struggle to overcome the influence of the Marker, which is slowing killing him him. Throughout the adventure the ghostly apparition of his dead love, Nicole, haunts Isaac. Manifesting as a rotting corpse with glowing white eyes and clawing hands, she taunts Isaac for failing to save her. This, along with flashbacks to encounters in the original and Eternal Darkness style tricks designed to interfere with the player’s perception of what’s real, adds a welcome element of psychological horror to the already well-developed shock tactics of the original.
Overall, Dead Space 2 is the definition of an excellent sequel. It takes the concepts of the original and refines them while confidently adding new mechanics and depth to its characters.