Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Review: Dead Space 2

Dead Space 2 does most of the things a sequel should do, and it does these things very, very well.

In short, the team at Visceral took the formula that worked so well in the first game and pumped in more of it. While this new nightmarish journey doesn’t take many risks, add too many new ideas or manage to scare quite like the first game, what we’re left with is a big, mean action experience that keeps the blood pumping and the occasional creeps crawling.

Set three years following the events of the original Dead Space, Dead Space 2 kicks off with hero Isaac Clarke on a massive space station called The Sprawl. Body parts quickly hit the fan as Isaac must arm himself to combat a second necromorph outbreak and, as if that wasn’t enough, a mind he may no longer be able to trust.

The world is bigger this time around and features some great locals like a Unitology church, a mall and even a preschool where some of the series’ newest abominations literally crawl through the cracks to try and rip your head off. While the world of Dead Space 2 feels more lived in, there was something about those cramped metal corridors of the U.S.G. Ishimura in the original Dead Space that managed to add a whole extra layer of claustrophobia on top of the usual scares. As such, the wrecked, blood-soaked Sprawl is spooky, but the extra room to run and maneuver take some of the tension out of the experience.

Just like any good Sci-Fi follow-up, Dead Space 2 features more monster types and more weapons to take them out. Isaac’s trademark “stomp” has been upgraded, allowing the engineer to pounce on a body to his heart’s content. You’ll want to do this, since pretty much every dead necromorph is carrying an ammo pack or a much needed health boost, presumably somewhere in their chest cavity.

The twisted baddies felt tougher to put down this time around, but more combat options, like the time-freezing stasis and object-hurling kinesis, make the swarms a bit more manageable. It’s absolutely possible to shoot off a necromorph’s limb, then use said limb to pin the creature to a wall. Keeping a cool head in tight spots, you can actually clear an entire room while only using a few precious rounds of ammo. Or, if you're like me, you'll fire every last shot in the clip until everything stops moving...Then you'll stomp them a few extra times, just to be sure.

Another leap forward for the series is the zero gravity segments. Thanks to the ability to move freely with competent controls, you’ll actually be excited every time you hear the computer’s voice tell you you’re “now entering zero gravity.” These portions of the game feature some of the best puzzles and, thanks to the ability to move in any direction, some of the more mind-bending fights.

Dead Space 2 is also big on monstrous set pieces. Every hour of play is punctuated by at least one big moment that is both fun to experience and memorable. I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises, but the developers did a great job of packing some big action into Dead Space 2, usually serving as a perfectly timed adrenaline rush to crank the steadily building pace all the way up to 11.

The sound design is once again second to none in Dead Space 2 with several aural cues and an unsettling soundtrack providing the game’s best scares. Sadly, I fear the newness of the first Dead Space is a big part of what made it so terrifying. Even with new necromorph types (the Stalker is my personal favorite new nightmare fuel) and a few new tricks courtesy of a questionable sanity, Dead Space 2 feels more like an action game with some scary bits thrown in than a survival horror gem like the original.

Don’t get me wrong. There are still plenty of scares to be had in tense situations, but room to breath and knowing one’s enemy did a lot to bolster my confidence, even if it was smacked back down from time to time thanks to a particularly well designed scare or a hoard of beasties that, for a moment, feel too great to overcome.

The campaign is nice and meaty and will keep you blasting for hours on end. The decision to give Isaac a voice this time around makes him easier to connect with and even goes a good ways to improve the storytelling (though the story is pretty standard Sci-Fi fare). The important thing is, at the end of each play session, your blood will be boiling and your nerves will be on end. Dead Space 2 is a fantastic action title that even encourages additional playthroughs with upgrades you can’t complete on a single run and the ability to carry everything over into a new game plus.

The online component makes for a good distraction and, while there are several cool ideas (like playing as necromorphs and spawning from just about anywhere), I doubt the otherwise shallow offerings will keep new players busy for more than a few weeks.

The PlayStation 3 version of Dead Space 2 also comes with a free copy of Extraction, which can be played with a Move controller. I haven’t gotten around to trying this out yet, so expect a full review of that title in the near future. Its inclusion, though, is certainly a nice perk for those who enjoy light gun style games.

Overall, Dead Space 2 is a great way to kickoff 2011. It’s big, exciting, and definitely a worthy addition to the series.

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