Review: Dead Space 2 (PS3)

Title: Dead Space 2
Format: Blu-ray
Release Date: January 25, 2011
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Visceral Games
Original MSRP: $59.99

Isaac Clarke has had a rough go the last few years since his escape from the terrors of the USG Ishimura.  His fragile mind has reached the breaking point and is nearing complete madness.  He’s lost the love of his life and faced horrors the likes of which H. P. Lovecraft would scream from in fear.  What else could possibly go wrong with his sad existence?  Other than being confined to a padded room in the Sprawl – a massive space city hovering at the site of the first planet crack – how much worse could it possibly get?  It’s here that Dead Space 2 begins the next chapter in the tragic life of Isaac Clarke.

Not since the opening chapter of Uncharted 2 have I been so immediately involved and invested in a videogame’s story.  Although comparing apples and oranges both games kick things off by immersing the player in a dire situation.  Uncharted 2 leaves Nathan Drake within the shell of a train car, perilously dangling over the side of a cliff.  Dead Space 2 starts things off with Isaac Clarke, bound by straight jacket, running for his life as the Necromorph horde rips flesh and breaks bone of all those around him.  Both games deliver an incredible sense of helplessness in the opening moments and instantly set the tone for what you know will surely be an astonishing interactive experience.

How do you improve on a game franchise already regarded as an incredible adventure of horror and suspense?  I think that may be more difficult than what most might consider.  The developers at Visceral Games were faced with this very question and, based on the limited number of changes made to Dead Space 2, it was evident that radically changing the original formula was not on their list of things to do.  But the changes and enhancements they did focus on were most definitely welcome.

The over the shoulder camera, holographic ammo count and spot on combat controls all made a repeat appearance and, thankfully, did not undergo any significant changes.  Some of the more notable changes include a quick stasis reload and health replenish – both drawbacks to the first Dead Space.  Gone is the frantic search through your item stash while continually being torn apart from all directions.  This time around a simple push of a face button will recharge your stasis or fill up your health meter – all while allowing the focus of the game to remain on Isaac’s fight for survival.

By far the biggest change and most welcome enhancement would be the upgraded zero-G 360-degree flight capabilities.  Where Dead Space limited the player to pick clearly marked landing spots to jump to while in zero gravity, Dead Space 2 allows full mobility while floating in weightlessness.  Although initially disorienting I was quickly able to adapt to Isaac’s suit thrusters.  These sequences, although limited in scope, were some of the bigger highlights for me.  Throwing in a healthy dose of combat or puzzle solving while floating upside down resulted in some memorable moments.

The visuals of Dead Space 2 easily rival the best of 2010 and have set the bar high for the remainder of 2011.  Aside from some of the most terrifying creature designs to infect my PlayStation 3, Visceral Games focused explicitly on light and shadow and the importance they play in further setting the mood.  Every environment encountered and room investigated displayed a level of light/shadow detail that is unmatched in any other video game I have played in recent memory.  They were, quite seriously, characters in and of themselves.

Adding to this level of detail are the expansive vistas the player has numerous opportunities to breathe in and appreciate for all it’s depth and realism.  Where Dead Space was very much a rinse and repeat level design Dead Space 2 brings a substantially larger playground.  Although there is some level of repetition, more often than not players are provided with an incredible amount of variety.  From creepy daycare centers to the Church of Unitology, each new section of the Sprawl included a consistent high level of detail and art design.

Just as impressive (and important) as the light and shadows of Dead Space 2 is the fantastic sound mix.  The creepy orchestral pieces are on par with some of the best I’ve heard in a video game.  Add to that some incredible surround sound and you’ve got yourself a highly immersive experience.  That which goes bump in the night has never sounded more frightening.  Every little scrape, scratch or chitter is incredibly rendered.  If ever there was a video game to show off your surround system this is the one.  More often than not it’s that which you don’t see, but simply hear, that was the most terrifying.  Where Dead Space often used cheap, but effective, sound gimmicks, Dead Space 2 ratchets things up considerably.

My only real complaint (if you can call it that) with the audio is that I often found myself having difficulty hearing, or understanding, some of the dialogue between characters – most notably from the apparition/hallucination of Isaac’s former love interest of the first game, Nicole.  As this is a major plot point of the story I would suggest using subtitles to avoid missing any of the story’s development.  It’s not that the voice over isn’t clear it’s just that it is represented in such an evil and demonic way that it is often difficult to decipher every word that is spoken or, more appropriately, shrieked.

Unlike the first Dead Space, Visceral Games has taken it upon themselves to add an online multiplayer component with Dead Space 2.  Because the single player campaign holds so strong on its own merits I was initially wary of what this might mean for fans of the franchise.  My biggest fear was that the developers had been pressured by Electronic Arts to meet the demands of the ever growing need for online game play and that the end result would be a half baked effort that disrupted the level of attention provided to the campaign.  Thankfully that is not the case.

Much like the iconic Left 4 Dead Versus mode, Dead Space 2 pits 4 Necromorph against 4 of the Sprawl’s human security team.  At first I thought that, armed with an arsenal of weapons and stasis abilities, the player fortunate enough to start as one of the human security guards would rule the day.  On the contrary, having played as both a human and Necromorph the odds were fairly well balanced.  In addition, the online multiplayer is more than just a straight up death match.  Instead, the humans must work toward common, objective-based, goals.  The Necromorph, although still recommending some semblance of teamwork, have their sites set on ripping apart those puny, convergence-free, humans.

After playing one of the best single player campaigns in recent memory it’s hard for me to exude that same sense of awe and excitement with the multiplayer.  With that said, the multiplayer was significantly more than just a tacked-on selling point.  I’m sure it certainly didn’t hurt sales figures but it also wasn’t the reason why I reserved and bought the collector’s edition either.

For me, this year’s incredible gaming release schedule started with Dead Space 2.  Visceral Games took one of my favorite releases of 2008 and put an even higher polish on an already gleaming franchise.  I was terrified and loved every horror-induced minute.  From its visual accomplishments and incredible sound design to its great storytelling and spot on controls Dead Space 2 exceeded my expectations in nearly every way.  Whether or not you’re a fan of survival horror gaming this title should be on every gamer’s shelf.

Altman be Praised!


Written by Bill Braun

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