Dead Space 2 picks up about three years after the events of the first Dead Space. Isaac Clarke awakens in a medical facility on a space station known as the Sprawl. He has no memories of the past three years, and the last thing he can remember is what occurred on the Ishimura in the first game. The same Necromorph monsters that wiped out the Ishimura have somehow taken over the Sprawl. As if that weren't bad enough, the Sprawl government wants to find and kill Isaac. His encounter with the mysterious Marker in the original Dead Space garnered him some information relating to the Necromorphs and the Marker. The government used this information to build a replica Marker, and it doesn't want this knowledge get out. To make things worse, Isaac is slowly losing his mind; the Marker's information is communicating with him in the form of his dead girlfriend Nicole, so he must destroy the Marker and escape the hordes before he loses his life or goes insane.
The plot isn't very strong in Dead Space 2. The characters and events meander along, and there's very little in the way of interesting mysteries or reveals. There are a few plot twists, but they're rather predictable. The trustworthy characters are pure, and the antagonists are practically cackling caricatures. Isaac is relatively likeable, and he sounds more sympathetic, but he also comes across as rather bland. He curses and quips, but the game attempts to saddle him with survivor's guilt, which never really comes together. Instead of being subtle and disturbing, his hallucinations entail the entire screen tinting yellow as a blatant warning. Nicole's ghost is little more than a carnival horror show attraction that pops up with a quick "boo!" before wandering off.
To the game's credit, the story may be weak, but the atmosphere in some areas is top-notch. A sequence where Isaac wanders through an abandoned school is definitely one of the most disturbing in recent memory. Many of the most intense moments have no enemies at all, and you're simply witnessing the aftermath of the Necromorph infestation. Unfortunately, the game tends to work against this atmosphere with some of the action sequences. It is difficult to believe that Isaac is barely hanging on to his sanity when he uses a rocket-equipped supersuit to skydive through collapsed buildings and land without a scratch.
Dead Space 2's biggest problem is that it doesn't feel as fresh anymore. Most of the tricks and gimmicks are rehashes of features that we've seen before. The game uses many of the same scares as Dead Space, and veterans of the franchise can determine when a trick is coming. When a Necromorph is sitting, seemingly intact, on the floor, you know it will pop up and attack as soon as you pass by. A room filled with mazelike crates is going to feature the new Stalker Necromorphs at every possible opportunity. The scariest moments don't involve enemies but had simple and unexpected environmental objects or sounds. The predictability of the plot is detrimental. Sometimes, the game makes fun of the plot twists that everyone already expects, but it proceeds with them anyway. There isn't really a single surprise to be found, and the ending is quite disappointing.
The controls and gameplay in Dead Space 2 are almost identical to the original game, so if you've played the first Dead Space, you should have no trouble with the sequel. However, there are many minor but noticeable gameplay tweaks. For example, enemy Necromorphs don't drop items upon death anymore. You must inflict further damage (usually stomping) to make them give up their precious items. This adds an element of tension to fights because you can't instantly identify when a Necromorph is down for the count or when it'll start crawling toward you again. Having to check everyone becomes tedious after a while, but it is a reasonable trade-off because it makes the Necromorphs seem more threatening.
There's also an increased focus on the Stasis mechanic when compared to the previous game. Your Stasis bar regenerates slowly, and Stasis recharge items seem more common. Encounters are clearly designed around people being unafraid to use their Stasis, and there seems to be enough of a gap between fights for you to regain enough Stasis before each encounter.
One of the more unusual changes is the drastic alteration to the zero-gravity segment. Isaac's upgraded suit now contains mini-thruster rockets, which allow him to move around freely in zero-gravity areas. This change feels like a step in the wrong direction because the zero-gravity areas in the original Dead Space were among the most interesting. It was invigorating to know that you had to time your jumps and deal with the disorientation of walking on the walls and ceiling. The zero-gravity segments in Dead Space 2 feel more like jetpack sequences. You have complete control, and enemies aren't threatening, and they're incapable of sneaking up on you. The lack of tension in these segments makes the game feel like a generic shooter instead of a horror-action title.
There are a swarm of new Necromorphs in Dead Space 2. Set in a civilian colony instead of a mining ship, the game offers new and disturbing hosts for the Necromorphs to infect. These include enemies like the Stalker, a Velociraptor-like monster that hunts in packs and ambushes you from the sides, and the Pack, a swarm of Necromorph-infested children who attempt to overwhelm you with numbers instead of power. The problem with the new Necromorphs is that very few of them are actually threatening; most are focused on rushing at Isaac in easily killable swarms. The Stalkers can be very easily defeated by backing up against a wall and waiting for them to attack, one at a time. One of the clever things about the Necromorphs in the original game is that they would gradually exploit Isaac's weaknesses in various ways. The newer Necromorphs are good for building atmosphere, but they're less interesting as enemies once you figure out their gimmicks. Fortunately, there are plenty of the original-generation Necromorphs in the game, and they're just as threatening as you remember.
As you'd expect, Dead Space 2 contains a greater variety of weapons than its predecessor. Almost every gun from the original game has returned, although sometimes in slightly altered form. Most of the alterations bring the guns closer to the power level of the Plasma Cutter, which dwarfed the other weapons in the original game. The Pulse Rifle has a noticeable increase in attack power and has a useful grenade launcher secondary attack. Some new weapons also add unique quirks to the mix. The Javelin Gun lets you spear Necromorphs to walls, so it's easier to target their limbs or electrocute the beasts. Each weapon has a specialty and can be upgraded by using Power Nodes. Upgrading weapons can sometimes unlock new abilities. The Contact Beam can be upgraded to create an area-of-effect Stasis Blast around your character; it's very useful when you're surrounded by angry Necromorphs.
Dead Space 2's weapons are more useful, but the game runs into roughly the same problem as the original. Despite the weapon variety, you're unlikely to switch from the Plasma Cutter and perhaps one other weapon. The Cutter is reliable and useful in most situations, and a secondary weapon is usually enough to compensate for the infrequent occasions when the Cutter does not suffice. On top of that, ammunition drops are influenced by the weapons you have on hand. Carrying a few guns means that you'll be more likely to get ammunition for those guns, and you can more easily spend nodes to upgrade those guns. By the end of my first playthrough, I had enough nodes to fully upgrade two guns as well as my Stasis Module and RIG. To the game's credit, there is now a new re-spec feature that lets you reallocate upgrade nodes to a different gun. If you decide that a weapon isn't living up to your expectations, you can dump it in favor of another without concern. Some guns may take a few nodes to really blossom, but they can become incredibly useful with time.
Dead Space 2 offers a wide variety of difficulty modes. Curiously enough, the game seems to have been designed around the higher difficulty modes, even for more casual players. Normal and Casual modes focus more on shooting instead of surviving, which helps bring out some of the game's more noticeable flaws. The experience is significantly improved by pumping up the difficulty a notch or two, as it can turn normally weak and humdrum Necromorphs into threatening and scary foes. The hardest mode, which is unlocked when you finish the game, is not for the faint of heart. Hardcore mode places the difficulty of the game a little below Zealot, the hardest mode in the original game. In exchange, you lose access to all checkpoints, so if you die, you have to restart from your last save point, and you can only save three times in the game. This mode was difficult, but not for fun reasons. An experienced player is more likely to die in this mode by accidentally triggering an instant death trap instead of from a Necromorph attack. It's exasperating when you must repeat two hours of gameplay because of a mistimed button press.
The PlayStation 3 version of Dead Space 2 also includes a free copy of Dead Space: Extraction, the previously Wii-only, on-rails shooter prequel to Dead Space. The port is effectively unchanged from the original game, although it has obviously been revamped for HD consoles. Players can use the Move controller or the DualShock analog sticks to control the game, but I would strongly recommend against using the latter. Extraction is a fast-paced rail shooter where you often only have a few moments to shoot something before the camera jerks or moves away. It's obviously designed for a motion controller that mimics a lightgun, so trying to play it with a controller is awkward and frustrating, and you're unlikely to have a good experience.
Dead Space 2's multiplayer mode is a team deathmatch that pits humans against Necromorphs. The human side plays pretty much identically to Isaac in the main game. Weapons and upgrades have to be unlocked by earning experience points, but a lot of the same gameplay mechanics apply. You can play as one of four Necromorphs: Lurker, Pack, Puker or Spitter. The Lurker crawls on walls and shoots from his tentacles, and the Pack specializes in close-range melee combat but dies easily. The Puker gets up close and pukes corrosive acid, and the Spitter attacks from a distance. Players can pick any of the Necromorphs and change when they respawn. The weaker Necromorphs respawn faster, while stronger ones take more time. All Necromorphs have very basic control schemes, and there are even AI Slasher Necromorphs to help you out, although they seem less aggressive than they are in single-player.
The goal in multiplayer mode is for the humans to complete a series of objectives while the Necromorphs try to stop them. The objectives involve delivering something to the starting point or activating an object deep within Necromorph territory. Both sides have unlimited respawns, and there is a time limit. If the humans can succeed before time runs out, they win. If not, the Necromorphs do. Each of the maps has a different series of challenges to undertake, although they're all pretty straightforward. The game does a good job of replicating the Dead Space single-player gameplay in multiplayer.
The multiplayer in Dead Space 2 is clearly designed in the vein of games like Left 4 Dead, but it feels less polished and less balanced. It's fun for a few games, but I grew tired of it rather quickly. The various Necromorphs don't stand out very well, and swarm tactics tend to overshadow more creative ideas. It's accurate to the game's lore, but it's lacking when compared to the Special Infected in Left 4 Dead or a similar game. The human side is more fun to play, but it makes me wish for a real co-op mode instead of a competitive mode. The multiplayer is a fun time-waster once you've finished the game, but it's not the sole reason to purchase the game.
Dead Space 2 looks absolutely fantastic. There is a ridiculous amount of work and detail in each environment, and it makes everything look distinctive. Walking through the abandoned buildings of the Sprawl is rather chilling, and the developers have done a good job of making it look like a once-thriving city that was suddenly torn apart from the inside. The character animations and models are quite good, and in particular, Isaac's unmasked face does an excellent job of expressing emotion. The gore level is also staggering, and there are a few scenes that left me feeling nauseous. When enemies kill Isaac, they do so in some of the most excessive and over-the-top ways you'll ever see. One scene near the end is possibly the most disturbing thing I've seen in a game. Dead Space 2 is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.
The sound design in Dead Space 2 is generally good. The game does a commendable job of using environmental sounds to create tension. Some of the scariest moments in the game are when you're walking through an abandoned ship and hear faint skittering sounds in the distance. I found that the background music tends to overdo it, though. When music plays during action sequences, you know the danger is over as soon as the music ends. Muting the music actually improves the game atmosphere. One of the more controversial aspects in Dead Space 2 is that the developers gave the previously mute protagonist, Isaac, a voice. There are a few scenes that are substantially improved by giving Isaac a way to respond to them. It felt silly in the first Dead Space when he would mutely stand there while other people talked at him. On the other hand, some of his lines detract from the atmosphere. When his response to being told to delimb Necromorphs is a smug, "I know. I've had a lot of practice," it is difficult to feel that the enemies are a threat.
Dead Space 2 is solid and straightforward, and it gives you what you'd expect from a Dead Space sequel. It improves some of the series' issues, but not enough that it represents as drastic an improvement as Assassin's Creed 2 or other noteworthy sequels. In many ways, it is more of the same, and the multiplayer portion is a fun diversion. There are new Necromorphs, new guns and new areas to explore, but the gameplay is pretty much identical, barring some minor tweaks.
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