Movies like "Alien" and "Blade Runner" taught audiences that no matter how much technology you think you have, nothing can beat the raw terror of confronting the unknown — especially when it wants to kill you. It's that kind of vibe that Visceral Games' Dead Space carefully nurtured, but it didn't leave you quite as helpless. Even when you're packing an arsenal of deadly toys, Dead Space found ways to tear down your bravado with its menagerie of horrors and the haunted corpse of a starship.
If you missed the first game, Dead Space 2 comes with a recap to bring you up to speed. Put simply, we've gone from recycling disposable bottles to disposable planets in order to survive. "Planetcracking" is the slang for tearing apart the surface of a world to get to the good stuff, and business has been good. It's in this environment that Isaac Clarke and his fellow crew members answer the distress call of a titanic planetcracking starship called the USG Ishimura. What they don't know is that while ripping up the planet below, it had also stumbled across a mysterious artifact called "the Marker."
The Marker also had a strange effect on the living: It twists everyone into patchwork, bloodthirsty creatures called necromorphs. Through a series of adventures, Clarke managed to survive and destroy the Marker, but it also left him deeply scarred. Three years later, he's reliving his memories in a padded room while seeing visions of Nicole, his girlfriend, who had served on the ill-fated Ishimura. Things only get worse from there.
After a chilling welcome for Clarke, he's thrown into a desperate race for survival by teaching newcomers the basics of how to not die — at least, not quickly. Veterans will breeze through the early carnage, but both will appreciate the unfolding chaos of DS2's world as it comes apart like a wet tissue alongside Clarke's sanity. His mind is a sack of damaged goods, and a lot of that baggage will come screaming at him. Players will be walking on the cold grave of what Dead Space had buried within Clarke's skull.
DS2's necromorphs aren't the only horrors that players will encounter. Titan Station is as much a monster as the Ishimura had been in the first game: a world with scarred corridors and lived-in technology that will ambush, torment and tug at the player's nerves. Open boulevards, ads plastered on walls, a futuristic church with the high-tech crypt in its basement, and a special surprise for returning fans in the later chapters kept pushing my frayed nerves around the next shadowy corner to witness more. Visceral's take on humanity's future among the stars, as grand as a city built on a broken moon might sound, also leaves the necromorphs to stand out like a humbling force of nature.
After the first Dead Space, I wasn't as creeped out so much by the ambiance as I was by Clarke's ongoing war with what he had survived. The eerie sounds and musical subtleties churn up each scene, but now that Clarke has a voice, his personal story takes on a life of its own and pushes his own character in clever ways, especially in nods to the original game. Reluctantly resigned to his role as the solar system's unluckiest engineer, his admission that he's full of bad ideas was amusingly frank, given what he's done. Similarly sharp voice work also defines the other characters, whether it's a raving psychotic who may or may not be the key to everything or an unexpected, tough-as-nails ally. In these and other ways, DS2 often comes across as an interactive film before immersing you back into Clarke's third-person slaughterhouse.
On a technical note, it's also on two DVDs. You'll swap to the second disc in Chapter 7, during a point that doesn't break the immersion too much (you're in an elevator). Gameplay-wise, for good or ill, it also borrows a few puzzles from its predecessor. The spinning centrifuge race in the first game has been recycled in a different form in this one, and seeing a wide, open room is often an invitation to getting mobbed by plenty of necromorphs — or a big angry one. Fortunately, it doesn't borrow to excess. Despite the familiarity, DS2 manages to pack in a lot of new things on top of its compellingly haunted city and its narratives.
Veterans won't have to worry about the action: DS2 continues to deliver on carpeting stainless steel floors with detached body parts. Necromorph types from the first game also return, along with a few new friends. Stalkers are like raptors in space, turning mazes of crates and equipment into hellish hide-and-seek killing grounds. Screaming, pale-skinned, mutant kids will shred you with needlepoint digits. Crawling baby bursters gurgle their way toward you, and a human head sits atop a twisted blister the size of a Cadillac.
Necromorphs aren't indestructible, but at the same time, simply shooting them in the chest or decapitating them often won't stop their rampage. The only way to put them down for good is the Dead Space Way: pruning their limbs. This also provides the perfect excuse to litter the game with squishy arms, heads, legs and orphaned torsos. More importantly, they'll also often drop what they were carrying, including cash and ammo.
Scores of different weapons, including a new one or two — and a familiar friend if you have a save from the original game — allow players to get creative on their blasting sprees. New tricks also provide nice alternatives. You can blow open vulnerable glass barricades to decompress a room and quickly empty it of necromorphs, but you must also be careful to seal it before you're also sucked into the vacuum. Clarke's Zero-G abilities have been upgraded with small jets attached to his suit, allowing him to maneuver around instead of simply hopping from one surface to the next. He can even hack into panels via a simple minigame that requires you to turn the analog stick to find the "sweet" spot for rewiring stubborn consoles, though these can get somewhat repetitive. Crawl spaces also add to his calling as an engineer, though it would have been nice to see them used a bit more.
Automated stores provide oases of goods for Clarke, provided that the right schematics are in hand to improve his choices. Most of those are hard to miss, such as armor upgrades or new weapon and ammo types. Others can only be found through a careful search. These also have a nice vault option to stash extra goodies when Clarke is loaded up, and just about everything can be sold for more cash. Finding a store is slightly less convenient than it was in the original title. Don't be surprised to fight through long stretches and past several save points before finding the next stop. Backtracking to the last one, when possible, was something I often did. This isn't necessarily a negative, as it added to Titan Station's pressure cooker. There were moments when I found myself trapped and being pushed to keep moving forward after realizing too late that I was short on medical supplies.
DS2's multiplayer uses EA's Pass system, which provides a code for online play with every copy. If you don't want to use the code, you can play the online portion for two days before you need it. There's not enough space in this review to weigh the pros and cons of this, but if you expect to resell your copy and had used the code, don't expect the next player to be too happy about it. On the other hand, codes are available for purchase if you need one.
With that said, multiplayer is reminiscent of Valve's Left 4 Dead, this time pitting a team of four human soldiers against a team of four necromorph players, whose role it is to defend several timed objectives and then swapping roles in the next round. This is also the only mode available, but despite that limitation, it's a fairly solid experience as long as you're working with a team that knows what it's doing. Humans have conventional weapons like assault rifles, including the plasma cutter, and necromorphs have all of the powers they used in the single-player portion, such as the puke attack. Necromorph players can also pick which vents they want to come out of, allowing them to get the drop on their enemies.
It's basically all that there is. Depending on how much of a compelling experience this could be for you, leveling up unlocks bonuses such as improvements to certain class attacks on the necromorph side and new uniforms and weapons on the human side. Other than that, there's not a whole lot of customization to look for or, for those with gamerscore in mind, no Achievements to earn in this mode. It's a nice distraction that doesn't take anything away from the main show, but it's not necessarily a key addition when you consider the strength of its single-player component.
Surviving my first run on Normal difficulty took me a little over 12 hours, and like its predecessor, its amazing blend of third-person, no-holds-barred monster-slaying and arsenal of toys provide plenty of reasons to go through it again. Like the first Dead Space, starting a "New Game+" mode after finishing DS2 on any difficulty level allows you to play through it again with everything that you had found. New armor schematics, if you can find them, are also tossed in as an additional incentive. It's also too bad that there's no plasma cutter Achievement like the last time, but that's just me.
The only difficulty level that won't let you play with your new toys is the aptly named Hard Core mode. This is unlocked after completing the game at least once, and in addition to tougher enemies and even fewer amounts of ammo and supplies dropped, it earns its name by allowing you to save only three times. Additionally, you can only continue from the last save that you had made. At least it doesn't erase your save game when you die.
Dead Space 2 hits every base that matters with the precision of a well-aimed plasma cutter. It's also a sharp testament to Visceral Games' hard work in proving again how a single-player experience can still be beautifully relevant in a hobby where online multiplayer can sometimes come off as an entitlement. From the harrowing homecoming to the sheer insanity of its endgame, Dead Space 2 was a trip back into a visceral vacuum of flying body parts, human desperation and personal triumph.
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