It takes a crazy man to face the trauma, horror, and insanity a second time that haunted him years earlier, and Isaac Clarke is crazy enough to do it. He took on monsters that invaded the doomed spaceship the Ishimura in 2008′s Dead Space, a surprise hit from EA and Visceral Games (then EA Redwood Shores). The game drew its plot and mood from films like Alien and Event Horizon. It drew its control from Resident Evil 4 and even improved it in ways. The combination worked well enough to continue Isaac’s troubled journey in Dead Space 2, set years after the events on the Ishimura.
We find Isaac this time in a hospital on a station called the Sprawl. Seemingly, he’s being treated for the trauma from the Ishimura, but his reintroduction is so brief that before you take in the fact that he now has a voice, you’re practically hitting the ground running the moment the game begins. Isaac is strapped in a straitjacket and you have to dodge the game’s enemies, the Necromorphs, as you make your way to an elevator to escape. The game feels like it really starts the moment you acquire the first of a few engineering suits in the game.
Most of Dead Space 2 will feel familiar right away: the RIG (health meter), the stasis function that allows you to freeze enemies in place, the weapons, the overall feel and mood. The gameplay bears the same concept: proceed to an objective, battle the Necromorphs hidden everywhere, get something done, upgrade equipment, try not to die. The kind of game that Dead Space is means it doesn’t require a whole lot of retooling, just a few fixes here and there, a few this game did get.
As you guide Isaac through the Sprawl, you will encounter a few characters along the way: fellow patient and crazy guy Stross, who seems to be the key to destroying the Marker, the symbol of being and hope and life for the game’s Unitology cult that spawned the demonic and murderous Necromorphs. There is also Ellie, a pilot for CEC, the mining company that made the whole “planet cracking” process possible that more or less allowed this whole mess to happen.
Throughout the story, Isaac has moments of hallucination and breaks down as he is haunted by the ghost of Nicole, his girlfriend who served aboard the Ishimura before the Necromorphs took over. One of Dead Space 2′s themes is acceptance, and Isaac is struggling to accept Nicole’s death, but that part of him that can’t let go is infected by the Marker, who wants Isaac to get to it.
Certain elements of Dead Space are gone. In replacement of boss battles and shooting asteroids, the game has ramped up the amount of Necromorphs you fight. There are many moments where Isaac will have to destroy a swarm of them and they come in waves. In one fight, I counted about five or six in one swarm. Sometimes it gets frustrating and can feel cheap, especially when some of the monsters appear from right behind you without you even knowing. The final segments of the game take this to a whole new level, for better or worse. Hopefully you will have enough ammo for your weapons. Speaking of which, in addition to their upgrades, done at benches that can add more ammo to a clip or increase damage, you can actually reverse the process. For 5,000 credits, you can remove nodes from upgraded weapons and place them somewhere else. I didn’t actually use this feature, but it’s certainly nice to have.
The zero gravity areas are back and improved upon. Isaac can now travel anywhere in the Zero G area rather than find hopping points. If he strays too far from a landing point, a simple push of the button will orient him to the ground for landing. There weren’t that many to be found and, although it’s nice to see improvements, add very little to the experience.
Although the game remains identical to the first, the overall plot was underwhelming. Although I truthfully consider the entire Unitology and Marker plotlines to take a backseat to the intensity and fear, one aspect of the plot that was especially disappointing was its exploration of Isaac’s mental stability, or lack thereof. His anguish actually has a purpose, but its primary source feels like a copout. That could have been something, and didn’t deliver. The game also doesn’t do a well enough job to get the player to sympathize with the broken relationship between Isaac and Nicole. We didn’t know that much about them before the Marker entered their lives although we’re supposed to assume they were very close. I actually saw more chemistry between Isaac and Ellie.
Dead Space 2 is an improvement in all of the right places, and leaves alone what isn’t broken. For better or worse, it takes the “action packed sequel” route but does a decent enough job in execution. It is wonderfully produced though. The visuals are some of the most beautifully dreary set pieces in a game, and the lighting is exceptional. Although I find it to be a decent at best sequel, I commend Visceral Games for the effort they put into its design.