It has to be said that horror is not my strong point. Think of me as the guy with the cushion precariously perched between his nose and eye-line, pretending he is watching the frightening images flashing before him. So with Dead Space 3 coming next spring, I took it upon myself to apprehensively look back at its predecessor. And so with shaking hands and a quivering lip, I do just that.
It's three years after the events of the USG Ishimura. Isaac Clark has witnessed and done things other people could not imagine in their most gruesome of nightmares. It's no surprise then that the doctors of the Sprawl - a space station orbiting Saturn - have deemed him insane. After a brutal introduction to the real world, Isaac is forced to hit the ground running (literally). No sooner has he awoken from his apparent nightmares before he plunges back into them. Necromorphs flock through the dank corridors, and once more Isaac must don the Engineer's suit and resist this grotesque alien threat.
It may be no surprise to you that I found Dead Space 2 terrifying, whether it's the scratches and scrapes of a monster lurking in the depths of darkness, or the mere sight of exploding mutant babies scuttling through the Sprawl's nursery. Creatures pounce from overhead vents and other obscure spaces to catch you off guard. This combined with terrifying audio accompaniments turn what would be scary circumstance into something downright petrifying. Cries of babies, gurgling screams, oozing flesh, cracking bones, pulsating pustules: it's all there to make this a gamer's heaven for jump scares. Or hell.
Kids continue to be a pain, even when they have been disgustingly mutated.
Thankfully, you will not have to fight the Necromorph onslaught with your bare hands. Let's face it; you wouldn't last long. Some classic tools/weapons make a defiant return. The Plasma Cutter, Flamethrower, Ripper, and Line gun will all make Dead Space lovers feel right at home. Familiar sights like Power Nodes bring with them upgrades that have you dismembering limbs with sinister ease. The Line Gun allows for extra wide shots, whipping off multiple legs in a snap, and further down the line your Plasma Cutter can inherit combustion rounds, key advantages in a Necromorph apocalypse. Alternative fire makes weapons devastating rather than dangerous, and new additions like the Javelin Gun pin Necromorphs to walls as they squeal and scream. Impaling enemies with their own razor limbs and Kenisis never gets old while Stasis reduce enemies to a meandering sloth like they're fighting through blue space treacle. The combat system here is genuinely rich, especially for a survival horror title. It's enough to make any shooter blush with jealousy.
The fight of Isaac's life is not just happening in the Sprawl. It's happening in his mind. Visions of his dead girlfriend riddle him with guilt and fear. This torturous insanity soon becomes the most chilling part of the story. You will follow Isaac step by step as he is slowly torn apart by his dementia, and it truly makes for some horrific scares. The only section of the game that "got to me" was a mere visualization resulting from Isaac's condition. Sadly, Isaac's demented brain is not the only thread in this weaved plot. A frayed link is apparent. The broad stroke of the game has a 'do this, do that' attitude to objectives until you reach your final destination. The dementia subplot is as sharp as a Necromorph's arm, whereas the main story arch is like a rusty Ripper blade. It's not enough to put you on the edge of your seat. The materialization of the Necromorph outbreak, however, is interesting, reinforced by audio and text logs found throughout the space station.
"Make us whole!"
Dead Space's cast was nothing to shout about, but Dead Space 2 fixes this. The once mute protagonist now interacts with other characters, one of which is the intense Nolan Stross. Suffering from the same mental struggles as Isaac creates a bizarre bond between the two. Conversations are tense due to Stross' worsening condition. This makes him twitchy, uneasy, and hard to trust. Ellie, the new female lead, seems to be Isaac's one true ally through his adventure, helping him through situations that would be impossible otherwise. However, the antagonist Tiedemann seems ridiculously nonthreatening, his sole purpose being to pull the rug out from under Isaac's space boots. The very few verbal threats make him a forgettable villain. Although, the disgustingly mutated beings littered throughout the Sprawl more than make up for this.
A variety of difficulties make this horrifying journey widely accessible, whether you're a limb-blasting marksman, or a Pulse Rifle sprayer. Ranging from Easy to Zealot, players won't struggle to find a difficulty that caters to them. Most notifiable is Hard Core. Enemies are unforgiving, and ammo and medicine drops are scarce. There's more chance of Isaac having a wee in that one-piece space suit than me attempting this difficulty. But for the self-loathing gamers, this is the pinnacle of challenging. Oh, did I mention you only get three saves? If you think you're made of stern stuff, get some food at the ready for some long, rough play sessions.
Not mentioning the atmospheric music score by Jason Graves would be a bigger crime than allowing the Marker on the USG Ishimura. Piercing screeches reminiscent of the film Psycho reflects the terror on-screen perfectly, and the long drones of frightening, low instrumentals ramp up the anxiety tenfold.
''Hey it's Buzz Lightyear.''
Environments in the Sprawl are also pretty exotic in comparison to its USG Ishimura counterpart. While the planet-cracker contained sections of living quarters, recreation rooms, and engineering facilities, they all felt fairly similar. The space station, however, is different. Nurseries, and deranged Unitologist churches make this a more than interesting location to explore, even if you hesitate to find out what lurks in such places. The game of course is mostly dark, gloomy, and intimidating, but even in well lit areas the tension never ceases.
Multiplayer is a unique premise in Dead Space 2. Necromorphs vs. Humans seems interesting on the surface, but delve deeper into this disappointing mode and you will see it's quite horrific, and not because its scary. Adopting a conventional spawn system like Call Of Duty makes this mode significantly less tense than is single-player counterpart. The sporadic Necromorph attacks now barely exist, which is a shame. As a human you must complete basic objectives while wave after wave of player controlled Necromorphs try to stop you.
When I finished Dead Space 2, with my hands still shaking and my lip still quivering, I realized something. I had been entirely immersed. I'd jump out my skin, curse at the screen, and even take an unscheduled break when things got too tense. But I was having the most fun I've had in a long time with a game. Dead Space's terror is something I'm not accustomed to, and something I never will be accustomed to, but bloody hell it was good. Sure, multiplayer is a flop, and at seven hours Dead Space 2 is not the longest game, but with high replay value and a gripping sense of hopelessness and fear, I can't complain. Just be sure to have a spare pair of underwear on hand.
Developer: Visceral Games
Release Date: Janurary 25, 2011
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2-8 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Xbox 360, PC, Playstation 3 (Reviewed)