The Good: Great storytelling. To paraphrase Indiana Jones: Necromorphs; I hate those guys. Great physics.
The Bad: Somewhat predictable at times. Some strange gameplay segments, like plummeting from the upper atmosphere down to the planet in a weird insta-death sort of driving game.
The Ugly: Muddled ending. Third person camera sometimes a mess.
Up front, in the spirit of complete disclosure, I should say that I’m a huge fan of horror – movies, books, games, you name it. Also, though people who have read me over the past decade-ish of game reviewing know me as someone who plays RTS games for the most part, I’ve been experiencing something of an FPS fixation recently. Thus one could argue that I was somewhat primed for a game like Dead Space 2, which has led me perhaps to rate it more highly than someone not so inclined. So, with all of that in mind, I’ve got to say, I loved it. Loved it. Loved it. LOVED IT! Is it a perfect game? No. And for the most part it isn’t all that different from Dead Space the first. But it does have excellent play balance, giving you some opportunities to marvel at the architecture of the city before hitting you with monsters from all directions and then throwing you a little puzzle to fiddle with. In a way the best pieces of DS2 are strongly reminiscent of the best moments of the Half-Life series.
When we last saw Isaac Clarke, the nameless (and voiceless) hero of DS1, he was piloting a shuttle away from the doomed spaceship Ishimura when he was attacked (maybe only in his mind) by a necromorph (reanimated and mutated dead body) with the face of his dead girlfriend Nicole. DS2 takes place three years later in a city (The Sprawl) on Titan where Isaac wakes up in a hospital. Through various forums I’ve come to understand that there are a couple of animated shorts that connect the events of Dead Space the first and Dead Space the second, but I haven’t seen them and so can’t comment. The hospital is overrun by necromorphs and Isaac makes an escape – in one of the most gripping opening segments I’ve ever played. From there, to avoid giving anything away, I’ll say no more than that Isaac must decide who to trust as he tries to discover why there are necromorphs here when he left the alien marker that creates them behind on the planet surface.
The horror in DS2 is more acute than the first one. Not so much because the necromorphs are worse this time around – indeed there are only a few new types of necromorphs that you run across – but because the Ishimura was a military vessel and for the most part what you saw were dead soldiers. The Sprawl is a complete city, and you find dead kids in a daycare center and dead families in their apartments. One of the more disturbing scenes, for instance, involves a man who has blown his head off while watching his wedding video, the decomposing body of his wife in their marital bed. You see bodies scattered in a shopping mall, at a school play, patients and doctors overrun in the hospital. Visceral stuff. The story is advanced through fairly seamless videos generated with the game engine in a plotline filled with crosses and double-crosses.
As I mentioned, the gameplay in DS2 is more or less unchanged from the first. Isaac wears an encounter suit, which provides him with armor, a stasis ability (which works something like a localized version of bullet time) and telekinetic power. He has access to some actual weapons (a submachine gun, a flamethrower) but for the most part his weapons are improvised tools like a laser, a plasma cutter, and a nailgun-like device. The necromorphs can be hard to kill, the most effective means being to cut off their limbs, in all its severing, fountaining glory. You can also use your telekinetic power to throw objects at them, like iron bars, barrels of explosive, and their own severed limbs. Yahoo! Good times, good times.
The necromorphs are truly a gruesome crew. There are spitters and slashers and howlers, screeching, chittering – wow, what sounds. New to DS2 are necromorphs that look like children – gray misshapen children with razor sharp teeth. They’re not much of a problem individually, but in packs they can really overrun you. There are also babies with loaded diapers – diapers loaded with explosives judging from the blast when you shoot them. There is also a sort of two-legged dog-like creature (though calling it dog-like is purely instinctual, because they really don’t look much like dogs). These creatures work in packs and use cover to high effect, running at you in concerted ramming attacks that leave you lying on your back. There are some really crazy moments dealing with those packs.
So, the bad stuff, and there’s not much to talk about. After you’ve played a little while you get a strong instinct of when you’re about to be attacked and from where, and you’re very rarely wrong. Come into a big open room filled with stacks of boxes or cargo containers and likely you’re going to be hit by one of those packs of dog necromorphs. In the nursery school, you can bet babies are going to come crawling out of the vent covers, and lo and behold they do. Though game sometimes takes some fun with those expectations. In a scene where you go back on board the Ishimura, in a room where you had some very memorable attacks in DS1, those attacks don’t come in DS2. Talk about tension. But on the whole when you get into the cadence of the game, much of the surprises are blunted. The third person camera, which for the most part works pretty well, sometimes leaves you looking at the wall when you’re trying to fight backed into a corner. Finally the ending, there’s no kind way to put it, is a mess. I’ll leave the surprise unexposed for those of you who want to try and make some sense of it.
The interaction of great FPS storytelling mixed with light RPG elements has become a very successful formula and created some of my favorite games: System Shock, BioShock, Mass Effect, Half-Life and now Dead Space. The plotline of DS2 is clearly setting up for another sequel, and though I just finished playing this one, I’m already looking forward to the next. Bring it on!