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Dead Space 2, a review

February 2, 2011

Isaac Clarke, an engineer for the CEC, woke up from his medically-induced stupor to face, for the second time, the horrors of the Marker and its progeny.  Agitated, though taking the gory mayhem in stride, he runs from his padded room while still strapped tight in a straightjacket. He isn’t surprised by the corpses mutilating the living with extraneous praying-mantis-like appendages. He knows exactly what is going on as he tried to avoid slipping on the blood and gore of the nurses, doctors and patients. What he’d like to find out is why it’s happening again, and where his tools have gone to so he can fix it.

That’s Isaac Clarke for you. He’s an absolute workaholic.

Much like Ripley in Alien 3, he’s come to grips with the fact that this kind of horror exists. Not only that, he’s also come to accept that he is very closely linked to that devouring nightmare. Again, much like Ripley.  In Dead Space 2 we see Isaac confront that nightmare like he did aboard the Ishimura in the first game; armed with a plasma-cutter, his RIG exo-suit, and the fraying remains of his sanity. This time, you’re in the Sprawl, a space station built on Jupiter’s moon, Titan. The stakes are higher this time. Convergence is at hand, and it’s much worse than anyone imagined.

Once you’ve managed to survive the first few minutes of the game, coming to a place where Isaac can take a breath, which shouldn’t be taken for granted in the least, you’ll have to come to grips with the following: This game looks fantastic, both in the technical aspects as well as in its visual design, and it’s not meant for kids in any way.

Gorgeous graphics are a given in today’s AAA titles, so that in itself isn’t impressive. The challenge lies in putting the horsepower available in modern consoles and PCs to good use, and that isn’t a given. It takes more than technical prowess to make something visually compelling. The light shining through the slats on Isaac’s helmet, the galactic vistas, and the ultra-technological landscape being devoured by the goopy, organic mess are all manifestations of a masterfully executed vision.

The graphics are very much a part of the gameplay as well. The hallways you’re crawling through are often poorly lit, and enemies have a penchant for lurking where what little light there is doesn’t shine. You have a flashlight attached to all of your weapons, but it’s just that, a flashlight in the dark. What’s worse, you can’t reload or run with your weapon’s light shining ahead of you, and the zombies (named necromorphs, in keeping with the sci-fi world) will often try to flank you if you keep shining the light in a particular direction. That means you’ll have to juggle the ability to see where you’re going with getting there quickly and pumping in a new clip into your weapon, while making sure nothing is trying to sneak up on you. This sort of dilemma is pretty essential to good zombie survival games, but it’s only one of the conundrum you’ll have to face in Dead Space 2.

You’ve got limited inventory space, a limited amount of ammunition for your weapons, and a finite number of Power Nodes. Power nodes are a particularly troubling challenge, given that you can use them to upgrade your equipment, including the stasis module and RIG exo-suit that are standard issue for all CEC engineers, or to open emergency supply rooms. Since everything is critically scarce, it’s not a choice you can take lightly. There’s also shop stations where you can buy weapons, ammo, medi-kits, as well as new suits at nearly criminal prices, which actually can give you a little leeway. The amount of resources you have depends largely on the difficulty you’re playing through, which can range from easy to the ominously-labeled “survivalist” level.

As for the combat mechanics, they’re pretty standard for any shooter. Different weapons behave differently, with certain weapons being better suited for some situations over others. Unlike other shooters, however, obliviously blasting away  at a zombie isn’t guaranteed to do much. In Dead Space 2, rather than string head-shots one after the other, you want to cut off the arms and legs of your enemies. A gun isn’t often the ideal tool for that, which is why Isaac’s plasma cutter is actually much more versatile. Most of the weapons are actually engineering tools jury-rigged to be deadly, making the gameplay more flexible and interesting. They could’ve gone further, but I’ll go into that later.

There’s also the telekinesis and stasis modules, one which slows down time for anything it hits, the other being, let’s be honest, Half Life 2’s gravity gun. It all makes sense in Isaac’s world, since engineers have to contend with the hostile environment as well as with incredibly dangerous machinery. You’re going to use these abilities against the necromorphs as well as to manipulate the world in general. There will be a series of puzzles and scenes that will emphasize those abilities. The world itself is a challenge you have to overcome.

That leads me to one of the most compelling aspects of the game. The world in Dead Space, this hard sci-fi world where there is no margin of error without casualties, where one engineer can either float away from safety to freeze in the great void, or save thousands of lives with the right or wrong turn of a wrench is just as much a protagonist as Isaac. There are certain levels where a stray shot, a random blast will break a window in a pressurized room, and the sudden vacuum will begin to suck you out of the space station. You’ll only have a couple of seconds to trigger the emergency wall before it’s too late. This is the same unforgiving world that scared the hell out of everyone in the Alien movies, in 2001: A Space Odyssey  before that, and Event Horizon, more recently. Mistakes are deadly, explosively so. That lethality makes the world that much more tangible, much more compelling.

Dead Space is a franchise now, with several games across a few platforms, along with animated movies and comics too and it has established itself as part of the horror-slash-sci-fi tradition. Think about the protagonist’s name for a moment. Isaac… Clarke. It’ll come to you in a minute if it hasn’t already.

Dead Space is a homage to all that sci-fi literature, those movies and concepts, and more than that, Visceral Games pretends to chisel themselves into that tradition. Dead Space 2’s story is meant to expand the world Dead Space sketched out, along with all the movies and comics. It’s also meant to cement Isaac himself as a character, fleshing him out and really getting into his head. This is the other reason, aside from the guts and gore, that makes Dead Space 2 an adult game. The themes of insanity and grief that are played out in Dead Space 2’s story are meant for a more mature audience. This isn’t a bloody heroic romp; its deeper, and darker than that. Take the phrase Nicole’s ghost says over and over, “make us whole”. That phrase changes its meaning several times across the length of the game, from a demand to a plea, from damnation to redemption and back again.

The game goes to great lengths to emphasize that point, either through the narration, encapsulated in text logs and audio logs like in the first game. This time around Isaac actually gets to interact directly with other characters, rather than always stay on the other side of reinforced glass or a few steps behind. But more than that, Isaac explores the corridors of the Sprawl, and the game purposefully gives you time to take in the now empty rooms where people used to live. Visceral is trying to do more than just crank out a shooter; they want the player to be immersed in a sense of place and circumstance to emphasize the horror of Isaac’s situation. It’s not just the fact that everyone around him is dead or dying, or that he’s being hunted by reanimated corpses. He’s also gradually losing his mind. He’s watching it happen and taking us along for the ride, never quite sure just how far gone he is.

The fact of the matter is that most of the effort that went into Dead Space 2 was clearly focused on the storytelling aspect of the game, and the gameplay suffers because of it. By the time the game is at its mid-point, Isaac will have pretty much confronted every type of necromorph there is in the game, including some repeats from the first. The game keeps cycling through those enemies, making them gradually tougher, though without fundamentally changing the challenge you’re facing. You can choose how you’re going to confront them, given the large weapon variety you can get, but the routine you’ll fall into is disappointing. Once you find something that works, you don’t really have any reason to change it, even when facing the more uncommon ‘behemoth’ types. The rules of the game stay the same from the beginning right up to the end, where there’ll be a change, although it’s a slight one. I’m left to wonder if there could be more variety in the challenges the necromorphs pose to Isaac, as was the case in the first game.

On the other hand, the world itself challenges Isaac in its own way. There’ll be a moment where you’ll have to strap yourself at what amounts to a chair on a booster rocket to launch yourself to safety. That brand of jagged-edge, stomach-churning thrill is something Dead Space 2 can deliver better than any other survival horror game I’ve played. Moments like that are what makes Dead Space far more than a space-themed Bioshock. I was left wanting more of them, to be honest, but the moments I got were absolutely fantastic. There are some simple physical puzzles you’ll have to solve, as I mentioned before, which are mostly atmospheric rather than actually challenging. They are still a welcome change from Dead Space 2’s admittedly monothematic combat.

There’s also a multiplayer mode in Dead Space 2, though I didn’t delve too deeply into it. The game mode I played was a relatively simple marines vs. necromorphs mode, where marines attempt to fulfill some objectives while the necromorphs try to stop them. It’s competently done, but not all that interesting. The game’s focus was squarely on the single-player experience.

In all, Dead Space 2 is one of those cinematographic experiences we were promised with the advent of “Multimedia” and “CD-ROMs” back in the 90s. Everything is seamless and as good as it gets, probably as good as it’ll ever be, in fact. Everything in this game, from the graphics, the sound design, the gameplay mechanics and the story, is woven together seamlessly. Dead Space 2 tells its story through a cinematographic language it inherited from the last fifty years of Sci-fi movies and books, borrowing from them a little too much, and yet doing so with absolute mastery of the genre.  It’s also easy to see its influences from the gaming side of things, as Dead Space 2 does manage to hit some well-known notes. However, it still stands on its own as the best amongst other contenders at what it does. The story you’re told in Dead Space 2, the world that story describes, are more gripping and well-rounded than the other sci-fi games  you might’ve played recently.

Visceral has to be one of the best story-telling studios working today. I can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.

From → Videogames

One Comment
  1. Nice review. I was curious if you would be interested in expanding further on one part of it. You reference Alien, 2001, and Event Horizon in the same breath, where I believe only the last is an accurate analog for Dead Space 2 (and in any case, probably Alien-Aliens as Thierry Nguyen noted is a more accurate description of the key shifts between DS1 and DS2). It’s a movie that has trouble distinguishing between homage and cliche recycling that nevertheless succeeds beyond its individual components to deliver a thrilling experience. I like DS2 a lot, but I would prefer if they steered away from the somewhat gimmicky breaks in the game’s core gameplay (not including zero grav, I’ve enjoyed both iterations of that) and focused more on developing that intangible quality of authenticity. One simple example of that is the effort that Capcom went to in its own bizarro way to add a Spanish-tinged otherworldliness to RE4 via language and the villager-cultist transition, especially when you contrast it with the epic failure in the form of townspeople-grass-skirted caricatures in RE5.

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