The first Dead Space was released at the end of 2008 to solid 8 out of 10 reviews, and brought some incremental changes to the survival horror setting. First, for once you weren’t playing a supercop or space marine, but an engineer, Isaac Clarke. Second, you couldn’t kill the bad guys with headshots – you needed to dismember them instead. And third, it featured a no-HUD interface, using the back of your character to indicate things like health, or his own display to show the inventory in the game world. OK, they’re only minor changes, but it was enough, coupled with a reasonably fresh story, to make for an immersive, tense and interesting gaming experience. The fact that nightmarish things dropped from ceiling vents and made you shit your pants didn’t hurt either. The idea of these Necromorphs, former people now horribly mutated by a sinister obelisk called the Marker, chasing you around and about (and sometimes outside, in zero-gravity) a spaceship was fun enough to spark a sequel.
And so, The Necromorphs (great name for a death metal band, by the way) are back, this time on The Sprawl, a floating space city of easily segregated level themes (hospital, apartments, mall, school, etc.) all with an artistic style that is equal parts Blade Runner and Bioshock. I suppose we can’t hope for too much originality from people who were looking for a science fiction hero’s name and just decided to make a portmanteau of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. What, did they think we wouldn’t notice? And why Asimov? There aren’t even any robots in it. At times it is more entertaining to tick off which things they have stolen from other games/movies than to actually play Dead Space 2.
So with that in mind, into the game itself. M. Night Skywalker wakes up in a mental hospital during a monumental faeces/fan interface. Turns out he’s been in stasis for three years after the first game (Ding! Aliens) and then afterwards has been undergoing regular psychiatric assessments, which is fair enough considering he keeps seeing his dead girlfriend (Ding! The Sixth Sense) who is none too happy with him about the whole ‘being dead’ thing, and takes the opportunity to point out it was Isaac’s idea that she transferred to the Ishimura (AKA the ship of certain death) in the first place. The insinuation, of course, is that he unwittingly sent her to her grisly demise, however considering what a whinger she turns out to be later, I could sort of understand if it was a cunning plan to rid himself of the moaning woman all along. Things quickly go south, and Flash Plissken is left running around looking for someone to cut him out of his straitjacket so he can get on with the important business of getting the fuck out of there, with the inconvenience of having to kill everything along the way.
Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be rather complicated and Han Deckard soon finds himself once again a one-man army against the Necromorph onslaught, the Necromorph-loving Unitologists, the administrator of the station, who is happy to write the whole incident (including any survivors) off as a learning experience, and pretty much everyone else he runs into. Tron Kirk does not make friends easily, is what I am saying. Now Dead Space 2 is supposed to be a survival horror/action game, but unfortunately it’s only got the two most obvious tricks of the SH genre in its playbook: Ammo famine and jump scares. And with the addition of a built-in physics gun (Ding! Half-Life) and time-slowing stasis powers (Ding! Timeshift/Singularity/Prince of Persia), the ammo famine part of that barely makes a difference anyway. As for jump scares, one fair criticism of the original Dead Space that they don’t seem to have addressed is the fact that the only way the game seems to fulfil the ‘horror’ part of the title is by having things suddenly BOO! Jump out at you. The problem with this BOO! Is that, of course, after the first BOO! Time this happens, you tend to expect it. Also the ludicrously over-the-top horror violins do sort of warn you when it’s coming. Boo.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only place where the sequel has not really moved on from the original. Where Dead Space was genuinely slightly novel, DS 2 seems content to coast on the promise of the first game and add nothing new, merely pointing at themes and ideas from Dead Space 1 and dissect them long beyond the threshold for either novelty or interest (an activity you’ll find yourself doing to the ex-residents of the Sprawl quite frequently). For example, was Isaac’s girlfriend alive or dead in the first one? Though it was easy enough to guess, it was always left a little bit unsure. Here she turns up to taunt the hero (at least I assume she does – the crackly audio effects mean her later tirades are actually near-inaudible towards the end of the game, which I am sure they would argue is symbolic of something or other) with bright lights in place of eyes and mouth, goading him for letting her die. Subtle.
Though the majority of the enemies (and weapons) in the game are the same as the first one (and any ‘boss’ characters are largely absent), the few new additions do deserve credit for either being genuinely creepy, such as those based on babies (Ding! Doom 3) or little children, or gameplay-unique, such as the new ‘stalkers’, who sneak around barely out of sight, running away from you until they’re ready to charge you. All that originality must have been tiring, however, as they’ve also decided to include a reskinned version of Half-Life’s barnacles.
As with the first game, most of the residents of The Sprawl are, well, Dead (also they’re in Space if you’re still wondering how those creative geniuses at Visceral came up with the name for the game). This means that pretty much all of the plot exposition has to be pieced together by finding audio and text logs of the now ex-residents (Ding! Bioshock/Resident Evil/Mass Effect/OK fair enough loads of games do this), which range from the almost-interesting ‘Aren’t people acting all weird all of a sudden? Hope they don’t turn into murdering hellbeasts!’ type to frankly retarded ‘Who keeps using so much toilet paper?’ banality. Neither type improves the game one iota, provides a single crumb of relevant information (unless you genuinely were concerned about the toilet paper usage) or expands on the paper-thin plot in any way. It seems they’re just there because they were in the first game, and the same can also be said of the few brief zero-gravity sequences, which again lack the tension or danger of those in the first game: Where previously you would be dodging enemies and desperately running for the oxygen replenisher in the eerie silence of the vacuum, this time round you float largely unmolested around small areas where you may occasionally be required to do the equivalent of aligning The Sprawl’s satellite TV receiver.
Aside from the genuinely excellent first 20 minutes, which manages to provoke the perfect survival horror adrenaline response of ‘shitshitshitshitshitshit!’ as you run away from everything as fast as possible, scrabbling for ammo and items, Dead Space 2 really does nothing that lives up to the experience of the first game. As if we needed a clear indicator that they ran out of ideas and this sequel is nothing more than a cash-in, at one point they come full circle and actually rip off themselves, when Morpheus McCloud has to go back onto the Ishimura (Ding! Alien), the ship that was the setting for the first game, and you find yourself running through the same vaguely-reminiscent corridors (now mostly covered with caution tape) for the plot-vital reason of why the hell not. Funny thing is, the game almost instantly feels better back on board the ship, rather than all your running around the near-identical corridors of The Sprawl: tighter, better designed and more intense, however brief your time there is. Maybe it’s just a very creepy form of nostalgia.
It’s disappointing that Dead Space 2 has done so little to advance the promising plot of the first game. Though there’s clearly a lot of time and effort gone into it, it’s virtually a straightforward run-and-gun through the dark, waiting for the next thing to jump out at you. It almost feels more like the Wii tie-in rail shooter Dead Space: Extraction (of which a Move-enabled version is included in the PS3 version) rather than the original. You go along a single track, following a path and shooting everything that gets between you and the next save point. It’s still not a bad game, and certainly fills a few hours without any major gameplay complaints until the release schedules get busier in mid-February, but it is utterly unremarkable, feels dumbed-down, by-the-numbers and is definitely inferior to the first one: you’d probably have more fun just playing through the original again rather than picking this up and expecting any kind of new experience.
Version reviewed: Xbox 360.
Progress: Completed single player in 9 hours. No multiplayer played.