mikeinsc's Dead Space 2 (Xbox 360) review

Great Follow Up

One of EA's biggest IP's in several years is back....but the founder of the studio that made it is not, opting to go make Call of Duty games for Activision (a move he will likely regret, based on history). Does this loss doom a promising franchise?

As of now, Dead Space 2 does "survival horror" better than long-term dominator of the genre, Resident Evil, does. Dead Space, more than anything else, presents an incredibly creepy atmosphere. You know something really bad happened and is likely still going on because you hear the necromorphs outside of your vision and you see them crawling away from your flashlight; you see corpses floating past you in zero g and other bodies lying all over the place in assorted states of dismemberment. That the sequel does not really explain to you what is happening or how you got from destroying the marker at the end of the original to where you are now in the sequel is a solid plan as it helps make the entire story a bit unnerving.

The story, however, never really ties strongly back to the original. Yes, you deal with the Ishimura again and, yes, you deal with necromorphs and your dead girlfriend, but the substance of how you got from there to here never really reaches a satisfactory level of explanation. It boils down to "You survived and bad stuff happened and, look, bad stuff is still occurring". It's a bit of a shame as I thought the original had a perfectly serviceable story and I would have loved to see the sequel tie into that. True, the original didn't seem to leave much room for a sequel, but Bioshock 2 managed to generate a decent story for itself in spite of the original not really lending itself to sequels either.

The devs, though, did manage to make the atmosphere even more unnerving. Walking around a formerly quite vibrant city on The Sprawl after most people were slaughtered and assorted baddies are walking around slaughtering the few remaining survivors is just uncomfortable. The lighting, in particular, works extremely well here. Being able to use flickering neon ads to serve as the main illumination in a room as the enemies start to move in on you somehow increases the tension in the battle you will be facing. The elementary school is one of the most effective settings I've seen in a while and a great example of really good game design.

The combat is a really, really good here. Your weapons are easy to aim, the secondary fire mode is great, and that you can reload without having to stop and aim your weapon first is a God send. I still thought the Rippers and Plasma Cutters were the best weapons to roll with in the game, but you do have a lot of variety. The new mines can work nicely when you know you're about to get swarmed, but the new sniper rifle just didn't seem all that useful as the enemies move quickly and in unpredictable patterns.

The original game generated its tensions in the occasional long gaps between battles. You'd be wondering where the enemy would be coming from, almost making further movement in the level a thing to dread. Here, the battles are far more frequent and the tension is largely based on your health and concerns about ammo since you can face some really large swarms of enemies and if you're not well-prepared for them, things are unlikely to go well for you.

The biggest improvement in the game is in the movement while in zero G. Originally, you had to aim yourself at something in a straight line and just jump to it. Now, you have full control over yourself and it can produce some fun gameplay (there is also one of the earliest usages of that mechanic where you have to get through a bunch of flames that sort of killed the whole illusion of reality in that area for me (nobody would design anything like that) but it is a small nit-picky thing and is made up for with the big zero-G puzzle you have to complete to get towards the end).

The multiplayer is, well, there. It's nothing special. It's not bad...but I don't see an online community of any real size being active within a month.

The game does most things really well. The issues are small --- the audio of his dead girlfriend is nearly incomprehensible; the final confrontation is not exactly impressive; Isaac never seems as out-of-control crazy as the game tried to indicate he is; hard core mode is just not much fun to play. But the game itself is a definite must play and the first AAA title of the new year.
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