You can never get away from the Sprawl
Despite the fact that we've already seen DC Universe Online and LittleBigPlanet 2 (an MMO and lighthearted platformer), Dead Space 2 is really 2011's first big "hardcore" game, one with the story, gameplay, graphics and production values that will appeal to a large demographic. Last year's big releases kind of bummed me out so I wasn't really anticipating this as heavily as others were but the team's solid and they got some of the best third-person controls and atmosphere going for them so naturally I'd play it and when I beat it I was...underwhelmed. Now this is where for me Dead Space 2 hits that rather odd place where I really enjoyed the game but little annoyances popped up along the way and what I loved about the first game is somewhat absent and what I didn't like last time has been improved considerably. In no shape, way or limb is this a bad game, far from it, but I wish I could say it blew me away.
3 years after the original Dead Space, you find yourself once again in the (rather astonishingly) destructive shoes of engineer Isaac Clarke, haunted by not only the experience of surviving the infested USG Ishimura but also the truth about the fate of his girlfriend Nicole. Now he's onboard the Sprawl, a large city carved out of the last chunk of Titan, one of Saturn's moons. Naturally, things go bonkers, necromorphs once again infest the place and it's up to Isaac to figure out how to get off. Further mysteries surrounding himself, the large artifact the Marker and the Unitologists are explored as you take Isaac through churches, apartment complexes and day cares as you try to escape before being torn up every which way.
The team at Visceral took several complaints about the original and the majority have been addressed but the first one is undoubtedly the pacing and structure. Dead Space had a very formulaic structure: get off the tram, explore an area and you either had to fix, turn on, or get rid of something, make your way back to the tram and go to the next area. However, this time chapters unfold seamlessly during gameplay and your objectives are not quite as "errand boy"-ish as the last time. If there's a knock I can make against it is that while it starts off strongly and ends on an intense and almost pulse-pounding note, it's the middle that kind of sags, settling into a more "typical" Dead Space form. There's been a couple tweaks to the controls as it's a lot more fluid, more responsive and really, it's just so comfortable to play as Clarke. You can now have your waypoints point you to upgrade benches, stores and save stations, suits can carry additional bonuses such as a % bonus to pulse rifle damage or a store discount and the Zero-G areas with full 3D control really sell the idea you're making your way inside a laaaaarge area. Gameplay-wise, anything that was a concern last time around has been given an improvement and makes the game a better game to play.
Graphically as well, the game hasn't gotten a massive upgrade but hot damn if it isn't incredibly polished and gorgeous. Still some of the best lighting around, character detail and facial animations are better and some dynamic cinematics, including one amazing moment involving a gunship, a huge necro-bastard and a window is sure to be one of the most thrilling sequences still at the end of the year. But then again, what I loved about the first game's atmosphere is a tad absent. Last time, you were roaming a ship already infested, a ghost ship with poor lighting, claustrophobic corridors and overall, I had the feeling that the very environment itself wanted to take me out. Now, thanks to change in locations, areas are wide open, they're typically more better lit and the areas are familiar. What once was a completely foreign and unfamiliar engineering bay is now a day care where the lights still work and while some people like the idea of areas you can relate to that have now been "demon"-ified, I miss the original's, for lack of a better word, "alien" and hostile environment. Guess it's kind of weird that for as bigger a playing field as the Sprawl is, chapter 10 is still creepier than the whole game and it's not even on the Sprawl.
Also, while I might chalk it up to bad management of ammo, Dead Space 2 was actually a bit harder this time around but sometimes more annoyingly so. The standard franchise model of having necromorphs suddenly bursting through air vents and ceilings is still intact but sometimes they happen right next to you and can lay down what feel like cheap hits and this time, the enemy count is higher and towards the end of the game, they pile on so much enemies at once and many times with a higher frequency that it starts to feel a little monotonous. In fact, the last couple of chapters are so packed with enemies, you're literally required to run because you can't take them all on since they respawn but it feels like such a frustrating thing to play through when you're low on resources and stasis that it makes it more of a chore to get through.
Now this would be the part where I talk about the game's multiplayer and what I thought of it and well, I honestly can't say. Thanks to really bad timing, lack of funds and no online pass (I rented and the code wasn't available), my Xbox Live subscription ran out literally just before the end sequence and with no cash to buy a new subscription and with no online pass, I'm unable to access the multiplayer. But if you go off videos and interviews, it's pretty much the model of Left 4 Dead and Singularity which is humans vs monsters where humans get stasis and guns while the necros get 4 different enemy types and fast respawns. Coming only with 5 maps, and from what I've read, a real lack of balance, you can almost feel just how empty this online is going to be in a few months. But since Dead Space 2's main draw is the single player, I don't mind having the multiplayer un-played and me probably just saying "it's decent but campaign's better" anyway.
The biggest question with Dead Space 2 is is this game better than the original? Well that depends who's asking because unlike some sequels like Mass Effect or Assassin's Creed which are miles ahead of the originals, this game to me is kind of like Left 4 Dead 2: it's good, impeccably produced and plays really well yet I'd say I prefer the first game more. But like I said, this game is far from being a disappointment and is absolutely worth a playthrough.