Multiplayer aside, Dead Space 2 delivers the visceral goods
There was a point in Dead Space 2 where alarms were going off and lights were flashing an ominous orange. I dimly recalled a similar sequence from the original Dead Space, which meant I also recalled how it ended. Spinning left and right, dementedly trying to point my plasma cutter at every possible opening, in time-honoured fashion I got pumped for a showdown while playing a videogame. And then nothing. Nothing happened, noise subsided, dust settled and I realized that Visceral Games were f*cking with me, and they were doing it well.
As novel and exciting as the original Dead Space was, taking the old mechanics of Shinji Mikami's Resident Evil 4 and making them work in the current generation, it was unashamed pastiche of great games with a pretty coat of paint. Dead Space 2 is a different animal, taking the formula from its predecessor and running with it while ironing out the kinks that kept the first game from brilliance.
As with the first game you're in the shoes of Isaac Clarke: the engineer-turned bad*ss that single-handedly waded through the necromorph scourge aboard the ill-fated USG Ishimura. Dead Space 2 picks up 3 years after the events aboard the Ishimura on Saturn's moon of Titan in the city known as the Sprawl with Isaac once again having to don his engineering suit and deal with a new plague of necromorphs.
The hook here is that Isaac is slowly being driven mad by visions of his dead girlfriend and the events aboard the 'planet-cracking' Ishimura. Isaac is no longer the cipher capable only of grunts and yells, now fully voice-acted so he can better react to the Sprawl being overrun by those pesky necromorphs and those disturbing voices inside his head.
This primarily, is where the story cracks at the seams. Though exceptionally well-acted, Isaac has about as much personality as the mining tools he commandeers to dispatch the hideous creatures overtaking the colony. Occasionally he throws out a quip reminiscent of Nathan Drake, but his connection to events and to his sporadic hallucinations is nebulous at best. There's never the sense that the visions are disturbing him in any way, nor does his generic everyman character behave as if such sights are perturbing. He has a few decent character moments, and the voice-acting sells them, but he's no more compelling than he was mute.
At least Dead Space 2's tale is all plot, as Isaac is funneled along from bad to worse situations with goal primarily of survival. There are several characters that you'll come across and they're all very well-acted and characterised, but they may as well be scenery for all the emotional and contextual weight they bring. The game's opening couldn't be more indicative of where Visceral Games intend to go with Dead Space 2, gone are the quiet moments of tension-buildup and setup, the ground beneath your feet is hit running and for the first two hours Dead Space 2 is light on story and heavy on action.
When it comes to the action, Dead Space 2 has been sped up to an alarming degree; Necromorphs have a habit of rushing you, rarely giving you any breathing room to pick out a target. Visceral also provide a tad more leeway to the iconic "strategic dismemberment" gameplay, precision in your limb-severing is still crucial, but this time around situational awareness and quick reflexes are equally mandatory. Dead Space 2 thrives during combat, necromorphs charge you from several angles and your management of enemy-slowing stasis, your prioritizing of targets and your ingenuity are all key to survival.
Isaac controls in a way that can only be described as comfortable, allowing you to shoot off a necromorph's arm, grab it via kenesis and impale him/her/it in a gruesome homage to Half Life 2 with barely a sweat. The smooth control is in stark contrast to how downright nasty your dealings with the necromorphs will get. Isaac's DIY arsenal is varied and always brutally satisfying, each makeshift weapon sounding and feeling like every shot is tearing through inches of formerly human flesh.
The violence here isn't the elegant butchery of God of War 3 or the comical goretastic schlock of Gears of War. It's a visceral maelstrom of ripping sinews, torn arteries and splintering bones. There were points in the aftermath of an encounter where I would keep my weapon up, daring anything to wade through the reanimated corpses of its fellows and face me, a mammalian level of aggression that few games manage to evoke. That's not to say the game is without its cerebral edge, the newly included raptor-like necromorphs display surprising intelligence, making every encounter with them a tense battle of wits.
Unfortunately, each and every encounter occurs in a predictable rhythm for the second-third of the game. You walk into a largish room, a few types of necromorph materialize from different holes in the walls, ceiling and floor and you have a riot slaughtering them all, and making as many squelches as you feel you need to produce in order to be satisfied with the carnage. You then walk down a long sequence of corridors containing lots of ammo boxes to replenish your supplies, meeting the occasional easily dispatched baddy, until you again find yourself in room where it looks like some necromorph murder will occur. Rinse and repeat for a significant chunk of the run time. Occasionally you will run into some mundane, but admittedly pretty-looking zero-gravity puzzles and a hacking minigame but the game has a rhythm that it establishes by the end of the first act and doesn't change much until the buildup to the climax.
That being said, the first and final acts are so damned incredible from an action perspective that the formulaic middle can be benevolently passed off as a protracted calm before the storm. Visceral Games have obviously spent some quality time with Naughty Dog's Uncharted as the action sequences are on par with those Nathan Drake habitually stumbles into. Dead Space 2 possesses some the most frantic action set-pieces you'll find in any action title, let alone a survival horror game and they gel perfectly with the moment to moment gameplay. Visceral does a brilliant job of making you feel like you're involved in these set-pieces, even if they involve hammering a button, and everything is rendered in-engine so the transitions between canned animations and actual control are seamless.
All these action scenes look absolutely phenomenal thanks to Dead Space 2's technical clout in the graphics department. Lighting is so important in an atmospheric horror game and Visceral's engine works wonders with coloured light and shadows. The realistic sci-fi future of the Sprawl is rendered perfectly, evoking a sense of place that the original lacked. However, I never felt like the Sprawl was a malignant entity like the hostile presence that the Ishimura took on in the original. The Sprawl may be a meticulously crafted setting, but it never lends much more than atmosphere and intriguing sights to the game.
The main question I asked myself while playing DS2 was "Is this scary?" and for the most part the answer was: "yeeaaahh, If you get freaked out by jump scares" Visceral Games are certainly masters of building tension and ensuring that pent-up anxiety is held long enough for the release to be satisfying, but the Sprawl doesn't evoke fear so much as it makes a consistently creepy impression.
The great sound design provides most of the legitimate scares, letting you ferment for a while as you listen to who-knows-what crawling through the vents. The rest of the time it's jump-scares, monster closets, horrifically gory sights and a "gotcha!" moment once in a while. It's the closest you'll get to being scared by an action game as a desensitized gamer whose seen some chainsaw butchery and Dr Steinman in your time, but only once did Dead Space 2 get my heart going.
The single-player is also adorned with a superb new game + mode that lets you take your weapons and upgrades into a higher difficulty (I wish you luck with that one). Making it one of the more robust campaigns I've experienced this generation.
This brings me to the awkward subject to Dead Space 2's competitive multiplayer mode, which is completely out-of-place next to the strong 11-13 hour single-player portion. If I was to say Dead Space plus L4D you'd get a fair idea of what's in store here. However, it's not even vaguely as appealing as that might sound. A team of engineers must complete an objective and the opposing team of necromorphs attempts to stop them in a mediocre imitation of Valve's zombie-slaying gem.
Any tension that a L4D-type multiplayer would normally bring is nullified by the fact that there's no penalty for death beyond a respawn that at most lasts 7-seconds, meaning that humans and the 4 playable necromorph types collide in a messy war of attrition where both sides make no attempt at the strategy or self-preservation that makes the single-player game so compelling.
Admittedly it's fun for about 10 minutes to play as the grossly overpowered necromorphs and Visceral dangle the persistent leveling carrot of upgrades to keep you coming back but it's shallow, possessing only one mode, and mindless in comparison to the crafted single-player campaign that could easily stand on its own.
But no matter, as there's such a solid single-player experience here that the tacked-on multiplayer barely weighs down the package. Many people thought the original Dead Space an enjoyable stopgap to satisfy their survival horror cravings in the build-up to the next Resident Evil. Dead Space 2 proves however that Visceral Games can go back to the well and bring back something exceptional, stamping their authority on the ailing horror shooter genre in the process . If Dead Space 2 is anything to go by, survival-horror is in for a renaissance.