In the world of film, the sequel that so much as equals the original is treated as the exception to the rule. By comparison, gaming sequels are expected to fare a lot better. Dead Space 2 is, rather predictably then, an improved package. Small tweaks in walking speed, new and improved weapons and a complete overhaul of the game’s treatment of zero-gravity get you more effectively under the skin of protagonist Isaac Clarke as he explores a new nightmare aboard Saturnine space station ‘The Sprawl’. Whilst not every element of that journey will keep your brow unfurrowed, Dead Space 2’s creativity wins through, constantly tempting you forward through a loading screen-less world of new enemies and locales.
The sequel’s most marked improvement is on the later point: the first game’s over-reliance on metallic hallways and recycled, regularly revisited areas has gone, replaced by a far more vivid world of shopping malls, stained glass temples and kindergartens (anyone else find it disturbing that there is a list of ‘Production Babies’ in the credits?). And when someone’s elbow knocks the saturation dial back down, creativity isn’t scaled back with it. Indeed, two of the game’s industrial detours are moments on par with anything at the peak of action gaming: the plastic-wrapped corridors of a decommissioned starship and a lonely, remote solar power station with the subtle vibe of a lighthouse.
These areas achieve genuine tension by doing something Dead Space 2 seems all too reluctant to do: stopping the enemy spawns completely. Whilst there aren’t any areas in the game that have genuinely infinite waves of creatures coming at you, the feeling that every single new room will bring a new wave has the same fatiguing effect. The first Dead Space’s ham-fisted approach to ‘horror’ had plenty of critics, and things haven’t really changed here. But I see this particular brand of horror as something of an identity crisis in design.
It’s a crisis that has been bred to prominence through the all-too common genetics of the game. The original Dead Space’s maternal grandparents were Alien and Aliens. On the father’s side it was spending Christmases with System Shock 2 and Resident Evil 4. It didn’t really want to commit to being a third-person shooter or a survival horror game, so it tried all of these approaches without realising that action and fear are rarely complementary.
To an extent, that’s precisely why the ‘lighthouse’ and ‘decommissioned ship’ sections of Dead Space 2 work: the designers stop leaning on the ‘SPAWN ENEMY’ button for just that little bit longer than you’d give them credit for. Of course, the floodgates are eventually opened in precisely the most obvious areas, and two chapters in a fifteen chapter game is precious little stand-out entertainment, but it bodes well for the design of future instalments.
Less promising is the feeling that Dead Space 2 is taking the series round the block, killing time. Top to bottom, the second game is a retread of the first. You spend the entire time plodding through a space complex, chasing your illusive girlfriend (ticking the ‘trippy vision horror’ box), pledging to destroy the marker and those trying to protect it. Perhaps conscious that anyone who sat through the first Dead Space is not going to be hungry for this retread, Visceral have hastily laid on a buffet of peripheral characters from the game’s rather nondescript factions. They’re equally unappetising.
Remember how in Dead Space, the cast ran to about three characters and the scent of imminent betrayal from the one who kept talking about mistrust was discernible about eight hours before she pulled the knife from your back? Visceral get the waiting time down to about three hours this time. And the faction this character represents seems bizarrely and conspicuously absent from the other two thirds of the game. On the other side of things, a clichéd, over-bearing military commander type fills in as the voice track for the mute marker. He appears desperate for human contact, a bit-player constantly clogging up your personal switchboard.
Which is all probably overstating how dislikeable these characters are, but I’m a believer in the idea that game writing can be infinitely better than this. The least offensive addition is Isaac himself. Aside from a couple of cringe-worthy one-liners, he’s voiced well and a lot easier to relate to this time out. The smallest details often seal the deal with our player characters: the master stroke here is that extended bashing on the ‘stomp’ control lets loose a string of obscenities.
You’re also teamed up with a pair of other survivors, reflecting Dead Space 2’s actually quite commendable capacity to make the Sprawl feel less like a museum of data logs and more like a place which people are living and dying (… mostly dying) in as you progress. Chief sidekick, Ellie, does however come from the Alyx Vance school of ‘casually dressed, attractive, somewhat unwashed’ female heroines.
It’s an overused trope that completely gets in the way of an otherwise likeable character: she also manages to make even less sense than Alyx (and her bullet proof hoodie) in context. This is a game where the player routinely gets blasted into the vacuum of space, sees their torso ripped in half and is forced to watch as a creature pins them down, mounts and violates their face. By the end of the game, you have several suits of advanced space armour going spare: how is it possible for a character in a vest top to maintain her integrity?
Dead Space 2 is undeniably an invigorating title that builds upon the action and gameplay of its predecessor and features at least two sections of vaguely ‘Shalebridge Cradle’-like, left-field awesome. But its story is curiously subdued: it’s not really a spoiler to tell you that the game’s ending basically says ‘there are more markers’. I’m left wondering whether Dead Space 2 is symptomatic of a developer that doesn’t know (or care?) where it’s going with the property, or whether they simply wanted to use the game as a second beginning, to hook in all those who missed or simply didn’t like the original. Either way, a decent game from a series that continues to underachieve.
Verdict – On Target