Review: EA’s Dead Space 2 is the new gold standard in survival horror

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By Michael Sorba

The original “Dead Space” breathed new life into the survival horror genre when the game hit consoles in 2008, and its briskly-paced sequel sacrifices none of the terrifying, unsettling atmosphere that made the original so special.

The developers at Visceral Games force the player to endure a constant struggle that is the  essence of survival horror. Playing “Dead Space 2,” I felt the same feelings I did while playing the first Resident Evil titles on the Playstation 1.

Playing “Dead Space 2″ is a stressful experience. It’s not for the faint of heart and will try one’s patience, but with Dead Space 2, Visceral Games now holds title to the finest survival horror franchise in gaming.

The original Dead Space took place within a giant, “planet cracking” spaceship called the USG Ishimura. The setting borrowed from science fiction horror films like “Alien” and “Event Horizion,” and the game’s designers added a grisly innovation – necromorphs. These terrifying space zombies, unsettling sound effects and the Ishimura’s creepy environments created a constant sense of tension and unease.

Survival horror fans hadn’t experienced anything like it since since Capcom’s 2004 classic, “Resident Evil 4.” But many of those fans feared the original’s eerie atmosphere could be left out when developer Visceral Games announced Dead Space 2 would bring back a more confident, powerful version of series protagonist Isaac Clarke and place him in fast-paced action sequences.

Dead Space 2 is indeed fast-paced, but Visceral Games didn’t slip up. I dreaded walking down the dark, cold corridors of the Ishimura, and I felt those same fears while exploring the new set piece, the Sprawl. The new game’s action rarely ever lets up, and there are only a few moments where I felt a real sense of safety. Most of the time, I was on the run and desperately searching for the ammo and health needed to survive. I would run out of ammo and still have necromorphs storming toward me.

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The scarcity of ammo forced me to use Issac’s special kinesis and stasis abilities to survive. Stasis slows necromorphs that often sprinted so quickly they were in Isaac’s face before I could have him fire a second shot. Kinesis allows Isaac to pick up objects and hurl them at enemies. Spears, explosive gas canisters and even the sharp appendages of slain necromorphs can be used against those that are still looking to impale you.

Many of the original Dead Space’s necromorphs are in the sequel and Visceral Games added several new variations to the new game. The “puker” and “spitter” varieties are some of the most annoying. The abominations shoot projectile vomit that damages or slows Isaac while other necromorphs press their attacks.

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I also learned to hate “the swarm.” These necromorphs were once elementary school children and attack relentlessly in huge packs. Another enemy is “the stalker,” a necromorph that hides and attacks from cover.

Enemies have pretty solid AI programming, and Dead Space 2 is a difficult game. The title presents a healthy challenge on the normal difficulty setting. Players may cruise through the first six chapters, but the next nine will test their will. Merciless waves of enemies attack in the game’s later chapters, and just when I thought there could not be any more, more showed up.

I remember parts of Dead Space being fairly hard in normal mode, but I can’t say that I remember it being as frustrating as Dead Space 2. Enemies strike from the front and from behind, so I was constantly forced to finish off the ones I could see, then flee and look back to make sure others were not on my trail. This can get very frustrating and even seemed downright unfair when Isaac is forced into narrow corridors and small rooms where he has little space to avoid necromorph attacks. 

A grisly death at the hands of rampaging necromorphs coming from all angles would force me to really think about how I could use my weapons and the environment to tackle the latest challenge. The game’s weapon choices have expanded, but you’re still only able to carry four at a time. The plasma cutter, ripper, and pulse rifle are among the returning favorites, and new armaments include the spear firing javelin gun, laser firing contact beam and mine setting detonator.

Conserving ammo can get players the best experience out of the game. Save the firepower and use stasis to slow down the space zombies and then slay them with any objects laying around.

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There’s more gore in this game than you’ll find in the bloodiest slaughterhouse. Corpses are littered throughout the environment and players will see meat and bones protruding from necromorphs. When stomped upon or hit with a melee weapon, the space zombies emit squelching sounds that are just sickening.

Everything in Dead Space 2 is gorgeously rendered, and although I felt the first game’s  environments were creepier, the sequel’s still manage to frighten. I don’t think this is necessarily a fault, since the images and settings fit the storyline.

The story of Dead Space 2 isn’t the game’s strong point and rarely makes much sense. Isaac only interacts with about four other characters during the 10- to 12-hour campaign and they do little to explain things. Much of the story is laid out in scattered text and audio logs, but they don’t do much good in clearing things up either. A more coherent story would have made the game even better, but blasting necromorphs is what you’re really playing for and that’s as fun as ever.

The Dead Space universe is set some five to six hundred years in the future, a time when most of Earth’s resources have been exhausted. Massive mining spaceships are dispatched to alien worlds to literally crack them open and bring home the harvest.

In the first game, miners conducting such an operation on the fictional world Aegis VII uncovered a mysterious artifact called the “Marker” and brought it aboard the Ishimura. The Marker’s power was responsible for the necromorph outbreak there. Isaac destroyed the artifact, but lost his girlfriend, Nicole, in the process.

Dead Space 2 begins with Isaac in a straightjacket and suffering from amnesia. He has no memory of the three years that have passed since his nightmare on the Ishimura, but he’s forced to battle a new necromorph scourge that’s invaded the “Sprawl.” The new setting is a metropolis established on the remnants of Titan, one of Saturn’s moons and the first world humans of the future cracked open for its minerals. Exactly how the necromorphs made it to the sprawl and their connection to the Marker and a weird, cultish religion called Unitology is the mystery that’s slowly unveiled in Dead Space 2. 

The new title’s multiplayer mode was a fun surprise and I can easily see myself investing several hours into it, as it adds value to a package that already contains a great single player experience.

Multiplayer pits a team of human soldiers with a specific mission against necromorphs that only exist to kill those who are still living. Playing as a necromorph is the real treat of this experience, as a round begins with players choosing their point of attack to sneak upon and strike an unsuspecting opponent.

Necromorphs don’t have weapons, so they’re at a disadvantage when it comes to ranged combat. Players in the role of space zombies must work with their teammates to try to find any lone wolves among the human faction. One soldier with guns is no match for two or three necromorphs in multiplayer, and a solitary necromorph is quickly mowed down by two or more humans. 

The game’s PlayStation 3 edition includes a high-definition port of “Dead Space: Extraction,” an on-rails shooter originally released for Nintendo’s Wii console. Dead Space: Extraction uses Sony’s Move motion controller, but if you don’t have one you can use the regular controller.

Conclusion: I don’t suspect Dead Space 2 will disappoint fans of the original. If anything, I would compare Visceral Games’ progress to the improvement Capcom achieved between the original Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2.

Dead Space 2
Visceral Games/EA Games
PC, PS3, X Box 360 (Reviewed on PS3)
Rated M for Mature