In Dead Space engineer Isaac Clarke found himself trapped on the USG Ishimura, an interstellar mining ship designed to rip apart whole planets for the vast resources within. The inhabitants of the ship had mostly been turned into gruesome monsters, and Isaac had to find a way to (a) rendezvous with his scattered companions, and (b) get the hell away from that ship. This involved a somewhat slow trudge through the ship, fighting monsters, managing scarce supplies of ammunition and medication, and generally being ordered around via radio by his startlingly unhelpful crew-mates.
Well, spoiler alert but at the end of the game Isaac managed to get away in an escape pod after everyone else died. Dead Space 2 takes place years later, after Isaac is finally picked up from the depths of space and taken to Titan Station, a colony built on the remains of one of Saturn’s moons. A new Marker, one of the terrible alien artefacts from the first game, has mysteriously appeared on the station, and as such people are once again being slaughtered and turned into twisted masses of angry necrotic flesh. Isaac is apparently one of the last human survivors, and the drive of the narrative is this: destroy the marker, escape. All other matters are secondary. As with the first game, the enemies in Dead Space 2 can’t be dispatched as easily as you’d like. Shoot them in the chest and all you’ll do is stun them momentarily. These are masses of anonymous dead flesh – you’re not going to hit a vital organ here. The only way to survive is to rip the enemies apart limb by limb. Shoot the bog-standard enemy in one of its arms a couple of times and the arm will burst off. Shoot it in the legs and it’ll have to crawl its way to you. Shoot it in the head and it’ll become blind, wildly running to and fro, swinging its deadly appendages about. So, uh, don’t shoot it the head. Years of violent videogame experience has taught us to always go for the head, and here that tactic is either useless or actively suicidal.
At first you’ll be able to mess up quite a bit without dooming yourself. But soon you’ll have to be smart, and you’ll have to develop a steady, patient hand, because it’ll start throwing all manner of monsters at you in large numbers, each requiring different tactics. If you panic and start firing wildly you’ll use up your already-inadequate resources, you’ll waste those precious few seconds of safety, and you’ll be dead before your decapitated head hits the floor, which makes sense really. You’ll need to learn to prioritise target, and prioritise exactly where on each target you want to shoot in order to thin the enemy’s ranks quickly and efficiently. A smart, well-placed shot can save your life, and a particularly stupid shot can end it spectacularly.
This is a sequel that makes rather big changes to the formula of the first game. Gone are the semi-open levels of the Ishimura, and mostly gone is the slow sense of fear and dread that came from edging your way around these imposing levels. Dead Space 2 s an action game, not a survival horror game. You don’t feel like the lowly, panicking engineer Isaac was in the original game, and instead you quickly start to feel something of a super-soldier. You’re always in serious danger, especially if you play at higher difficulty levels (where the game really shines), but it’s more action hero danger rather than horror movie danger.
But though I really liked the first game I don’t mind this big shake up. I don’t care that the game funnelled me down one unwavering path with little to no opportunity for exploration. And I don’t care that it isn’t at all scary. Because this simply isn’t trying to be that game. It’s trying to be an action game, and it turns out to be a pretty great action game at that – filled with challenging, complex combat, and countless impressive set-pieces where big things smash into one another in satisfying ways. The combat does get out of hand once or twice during the game’s length, however, and there are moments of feeling like you’re running up against an automatic door over and over again until it arbitrarily decides to open. The final boss fight in particular puts you in an unfair, drawn-out, and downright annoying situation, and for me at least there was no option but to lower the difficulty level briefly in order to complete the game.
However, there is one thing I really miss: the tense horror of the first game’s zero-gravity sequences. There are still parts where Isaac goes out into the blackness of space, but because his suit now has the ability to fly around in zero-gravity all of the tension is gone. There’s no longer the risk of mistiming a jump, colliding with the station’s hull, and floating helplessly off into space. Combat doesn’t really work in these sequences either, and it seems that the developers realised this because you’ll almost never have to fight without both your boots set firmly on solid ground.
So, it’s a bombastic action game with frantic, interesting combat. But it also places quite a big emphasis on its story. Some people say that the writing in Dead Space 2 is schlock, but I say that it is damn great schlock. It’s hardly going to win awards for originality or for the depth of its characters, but it tells a good tale, and its small cast of characters are well-written and well-acted. Unlike in so many hopeless-horror settings I actually cared about and liked the survivors, and I was genuinely worried whenever it looked like things were going to end horribly for one of them.