Dead Space 2: Review

Early on in Dead Space 2,  some idiot resident of the Sprawl – the giant and accurately named space station in which the game is set – opens up the big door to space. As Isaac Clarke, engineer and all-round punchy shooty man, rapidly slides towards that vast expanse and inevitable death, the player’s attention is drawn to a button above the hull door, a button that no human could ever reach. Thankfully, the omnipresent female narrator of all science fiction is there to help. “Hull breached. Decompression imminent,” she says. “Shoot the button to close the door.”

Dead Space 2 was designed by people who forgot that the people in the game don’t know that they’re in a computer game. “Shoot the button to close the door”? So, before the Necromorph apocalypse, all the citizens aboard the space station carried guns around with them, did they? So they can shoot the buttons that are otherwise out of reach? Visiting a vending machine in a crowded area must have been potentially fatal.

Luckily Isaac fits right in to this strange violence-centric world, because his three favourite things are shooting, punching and kicking, and these are pretty much the only skills a person needs to navigate the Sprawl. The citizens – and alien invaders – all keep their ammo and money inside their heads, so in order to gain access to the goods left behind by the corpses of his victims, Isaac has to stomp their heads into a puddle first, a process which quickly becomes a chore. It seems that Isaac himself is the only exception to this rule, as he manages to spend money and access his ammo without first smashing his head into a fine paste. It’s somewhat surprising that more people didn’t follow his lead. It’s much more efficient if you want to, say, buy toothpaste but also stay alive.

Isaac doing some shooting.

Borrow some toothpaste, sir?

Dead Space 2 isn’t a very scary game, although the atmosphere is well-crafted and the bang-bang-surprises all well-timed. Unfortunately Isaac is not just an action hero but also an RPG hero, forever gaining more and better tools. He has many many guns, many many super powers and a backpack full of medkits, so for all the genuinely unsettling imagery and excellent ambient soundscape, the player is just too powerful to feel powerless.

All is not lost though, because despite not being scary combat in Dead Space 2 is deceptively deep and great fun. Almost every button on the controller has a useful purpose, and often a second use when combined with another button. There’s no wasted functionality in Isaac’s move set and although it’s complex, that complexity is slowly revealed to the player in a way that makes it all easy to learn.

Familiar abilities like slowing down enemies, telekinesis, and well-designed secondary modes for each weapon help foster plenty of opportunities for creative carnage. At its best it’s a rhythmical and satisfying system in which players switch from target to target, using a clever blend of the possible moves in their arsenal to fend off or slow down half of their attackers whilst destroying the other half. It’s the Guitar Hero of gruesome head-stomping, but where the player creates their own song as they go along instead of sticking to a set melody.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of decent ideas to hold your interest throughout the single player game. It’s let down by dull level design which is subsequently repeated ad nauseum, but despite that the enemy design (both artistically and mechanically) is a highlight, and distractions like Zero Gravity sections, action set pieces, time control puzzles and a constant stream of new suits and weapons keeps everything ticking along nicely until the frustrating ending undoes much of that good work. [Ed: Dylan and I had a bet about whether he had correctly predicted the ending. It turns out he’d only got one of his five predictions right, so that means I’m owed a pint! I will insist Dylan pays for it with the money in his head.]

Isaac trying to punch some giant rings.

Isaac trying to punch some giant rings.

Of course no modern game is complete without a crowbarred-in multiplayer mode, and Dead Space 2 sports its very own muddy me-too Left 4 Dead-a-like – much like last year’s fantastic Singularity. And just like Singularity, the game feels as though it’s still in Beta whenever you take control of the non-human enemies. That’s not to mention the issues with balance: the mutants have a confusing mass of moves available to them with no descriptions of these in-game or in-manual and no opportunity for training outside of the online battlefield. A smart human team will happily destroy the necromorph team without breaking a sweat, but it is at least fun to play on a team of Isaacs. It seems an opportunity was lost somewhere, as a co-operative mode would have been good. As it stands such a mode exists but you have to sit through playing on the necromorph side every other level. Don’t expect a strong online community of players for Dead Space 2 for much longer, particularly with EA’s ‘Online Pass’ system cutting down the potential player pool even further.

Dead Space 2 is hard to recommend as a new release, unless you loved the first one. However, for a cheap title to pick up a year or so after release, it’s a well-constructed and fun action RPG, and if you’re the sort of player who likes to throw the difficulty up to max and soak up a real challenge, you’ll most probably get a lot out of Dead Space 2’s challenging and varied combat.