Even if EA’s Dead Space: Exposed event that took place in London last week wasn’t enough of a pointer, from its very outset Dead Space 2 feels like a game designed by a team of people who are thoroughly enamoured (and fascinated) by the property that they’re working on. Even the storyline catch-up FMV, created with new players in mind and available in the main menu, is an artful and evocative faux-history lesson that not only brings newcomers up to speed, but also welcomes fans back into the fray with a potent shot of Dead Space’s uniquely foreboding sense of atmosphere. Even if you played through the original game twice – as everyone should have done, what with those cleverly dissimilar difficulty tiers and all – you’re unwaveringly encouraged to have a look at it regardless.
Dead Space 2 opens in a medical facility situated on one of Saturn’s largest moons, and finds Isaac Clarke in a state of extreme psychological turmoil. Exactly how that (initially mild) form of dementia manifests itself – and for how long – is best left for everyone to discover first hand. But the detrimental shift in tone that everyone was fearing – inspired by the decision to feature Isaac’s face and voice for the first time – never occurs. The first game was such a success despite (rather than because of) your character’s unending silence, and this fundamental change is orchestrated so quietly (and suddenly) that you probably won’t even notice it. There are no macho wisecracks or unexplained, rebellious anti-hero traits; Isaac is often as confused and terrified as you are.
And scares and jolts aside, the plot never lazily pushes too many of the conventional buttons. The story is fleshed out (as before) by collectable audio logs, but the fact that it goes absolutely haywire during the final act – throwing plot twists and turns at you like a petulant, sugar-rushing child – somehow none of it feels forced or arbitrary, which is a gleaming testament to the importance of an intelligent script in a game like this. Sure, Dead Space 2 is rated 18 because of the ceaseless presence of visceral blood and gore, but it’s an adult game because adults are the audience who are best equipped to get the very most out of it. Most games have to graft slavishly to earn your interest and curiosity, but Dead Space 2 achieves those things without appearing even to be trying.
Modifications to the core gameplay are relatively minor. Referred to by the developers as ‘Isaac 2.0’, your aiming is now faster, and your (essential) Stomp move is now instantly repeatable and projects your body forward ever-so-slightly; enabling you to line dance deceased Necromorphs into bloody puddles of mush if you so desire. Environments are now also fully interactive; a dynamic that’s extremely valuable when you’re low on ammunition and need to find pointed shards of metal or plastic to double-up as lethal projectiles. And the anti-grav sequences from the first game that only allowed you to fling yourself down a fixed path, have been replaced by a fully three-dimensional control scheme, enabled by some shiny new thrusters that have been added to Isaac’s boots.
Our time with the multiplayer component was restricted to around two hours worth of play, but the mode made a solid impression nevertheless. Almost certainly inspired by Left 4 Dead and its sequel, it’s an objective-based Team Deathmatch of sorts, with four well-armed engineers pitted against four respawning (and interchangeable) species of Necromorph. The engineers need to complete a brief procession of very simple objectives in order to win the game, and the fact that teamwork is always extremely important – irrespective of which side you’re on – singles this out as a proposition that’ll probably grow in stature as the months go on. The weakness of all four available species of Necromorph means that you simply can’t prevail without perpetual verbal contact and clear-headed strategising.
The problem with reviewing Dead Space 2 is that it is far too easy to stumble blindly into the revelation of detrimental plot spoilers, or a listing of the game’s very best set-pieces, of which there are plenty. But what is most surprising about those grandstanding sequences is that, despite using age-old (and occasionally downright familiar) filmmaking techniques to elicit jumps and scares, each one of them is so intelligently constructed that the experience never once feels mechanical or manipulative. Like all great horror shows, this is best experienced at booming volume, and with as little external light as your nervous system can possibly stand. In that kind of environment, Dead Space 2 may reveal itself to be one of the year’s best come December. So dim down, crank up, and freak out.
Watch the Dead Space 2 launch trailer here: