Developer: Visceral Games, Publisher: Electronic Arts, Platforms: 360, PC, PS3
Note: For this review the PC version of the game was played on mouse & keyboard.
Dead Space 2 gets off to an explosive start, hurriedly establishing that Isaac Clarke has ended up in a mental institution since the events of the original game. It is soon made painfully clear that a new Necromorph threat is making its presence felt on the space city “The Sprawl”. The opening exposition is kept short allowing you to get quickly into the action, this is clearly a game where the designers knew that the gameplay was important whilst still providing enough background to kick things off to a start.
The initial gameplay sequence is a tutorial by stealth, telling you about moving around before you get your hands on a weapon. Soon you get a device that allows you to pick up, grab and throw objects around the room providing you with a way of getting hard to reach items or to fire preferably pointy objects in the room when ammunition is scarce.
As in the original, the weapons feel powerful, perhaps more powerful than the necessity of shooting Necromorph limbs implies. Aiming with the mouse felt somewhat sluggish and heavy at first but this is fine after you’ve had a little time to get used to it.
On a few occasions, Isaac may get jumped by a monster or a special event where you need to press a key usually this involves rapidly taping the E key. The problem here is that the minimalised user interface used in the game gives no clear indication that your tapping fast enough until it’s too late to do anything about it.
On another occasion, my concentration was so caught up in a slow player character animation and an advancing monster that I failed to notice the prompt telling me to press ‘C’ and got caught in a frustration loop of getting killed. In this situation, the slow ‘equipping stasis device’ animation became aggravating when you’d really rather be firing at this seemingly invincible Necromorph charging at you.
That said, sometimes screwing up and not pressing the ‘E’ key enough times can be rewarding. The game has some particularly gruesome ways for killing the player, my personal favourite was the head-on-legs… Thing. This beast jumps on Isaac, ripping off his head before planting its limbs into the empty head socket and taking control of the body in an odd puppet like way. There’s an attention to detail that really shows the games AAA budget and standing.
The game also has some windows leading into space that can be easily shattered (Apparently for extending the space station later). Doing so results in a vacuum that would suck Isaac out into space, but because this wouldn’t instantly kill the pressure suit wearing character the game chooses to have a bulkhead door that conveniently finds ways to chop him in half.
This provides a nice way of livening up the action or putting more challenge into an area, forcing the player to change tactics or shoot the red door closing panel to prevent getting sliced and diced by the vacuum door. The idea of having such fragile windows in a space station does however seem somewhat bizarre; it’s a clear concession to gameplay.
Though the story for the game is clearly there to drive the action, it is multi-layered with several threads being carried throughout the game. These include the fate of the space station and its occupants (including the Unitologists & Earth Gov) whilst dealing with Isaacs guilt over losing his girlfriend in the original game.
You even get to briefly visit the Ishimura from the first game to learn of its fate after the events of the original. One or two threads are inevitably left dangling for a sequel, so it’s fortunate that rumours are already emerging that the next game in the series is going to be made.
The game can prove to be quite challenging at times, with the occasional difficulty spike causing a few deaths as you progress. Thankfully, the save system has been built in a way that prevents you from redoing large sections, due to a series of autosave steps between each player save terminal. Towards the end of the game the difficulty is ramped up with Necromorphs that can take more damage. However with generous use of a fully upgraded stasis ability and standard weapons this shouldn’t pose too great a problem.
I do think it is a shame you only get to fight the Necromorphs as even with the enemy variety they present, the occasional bout of combat fatigue can sometimes settle in, but this won’t be a problem if you play in shorter chunks.
Though the game has a few scares and jumps along the way, it doesn’t have a great deal of low level tension, certainly not of the kind seen in Amnesia Dark Descent. Regardless, the end result works as an enjoyable game and what I perceived as the biggest flaw of having to rapidly tap the E key on occasion seemed more like a minor irritation (I just don’t like the way that game mechanic functions, with other monsters hovering around waiting for you to finish).
I’m particularly fond of the way Isaac will start swearing if you tap the stomp key in quick succession a few times and the replacement of the zero gravity leap from the original game with a Jetpack means you get some wonderful free form movement and a welcome occasional break from killing Necromorph after Necromorph in longer play sessions.