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Dead Space 2
Graphics: 9
Gameplay: 9.1
Sound: 9.4
Control: 8.8
Replay Value: 8.5
Rating: 9

The original Dead Space was widely considered to be a boon for the ailing survival/horror genre, although some didn’t wish to classify Visceral’s terrifying third-person action title as a “survival/horror” adventure. Either way, it provided us with something fresh and new in an industry that often sticks to formulaic, tried-and-true mechanics and styles. And while the sequel doesn’t once again redefine the nature of horror in the video game realm, it takes several small steps in the right direction and ultimately provides us with an immensely satisfying experience. Technically proficient, stable and solid in just about every way, loaded with leap-out-of-your-seat moments, and filled with a unique sense of urgency, Dead Space 2 will keep you transfixed for hours. Just make sure to play in a dark room, and it’s preferable if you’re alone in the house. Fear is the name of this game.

The graphics are a definite high point, as the level of detail has been amped up yet again and the special effects take center stage throughout. The gooey goriness is enough to put you off your appetite – and that’s a good thing – and the developers make excellent use of this sci-fi theme. We’re not always wandering around the same hallways and fighting the same enemies in the same rooms. There’s a fair amount of design variety, the fluid animations are actually a pleasure to behold, and the atmosphere is second to none. I did spot a few small hitches here and there; I don’t remember these from the first game, so that might be considered a small step backwards. I also think we could use just a dash more color and vividness when it comes to certain encounters and situations but beyond that, this is one very pretty game. …okay, it isn’t “pretty” but chaotic, hellish, nightmarish insanity has never looked so…appealing.

The sound is even better, and that’s because Visceral knows what makes our skin crawl. In addition to a multitude of quality voices, the effects are the biggest reason DS2 shines as a sequel: when wandering about, we will hear something off in the distance; it might have been a human cry, or it might have been a scuffling or a scraping. It might come towards me in the next area or it might run. And what the hell is that noise?! There’s a lot of that, which always grips the player and refuses to let go. The soundtrack plays an excellent complementary role and enhances every freakish encounter with swelling orchestral tracks. But really, the effects are top-notch; it’s the combination of the in-your-face – the cringe-worthy sound of stomping on a corpse – and the ambient, background audio – i.e., far-off screams, moans, thuds, and roars – that catapults Dead Space 2 into another stratosphere where tension reigns.

For the most part, Visceral adopted the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy for this follow-up effort. And while the naysayers will translate that into the very negative “rehash” term, let’s not forget that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves didn’t really make any significant mechanical changes, either; it simply built on a perfectly solid foundation. And while DS2 doesn’t have quite the same level of absurd high-end polish, nor does it make as many noticeable leaps and strides, it still manages to emerge as an awesome production that doesn’t hold back. They pull out all the stops in a concerted effort to keep you perched on the edge of your seat, palms sweaty, knuckles white, and mouth slightly parted, anticipating the next “holy sh**” moment with bated breath. There’s quite simply no other game that features such a ceaseless assault on our senses. No wonder those moms couldn’t handle it.

The control is as you remember: you move and shift the camera about with the left and right analog sticks respectively, and you can run with L2 and execute a melee attack with R1. You aim with L1 and fire with R1, stomp with R2 (and the alternate fire for your weapons is R2 as well), select one of four possible weapons with the directional pad, and hold down R3 to get your bearings. The blue line will move the plot along while the yellow line shows you to a store, and the green line locates a save point for you. Extremely helpful. For some reason, I think the camera is just a bit more erratic this time around; there were times when it backed up on me in a corner, and when you bring up your inventory (or a text log) and you’re in a bad spot, the angle is terrible. But besides that one hiccup, this is one of the best control schemes going, because you never feel overwhelmed or cheated and mastery of the gameplay isn’t difficult.

The difficulty lies where it should: in the strategy of survival. You have multiple ways to approach any given battle, and due to the limitation of your inventory, you really have to pay attention to your progress. Okay, so you’re low on ammo for your Plasma Cutter; maybe you should rely on the Line Gun. But wait, you want to save the Line Gun for encounters where you fight numerous enemies, and you don’t want to waste that ammo… Well, there’s Stasis, which you can use to halt enemies in their tracks, and use your valuable Plasma ammo to sever limbs in only one or two shots. Or maybe you’re low on ammo altogether, so that’s when you use Kinesis to pick up a certain sharp object and impale a rushing foe. If you’re running low on health, you might have to keep your distance and maybe waste some ammo; if you’ve got lots of health and don’t mind getting up close and personal, maybe it’s time for the Ripper…

The bosses are not only meticulously designed, but such battles are often ingeniously designed and super fun to play through. There’s great balance and pacing, too, in that you’re never facing too many of the same necromorph in consecutive areas, you’re never in the same type of level for too long, and you’re constantly surprised by something. It’s here where the strength of the game resides. Urgency is absolutely paramount because you never feel safe; even when you’re resting, you’re still tensing, mentally preparing for the next terrifying encounter. This sense of urgency is what sets DS2 apart and keeps you playing. You always find just enough ammo and health on Normal Mode to survive, provided you’re careful. This means you’re frequently on the edge; you always feel as if you’re one poorly executed battle away from serious, serious trouble.

If you do mess up, it’s not a bad idea to succumb on purpose and start from the last checkpoint (which is usually right before the battle you botched). Maybe you were inaccurate, maybe the enemies came at you from an unknown direction, maybe you accidentally used a medium health pack you didn’t want to use, etc. There’s plenty of survival strategy involved and when you factor in the aforementioned urgency, it’s an involving, engaging experience. And yes, there’s an immense amount of gore and potentially offensive material, but that’s to be expected. There were instances where I thought Visceral went a little too far without any good reason – I’m not sure we need to see a drawn-out disgusting sequence when Isaac dies – but it’s not a deal-breaker. They really do maintain a sense of fear and anxiety, and you can’t do that when gore is flying in your face every ten seconds.

The flaws I found may be more subjective than anything else, but they should be mentioned. Firstly, I’m not as big a fan of this storyline. Before, it seemed more mysterious; i.e., what are those things, where did they come from, where did everybody go, where the hell am I going? That sort of thing. This time, it feels just a little too tacked-on and clichéd; okay, there’s this church of fanatics, your dead girlfriend is popping up and tormenting you, and there’s still a lot of vagueness for most of the adventure. Secondly, I kinda wanted more…you know, more in the way of new enemies, new weapons, and maybe even new styles of advancement. The Bench has returned where you utilize Power Nodes you find (which can also be used to gain access to secretly locked rooms), and there’s the Store where you can purchase and sell items and pieces of equipment. It all works extremely well; I just thought…well, yeah. More.

But at the end of the day, Dead Space 2 is another gem from a talented developer that knows what makes us jump. The control is just as good as ever (with a slight caveat concerning the camera), the audio is some of the best of the generation, the detail is freakin’ sweet, the pacing is fantastic, and the urgency and tension drives the entire production forward. They do make a few changes; for instance, how we approach the zero-grav environments. This time, you actually hover and move about as if you’re flying, as opposed to the “jumping” mechanic utilized in the first title. While I do have my reservations about the story, and I really think some moments should’ve been reigned in, there’s no denying that DS2 will keep you riveted in place. There are just so many times where you emerge breathless from yet another terrifying encounter, and that’s when you truly appreciate the obvious effort.

Even the co-op multiplayer seems to be a blast; there’s very little in the way of technical issues and in comparison to a lot of shooters, this is a whole new thing. If you can locate a friend who wants to play, you’re bound to have some fun. Co-op is a feature that many desire, and is so often left out of great games; you should definitely take advantage of the option…even if it means issuing a fair warning if your partner isn’t expecting this type of game. Whichever way you approach the gameplay, you should be prepared for one of the most harrowing interactive action dramas out there. It isn’t perfect but it’s well worth your time and money.

The Good: Great visuals and top-notch design. Unbelievable sound effects and good voice acting. Solid, reliable control. Pacing and atmosphere are big highlights. Survival strategy solidifies depth. Sense of emotion, urgency, and tension keeps us entertained at all times.

The Bad: Story doesn’t seem to be as interesting. Vision can be obscured at times. Desired a bit more variation and advancement overall.

The Ugly: “Uh…not sure that was necessary. Holy God.”

1/26/2011   Ben Dutka