When Dead Space hit shelves in 2008, the sci-fi survival horror took the world by storm. With visuals well ahead of its time and an intensity unparalleled in the genre, critics and players alike grew hooked on Isaac Clarke’s journey. Though it didn’t quite do the sales numbers publisher EA wanted to see, the appeal for a sequel was there. And in 2011, Dead Space 2 entered our atmosphere.
This was actually the title that first introduced me to the series. However, like the first game, I never played it all the way through until now. Therefore, as in the previous review for Dead Space, this review too will be completely unbiased of any nostalgia. So, let’s dig into the warm, sticky flesh of Dead Space 2.
Picking up (and dismembering) the pieces
Dead Space 2 picks up three years after the events of the first game, with Isaac waking from a coma to yet another Necromorph outbreak. This time around, we find ourselves on The Sprawl, a space station settlement orbiting Saturn. Like the first game, we follow Isaac as he dismembers his way through hordes of Necromorphs in a desperate attempt to destroy the Marker and flee The Sprawl.
However, this time around Visceral Games added new narrative elements including cinematic cutscenes. In addition, Isaac has a voice this time around, fleshing out his character and giving him a deeper personality. Another crucial story element (which I’ll go into more depth on later) is the aftermath of Isaac’s exposure to the Marker, and how his experience on the USG Ishimura left a haunting scar on his psyche.
A sprawling nightmare
Like its predecessor, Dead Space 2 does a great job at establishing a sense of dread and panic early on through both its visual and audio design. However, instead of slowly uncovering the aftermath of the Necromorph outbreak, this time, the game places you right at its start. In an adrenaline-fueled opening, you’ll run past the carnage of Necromorphs brutalizing the inhabitants of The Sprawl as you try to avoid their clutches.
From there, your journey will take you through dozens of creepy environments. From medical stations to nurseries to the chilling Unitology Church, each location features a macabre atmosphere that will leave you constantly on edge. Whether it’s the blood splattered across the walls or the flashing strobe-like lighting, every room you enter has a distinct feeling of uneasiness.
However, one of my favorite areas you explore in the game is actually the USG Ishimura from the first game. Without knowing it was even in the game, I recognized it even before Isaac commented. And let me tell you, it is truly awe-inspiring revisiting some of the first game’s iconic locations. Though familiar, EarthGov’s work on the ship also gives everything a new presence. For instance, the plastic covering the walls, industrial lights illuminating halls and blacklights shading certain areas in bright purple with bright blood splatter give the whole section a sense of both freshness and familiarity.
Aside from the visual design, the sound also deserves praise for establishing the mood. From the blood-curdling screams of the Necromorphs to the squishy sounds their bodies make when you stomp them into the ground, everything sounds unsettling. One particular enemy type, the baby Necromorphs, Crawlers, are particularly creepy with their infant cries that spell doom if they get too near.
Double the madness
One thing that I wasn’t instantly fond of with Dead Space was how fast-paced the combat felt. So, what I’m going to say next may sound a little hypocritical. The combat in Dead Space 2 is even more fast-paced than the first game, but it’s actually significantly better.
What I mean is that the action-packed moments didn’t feel as smooth in the first game. However, as Dead Space 2 has a larger action emphasis to begin with, alongside smoother controls, the overall gameplay feels way more balanced. Throughout my run, I didn’t feel constantly ill-prepared to fight the nonstop hordes of Necromorphs; instead, each battle, while nerve-wrecking, felt equally fair. Though I had my share of deaths, I didn’t feel like I was in an unbeatable situation, and when I would clear a room, it was extremely satisfying.
Aside from featuring a combat system better balanced for action scenarios, Dead Space 2 also significantly improved the mechanics for the zero-gravity segments. In the first game, you could only jump from platform to platform. However, in the sequel, you could launch off into the air and fly freely around each zero-g area.
Engineering some new and returning mechanics
Other gameplay additions include new weapons, as well as new skill tree paths to upgrade your arsenal at various benches throughout the game. Additionally, the game offers up a new hacking minigame that sees you rotate around a circle until it highlights blue three times. However, this new feature is arguably tedious and often feels more like a chore.
Other gameplay mechanics that return are kinesis and stasis. While you can use both tools in combat to launch environmental objects and slow things down respectively, their best uses come when the game gives you puzzles. Just as in the first game, there are often scenarios in which you’ll need to replace batteries using kinesis or slow hazardous obstacles in order to exit a room. Although none of the puzzles are overly complicated, they do make for a nice change of pace throughout the game.
More set-pieces than you can shake a ripper blade at
Outside of normal gameplay and combat encounters, Dead Space 2 also incorporated action sensibilities in other ways. Most notably, the game sets up some major action set-pieces and places you into cinematic quick-time events. A couple instances of this see you hurdling through space while dodging various debris that can insta-kill you should you fail to maneuver properly.
Another instance where you get thrust into a cinematic QTE is during a sequence when you have to jump between train cars as they explode and separate off the track. Additionally, a later section sends you launching into space alongside a giant Necromorph and sees you both landing on the side of a ship. As explosive tanks float toward you, you must be quick to shoot one in order to blow up the monster before it consumes you whole.
Overall, I think the inclusion of such cinematic set-pieces makes for some truly memorable gameplay moments. While these events do tug away at the immersion and horror in ways the first game kept you locked in, I don’t think the segments are frequent enough to cause a problem. I think there’s a healthy balance of normal gameplay and quick-time events that make the segments feel like welcomed variety instead of distracting immersion breakers.
Sometimes your mind can be just as dangerous
Of everything that Dead Space 2 excels at, however, I believe its use of psychological horror stands out as its greatest narrative component. Following the events of the first game, Isaac’s exposure to the Marker left him mentally fractured. As a result, throughout the entire game, he must bear with ghostly hallucinations of his dead girlfriend Nicole.
In many ways, Isaac’s mind is just as much a threat to him as Necromorphs. We even see how the mental anguish caused by the Marker can affect other people in the form of Nolan Stross. Throughout the course of the game, Stross also receives visions, though he unfortunately cannot fight the intrusive thoughts off the same way Isaac can. Ultimately, he crosses a point of no return, and reveals what could happen to Isaac if he doesn’t destroy the Marker and regain control over his mind.
A motif for guilt
The visions of Nicole adapt and change throughout the course of the game in meaningful ways as well. At one point, it appears as though the visions represent a battle with guilt, as Isaac tries to repress his own feelings of not being in time to save her. However, when he finally accepts that he can move on, her appearance goes from one of a nightmarish ghost to a warm human form.
Isaac’s battle with guilt and moving on also manifests in the form of Ellie. The fellow survivor Isaac meets aids him throughout the game, and the two often share some humorously witty banter throughout. However, her importance is far more significant to Isaac’s growth than just someone to talk to.
In many ways, having the opportunity to save Ellie is a way to rectify Isaac’s inability to save Nicole. He even verbalizes this feeling towards the end of the game when he sends her ship away to safety whilst staying behind to accept his grisly fate. However, the game offers us a happier ending than what many players expected when she flies the ship back in later to save Isaac. The cinematic cutscene that follows the rescue then poetically mirrors that of the first game. Though instead of receiving one final jump scare in the form of a ghostly Nicole, we this time get greeted by Ellie seated next to Isaac. In turn, this symbolizes Isaac’s ultimate ability to break free of his trauma and truly move on.
The final boss is… you
As much as I love Dead Space 2’s emphasis on psychological horror, I do find one area where it misses the mark. Where I felt the first game offered up some truly rewarding boss fights, the second game completely falls flat in this area. In particular, as the intensity ramped up toward the end of the game, it really felt like we were on the verge of another large-scale hive mind fight.
Instead, after Tiedemann’s (morbidly satisfying) death, we are once again faced with Nicole. The “boss” fight that ensues turns the color palate an ugly brown and sees us fight an onslaught of silhouetted Necromorphs while shooting at and dodging Nicole. When you deal enough damage to her, you can then fire at the Marker. Eventually, you destroy it and the game’s ending sequence starts.
I see what Visceral Games was trying to do here by re-emphasizing that the worst antagonist of them all was Isaac’s own deteriorating psyche. However, from a gameplay perspective, this gauntlet felt like a severely underwhelming way to end an otherwise flawless game. I just wish they would have done something more creative. They even could have made you fight a giant Nicole to keep the narrative aspect while making the final encounter appear more grand.
Concluding thoughts on Dead Space 2
Overall, however, I think Dead Space 2 is a great follow-up to the first game. By fully committing to an action-horror premise, the game builds off the foundations of the first title by presenting gameplay that feels far more balanced than its predecessor. Making additional improvements like giving Isaac a voice, making the zero-gravity controls more fluid and placing a higher degree of focus on the psychological effects of the Marker, Dead Space 2 more than delivers as a sequel.
Even with the disappointing lack of memorable boss fights, the game remains a solid step-up overall by taking Isaac’s journey on a far grander scale than the previous entry. Stunning level design, especially in the return to the Ishimura, stand out even more so here than they did in the first game, and every area feels uniquely disturbing. In essence, I think Dead Space 2 is an all-around improvement on the first game and stands out as a must-play for survival horror gamers.
What do you think about Dead Space 2? Do you agree with my take? Or do you think my review misses the mark? As always, let us know what you think in the comments. In addition, be sure to check out my review of the first Dead Space in case you missed it!