It was interesting to see the fan reaction to the pre-launch marketing push for Dead Space 2. The universal sentiment surrounding the trailers and first-look screenshots seemed to be, "It doesn't look as scary as the first one," and that apparently was just about the worst possible thing that could happen.
I was of that mindset going into the review as well, I thought the first Dead Space had done a masterful job of being genuinely creepy thanks to an atmosphere thick with dread and foreboding, two horribly underutilised elements in gaming narrative.
But as I began to delve into the second chapter of this space odyssey, I realized that I wasn't really scared at all. If anything, I was walking around the space station like I owned the place, stomping Necromorphs the way a seasoned exterminator steps on any roaches who happen to scurry underfoot. But rather than be disappointed by the lack of scares, I accepted it as a logical evolution of the storyline, and really, so should you.
It's easy to excuse Visceral for dropping the "Tin Man" role Issac Clarke played to such critical acclaim in the first Dead Space because it doesn't make sense for him to lumber around in a metal suit in search of a heart a second time.
Having survived the first nightmare, he's now better equipped to deal with the Necromorph outbreak in the same way Sigourney Weaver's Ripley was better able to handle the Aliens in the action-oriented second installment of that classic sci-fi franchise.
So no, Dead Space 2 isn't nearly as scary as the original, and yes, it's way more focused on action, but do whatever you have to do to convince yourself that this is a good thing because it is. See, the first Dead Space succeeded in scaring us because we were dealing with the unknown. Issac, and by extension the gamer controlling him, was up against an unfamiliar enemy who was playing by a set of rules you hadn't fully learned, which was why every corner, every dimly lit hallway and every seemingly innocuous air vent posed a viable threat. When every shadow hides a potential death, you learn to fear the darkness.
But if you walk through the valley of death and defeat the monsters that call it home, the shadows stop being so menacing, which is why Issac Clarke, and by extension the gamer controlling him, stops running from the Necromorphs and faces them head on in the sequel.
That doesn't make the game worse than the original, just different. And while many fans will be turned off by the switch in design philosophy, those willing to give the game a fair shot will find plenty to like about the bigger and badder sequel, even if the chills you get are mostly of the cheap, "zombie dog crashing through the window in Resident Evil 2" variety.
Gamers who loved dissecting Necromorphs will be especially pleased as the gameplay hasn't changed much. If anything, outside of a few small improvements and tweaks, the gameplay hasn't changed at all. It's hard to even pinpoint the biggest addition because they're all mostly cosmetic, the sum of their parts, however, does make the game much more fun to play.
There are a handful of new weapons, like the javelin gun which fires spikes that can impale enemies onto walls and electrocute them to death. The Locator System has been upgraded to not only point out your next objective, but the nearest shop, save point and work bench, a really useful upgrade which I used a lot. New inventive enemies offer some interesting opportunities for you to play amateur surgeon, the little gray screech babies are the best.
There are also a handful of fun new twists to the standard "shoot their legs then stomp their heads" gameplay, including space station windows that can be broken to suck enemies out into space and metal spikes which can be shot with telekinesis to impale Necromorphs onto walls. The perspective bending zero-gravity segments are also gone, with Issac simply using small booster rockets built into his suit to zoom around.
The bothersome segments where you have to race around in a vacuum while your O2 levels slowly tick down have been diminished, keeping the action flowing smoothly from one level to the next. Power nodes can be purchased in stores, making upgrades less of a painful "Sophie's Choice" ordeal, and Issac can don new outfits like the beefy Security Suit and the sleek, mecha-anime Advance Suit.
The new multiplayer component also adds value and although I was only able to play about two hours of it before launch, it was enjoyable enough that I will definitely log a few matches when the game launches. While it isn't anything groundbreaking,the matches I played all featured the human faction trying to achieve objectives while the necromorph army did everything they could to stop them, the experience is novel enough to feel like it's something new and unique.
The human faction relies on superior firepower and copious item drops to compensate for the necromorph faction's overwhelming speed and sheer strength of numbers, but the competitive balance is fairly even and makes for some thrilling moments. Dead Space's lumbering, methodical nature isn't ideally suited to the fast, chaotic pace of multiplayer, but it's a fun feature that complements the single player component nicely.
As a gaming experience, Dead Space 2 is pretty awesome, and has a lot to offer over the course of the nine hours it takes to reach the end. Complaints are few and far between, but the two biggest issues I had were the meager number of show-stopping moments that left you muttering "Holy shit," and the thin plot, which recycles a lot of the tropes found in the first game.
Issac once again spends the entire game cluelessly following the orders of one NPC after another, and finds himself falling for some of the same old tricks he's already fallen for. I also wish he had gotten a grip instead of shambling around in an emotional daze the entire game. The game doesn't do nearly enough to delve into the mystery of the Marker and the origins of the Necromorph menace, either, and while there are some allusions made to the nature of the Marker's signal, anyone hoping for meaningful answers will have to wait for the inevitable third installment.
But Dead Space 2 isn't necessarily about understanding the Necromorph threat so much as it is about finally giving Issac a chance to stomp, literally and figuratively, those who have wronged him in the past. He's been pushed around by the disgusting, mutated Necromorph army, the sinister bureaucrats of EarthGov, and the dogmatic zealots of the Church of Unitology long enough, and in a nod to the facetious "This time it's personal" tagline which is jokingly attached to every sequel, he's been given the opportunity to give them all a taste of the underside of his heavily armoured boot.
The fact that Visceral boldly ignored the fan fervour and pulled the franchise forward in a logical and thrilling direction is commendable, and even though they'll get their fair share of close-minded bitching that the game fails to live up to the gory heights of the original, it's still a worthy follow-up to the tense opening chapter.