If chopped liver had an afterlife…
In many ways, the gaming industry is like one big reanimation factory for the undead that gives new life to old, decaying matter. Ideas get rehashed, recombined, and recycled year after year in game after game.
[image1]And the original Dead Space was no different. It revisited familiar science-fiction tropes and mashed them together with the shooting mechanics of Resident Evil 4. But what set it above other similar games wasn’t how it was put together; it was how you took things apart.
Like a fleshy version of Asteroids, Dead Space tasked you with blasting space zombies apart into smaller pieces until they could be stomped underfoot and milked for ammo and health pickups. Rather than emphasize headshots, Dead Space encouraged you to aim for limbs and joints. Dead Space 2 doesn’t fiddle with that core design, but it dresses it up in a much longer game with much more colorful and varied environments and an all-new multiplayer mode.
Not content with the original’s mix of Alien-meets-Resident-Evil, Dead Space 2 adds a whole freezer-full of old meat to the pile. Sequences and plot twists are borrowed from Gears of War, BioShock, Half-Life 2, Manhunt 2, Doom 3, and more movies and games than I can possibly name in this review. But this isn’t a bad thing. As I said, the gaming industry thrives on breathing new life into old ideas, and Dead Space 2 does its level best to make it all seem fresh and vital.
Waking as an amnesiac in a straightjacket, Isaac Clarke finds himself in a government research facility where, you guessed it, all hell has broken loose. He soon reclaims his plasma cutter and suit and gets back to the business of blowing the arms and legs off of meaty baddies.
The plot and political conflict going on in the background start off surprisingly well, but after a particularly groan-worthy plot twist taken straight from the playbook of one of its biggest influences (I’ll forgo naming which one in order to preserve the awful surprise), the game starts a long and drawn-out process of meandering from senseless plot twist to senseless plot twist. This wouldn’t be so bad if the shooting mechanics and level design didn’t also start hitting dull notes at the same time.
[image2]Some late-game surprises are worth the trip, but with so much bombast and thrill-a-minute pacing in the game’s front third, the last two-thirds of the game feel like a series of disappointing letdowns by comparison. Enemies repeat, corridors start looking the same, and the plot falls to pieces.
As with the original, the sequel knocks it out of the park with its lighting effects and sound design. To rephrase Sam Elliot in The Big Lebowski, "the mood abides". Lights flicker, smoke wafts through hallways, projectors go on the fritz, and, of course, darkness pervades. Environmental noises blend together with the score to make eerie musical pieces that combine machine parts, screams, and synthesized tones. This is a game made to be played late at night with the lights off and nothing but you, your headphones, and a phone to call your momma.
But once the cracks start showing in the façade about a third of the way through, no amount of moodiness can prevent you from realizing that there are only a small handful of predictable enemy types and that the plot has meandered into too many different twists and turns to be coherent. By the end of the fourth or fifth chapter—out of fifteen—you’ll have seen the best that Dead Space 2 has to offer. All of its surprises, shocks, and innovations will already have been completely spent.
There are some new weapon additions in Dead Space 2, but the plasma cutter and pulse rifle are still your best bet just as they were in the first game. There’s little reason to experiment with the new telekinesis abilities or other new weapons—unless you’re just hungry for Achievements/Trophies. And while the new spacewalking sections are promising, they never feel pushed to their full potential. These few zero-G sections are no more than gratuitous gate puzzles that are about as brainless as a Necromorph’s country cousin.
EA’s new online pass also poses something of a problem. If you buy this game used, borrow it from a friend, or happen to be a game reviewer, you’ll be greeted by a screen every time you boot up the game that asks you to buy the online pass. Even if you choose to skip the message, it returns from the dead each time you start a new session. It’s a small annoyance, but it’s also an egregious and unforgivable one.
[image3]The addition of multiplayer is, as one might expect, utterly forgettable. It’s a less strategic and more claustrophobic version of Left 4 Dead’s survivors vs. infected gameplay with too much emphasis on close-quarters melee and shooting. It might offer a small incentive to keep playing after you’ve finished the single-player campaign, but at that point, you’re much better off jumping into a new-game-plus replay. This mediocre multiplayer offering is merely a bullet point to add to the back of the box.
Missteps aside, Dead Space 2 has some of the most beautiful art and sound design ever in a game, and for that reason alone it deserves your attention. Sure, the actual shooting doesn’t step out from under its predecessor’s shadow, but fans of the series and of the sci-fi and horror genres will find plenty to keep their interest. It’s only disappointing because it opens so strongly, and even at its most derivative, Dead Space 2 still stands well above most other shooters in its mechanics and setting.
Like Frankenstein’s monster, Dead Space 2 is an assemblage of preexisting parts brought to exciting new life. And like seeing the living dead, it’s impressive for a little while… then they start clawing for your brain.