In many ways, Dead Space 2 is the perfect sequel to an already excellent video game. It takes the best components of its predecessor and develops them in new and interesting ways, alters or removes the parts that didn’t work, and polishes everything in-between until the whole thing gleams. I also didn’t like it anywhere near as much as I thought I would.
It’s difficult to really articulate why, because Dead Space 2 is better than Dead Space in pretty much every way. It’s also a wholly different game, with a peculiar focus on telling a story which I suspect nobody really cares about, and telling that story in a way which runs contrary to what made the minimalist narrative of the first game such a pleasure to unravel. Also, it isn’t scary, which for a purported survival horror game is a pretty big deal.
One of my few complaints about the original Dead Space was the way it handled its horror elements, let down as it was by predictability, cliché, and a dogged refusal to only use a good idea once. Dead Space 2, while still very much having the potential to startle and unnerve, instils even less genuine fear in the player because of a greater focus on action and Isaac Clarke’s characterisation rather than the addressing of those issues. This isn’t me trying to flaunt my masculinity either. Everything scares me. I don’t watch horror films on my own, ever, and I try my best to not play, read or otherwise be exposed to anything scary without having someone or something to hide behind. If I’m laughing at your horror, then you’re doing it wrong.
Dead Space 2 is also trying a lot harder than the original, and it shows. The depiction of Isaac’s wavering mental stability in particular, manifesting itself periodically as a ghostly apparition of his dead girlfriend, is an incredibly misguided and ineffectual attempt at making the game scarier. Meanwhile, necromorphs still play dead and spring out of the same vents exactly how they did in the first game. All the extra effort that has gone into layering more overt horror clichés over the top of what is already a shaky foundation collapses a lot of the intended atmosphere.
This time around though, Isaac Clarke is the strongest aspect of the game’s fiction rather than the weakest. At first I was sceptical of abandoning Isaac’s mutism, which in the original game gave him an affecting dignity, but Gunner Wright’s portrayal of the character is strong enough to keep a lot of the weak links held together with some reasonably convincing human drama. A lot of the subtlety is lost and the character is a little too glib for a man who is as psychologically scarred as we’re led to believe, but he’s interesting enough that deciphering the last three years of his life is another facet of the game we can actually care about.
In terms of setting, the differences between one game and the other are admittedly marginal; the Sprawl maintains the same near-future industrialism and intentionally muted colour palette that characterised the dark, claustrophobic corridors of the USG Ishimura, but what sets it apart from both a mechanical and aesthetic standpoint is a real sense of it being habitable. Seeing the gradual destruction of a place that could have conceivably sustained an entire community resonates far deeper that it did aboard the harsh, mechanical husk that was the setting of the first game.
Actually navigating the game world is more fluid and natural too. Isaac feels a little quicker, a little more dynamic, and has a more effective repertoire of melee attacks to fall back on when things get too close for comfort. The impressive zero-G sections from the first game make a triumphant return; this time allowing you to retain full control of Isaac as you guide him through the air dynamically, rather than just from one bit of solid ground to another, and the wonderfully organic interface which really defined the original is still as impressive now as it was then.
The most jarring aspect of Dead Space 2 is the sheer regularity and intensity of its combat. When the original descended into third-person-corridor-shooter territory it felt a little clumsy, but luckily Dead Space 2 is built to accommodate the fast-paced, brutal violence much more comfortably. The various engineering tools which function as Isaac’s arsenal are still just as inventive and tactically satisfying to use, while all the new toys and necromorph variations on which to use them are as thoughtfully designed and implemented as one would expect from this franchise.
What makes the combat so consistently gratifying and exciting is its dynamism. Even though entering a room which contains a particular MacGuffin, ample ventilation and piles of ammunition will always result in a space-monster jamboree, there is a palpable panic as you drag Isaac around the room grabbing the loot and trying to spot all the potential entry points which grabs hold of you and never let’s go. There are always too many enemies, who are always too fast, and the stacks of ammunition you just gathered never quite stretch far enough for you to ever feel comfortable. Sometimes you’ll be forced to abandon tactics completely, instead running around the room picking up bits of dead necromorph with kinesis and trying to fling them at your pursuers. Other times an explosion will result in the windows being blown out and the room rapidly de-pressurizing, with Isaac being dragged along the floor towards the vast nothingness of space, given only seconds to shoot the emergency lock and seal the chamber.
Is this stuff scary? No, not really. It is, however, phenomenally tense and exciting. That the series now has a more conventional, action-heavy style is clearly a result of the first game underperforming commercially, and while the few existing scares have been sacrificed as a result of it, what Dead Space 2 does it does so well that criticising it on those grounds isn’t fair or useful to anyone. I don’t like the abandonment of the nuanced environmental storytelling either, but I suspect there are few people who really care more about what the necromorphs are and where they came from than they do about slicing them up with various futuristic industrial tools. So, while Dead Space 2 isn’t the groundbreaking extravaganza I was led to believe, it’s still a remarkably solid, imaginative and enjoyable video game.