While not mutually exclusive, horror and terror are two different sensations. Horror is more about building an atmosphere, while terror is about building tension. Dead Space 2, a sci-fi survival horror game developed by Visceral Games, achieves both sensations. It also manages to be an incredibly slick third-person sci-fi shooter, more so than the first game. This is most likely due to its efficient mechanics and the linear progression of its campaign. Dead Space 2 benefits from a streamlined experience and a strong characterization of its protagonist, while maintaining an atmosphere and an increased action quota.
Dead Space 2 continues the story of Isaac Clarke, an engineer who wakes up after being in a coma for three years. He finds himself on the Sprawl, which is a massive space station built off the remains of Saturn’s moon Titan, the first harvested celestial mass. He soon discovers that he hasn’t escaped the catastrophic ordeal that occurred aboard the USG Ishimura, a planet-mining starship. The station has been overrun by Necromorphs, which are monsters made of grotesquely mutated reanimated corpse. Using his wits and sharp shooting skills honed during the first game, Isaac must escape the station and destroy the Red Marker, the artifact that creates Necromorphs and causes malevolent hallucinations. Isaac is also caught in the middle of an external struggle between Earth Government and the Unitologists, a group of fanatic zealots who inadvertently assist in the creation of Necromorphs by preserving their dead.
The most interesting facet of the game’s story is Isaac himself. He is the ideal survival-horror protagonist. By giving him a voice, it is hard to see how he was ever characterized in the first game without one. He is tormented by the fact that his girlfriend Nicole died on the Ishimura and overwhelmed by the guilt that he encouraged her to take a job aboard it. Now her menacing apparition plagues him. And while he is capable of utilizing all of the game’s various unique weapons, his mental anguish torments him. The perpetual menace and dread of The Sprawl causes his desperation to become palpable. This makes the vividly conceived environments all the more horrifying.
The element of terror derives from Dead Space 2’s gameplay. The controls are vastly improved over the first game, while still not overpowering you to the point of losing that sense of vulnerability. The button layout much more strongly resembles the conventions of modern third-person shooter design. No longer do you have to be aiming to manually reload your weapon. The stasis ability now recharges itself overtime. Stasis packs can be used outside of the in-game real time inventory menu. One of the more touted additions is the enhanced use of telekinesis. Now you can grab sharp pointy objects like spikes and claws off dead Necromorphs and use them as a viable weapon. Again these changes don’t negate the sense of impeding danger that is constantly being flung at you from all angles, but it will better acclimate players who are used to traditional nut and bolt shooters. Zero gravity sections allow you fly around the environment with jet propulsion boots. Going back and seeing Isaac jump from wall to wall during these sections in the first game now seems quaint.
Thankfully quick-time events are used tastefully, in fact this game ranks up there with Resident Evil 4and the God of War series as the best use of QTEs. While its not uncommon to occasionally be caught off guard by the button sequenced interactive cut scenes, at least the game has the decency to give you an entertaining (if horrifying) death scene. The game also mercifully gives you plenty of checkpoints throughout its campaign, provided you’re not playing on hard core mode. On somewhat of a side note the reliance on checkpoints has been a bit of hindrance on shooters of late. However this is a survival-horror game and save points are supposed to be spread out. So in this case it is quite appropriate.
Multiplayer is the other major addition to Dead Space 2. It is easy to see this component as a bit tacked on and the truth is that while fun it isn’t entirely necessary. You play as either Titan Security (Humans) or the Necromorph. The Necromorphs are more numerous and easier to kill while the human are armored and earn less points per kill. There are five maps and each one plays as a sort of variation on capture and defend. Humans usually have to be on the offensive while the Necromorphs are trying to defend specific hot points until time runs out. While it’s admirable that the multiplayer attempts to tie into the greater narrative in very loose way, there isn’t a substantial amount of depth nor is it very featured. That being said, playing as a Necromorph while brutally massacring the human team is quite satisfying.
Sound design is definitely a major accomplishment in Dead Space 2. By virtue of necessity, every sound is slick, poppy, or squishy. Open transmissions with other characters are artfully distorted. The music is creepy and unobtrusive, but exciting for the larger set pieces. There is usually a constant hum throughout The Sprawl, which is an archetype of the space-horror genre. The visuals are equally incredibly, especially the zero-g sequences outside The Sprawl in the midst of space. However be warned Dead Space 2is an incredibly dark game (literally, but figuratively as well of course).
Dead Space 2 is a major accomplishment because it fully integrates both horror and terror into its presentation. Few horror games are this genuinely unnerving. The controls have been tightened and the action has been streamlined. The story sticks because of its protagonist, who exemplifies what these types of games are supposed to be about. Multiplayer is enjoyable but non-essential. Dead Space 2 shows that there can still be life in this frequently undead genre.