Oh, the aliens I have slain. Over the past ten or so hours I have decapitated, reamed, stomped, stabbed, incinerated, frozen, crushed, sliced, airlocked, vivisected, lanced, bludgeoned, impaled, electrocuted, detonated, blasted, buzz-sawed, and flame-throwered more space-beasts than I could hope to count. I have carved myself a horrible path of destruction, leaving in my wake a dripping trail of gore that would make Ash Williams himself a bit queasy. Forget about Doom and Serious Sam; Dead Space 2 is the new king of extra-terrestrial carnage.
Picking up an unknown amount of time after the events of the first Dead Space, Dead Space 2 again follows the portentously named engineer Isaac Clarke, this time as he makes his way through the innards, outards and around-ards of a massive space station called The Sprawl. Isaac has lost his memory and a fair bit of his mind, and is attempting both to discover what happened to him and to escape the facility alive. Both goals are made more difficult by—surprise!—an outbreak of the same screaming necromorph monsters that he supposedly exterminated at the end of the first game.
Over the course of Isaac's journey we learn some stuff about a cult, or maybe a government conspiracy, and something about brainwashing... we meet a supremely ill-developed human antagonist, as well as some other characters
I'm not sure about the finer points, actually, since try though developer Visceral may, the Whys and Wheres of this particular story don't matter one tenth as much as the Hows. Dead Space 2 boils down to about thirty reps of the following: You must traverse from point A to point B. In your path are a couple dozen lumbering, squishy beasts. Have fun.
And it is fun, as far as it goes. When I fired up Dead Space 2, the first thing I had to do was to put away all memories of Amnesia: The Dark Descent and simply embrace the game I was playing, rather than the game I wanted to play. That's because despite its horror moniker, Dead Space 2 is not all that frightening. It's more tense than terrifying, a sci-fi thriller with lots of shocking gore and jump-scares as well as heaps of ultraviolence. And as far as gameplay goes, it is also very much the game it wants to be.
The fundamental "dismember to kill" combat feels as fresh as it did in Dead Space. Since most necromorphs shrug off bodily damage until Isaac slices off their limbs, players spend most of their time dispatching foes with saws and plasma-cutters, opting for blades instead of bullets. Isaac's also got a handy telekinesis-ray that lets him pluck loose alien limbs out of the air and use them to skewer their former owners, as well as a borderline-overpowered stasis gun that freezes enemies and allows for more measured dissection.
Much has been made of Isaac's new personality transplant, though the final results are more of a mixed bag then they perhaps could've been. The silent Isaac Clarke of Dead Space was an unknowable stoic, dutifully working his way through a derelict spaceship in search of a lost love who eventually turned out to be a nefarious figment of his imagination. Isaac's silence played to the suffocating loneliness of the game, which in turn brought its gameplay contrasts into stark relief—the black vacuum of space sat neatly against the shreiking, strobe-lit chaos of a necromorph attack.
In Dead Space 2, Isaac has both a voice and a face. He even emotes from time to time, sometimes quite convincingly. He is carrying around some fairly severe emotional baggage relating to Nicole, his lost love from the first game. But the finer points of his fragile mental state, as well as his character arc throughout the story, are lost amid a cacophony of flashing lights and distorted vocal filters, with no clear "ah-ha!" moment of denouement, self-realization or catharsis.
In spite of some fantastic sound design, Dead Space 2's noisiness is often at cross-purposes with what makes space-horror so atmospherically compelling. Visceral has mastered the art of the set-up: In a dimly-lit corridor, a trail of blood leads off into the shadows as a hanging light slowly swings on its chain. The air-conditioning rumbles on and all but masks the low, discordant strings of Jason Graves' suitably creepy orchestral score. As Isaac cautiously moves forward, a bucket slowly rolls from around the corner ahead.
But once the enemies do come crashing forth, all elegance and nuance goes out the window. Encounters enter a predictable rhythm with surprising speed; by midway through the third chapter I felt prepared for anything that came my way. It doesn't help that enemy AI is all but non-existent—with the exception of a single species, necromorphs are brain-dead animals that simply scream and charge at the first sight of Isaac. The scripting of the encounters is laughably predictable as well—at one point I powered up some computer servers to my left, only to have a monster come crashing down from the ceiling next to them. I then powered up the computer servers on the right and lo, an identical creature crashed down from the ceiling next to them! Pending attacks are further signposted by contrived stashes of throwable lances, explosive canisters and ammunition. Oh hey, someone left a bunch of power-ups lying around. I wonder if I'm about to get swarmed.
I may sound a bit put out by all of this, but the core gameplay of Dead Space 2 is still weighty, punchy fun. Even if all the vivisecting becomes a bit rote after five or six hours, it never exactly gets old. Visceral has created a world in which things have real heft to them—metal body-suits contract and lock into place with satisfying clicks and pops, alien limbs are severed with disgustingly satisfying cracks, and mucus, blood and viscera splat and explode with palpable physicality. When Isaac stomps monsters beneath his feet, he begins to scream from behind his helmet, a panicked, desperate cry that's all but drowned out by the pounding of metal boots into flesh. Visceral Games, indeed.
Dead Space 2 is exceptionally polished, as well. The development team has clearly taken a few notes from Uncharted producers Naughty Dog, eliminating loading screens and periodically taking control away from the player by creating semi-interactive cutscenes that, while occasionally a bit incoherent, do a lot to shake up the action. Better, the zero-gravity segments that were such a strange and underutilized highlight of the first Dead Space make a much-improved return. When the gravity goes out, Isaac can pretty much fly, and this allows him to tackle cool three-dimensional puzzles in large spaces that occasionally recall the throbbing loneliness of the first game.
Still in all, the bulk of Dead Space 2 is spent backed into a corner, mowing down rows of aliens before moving through a doorway and pressing a button. It's all so up-front, so charmlessly literal. Extraterrestrial horror can easily play on our fears of the unknown, from the twisted rape-and-impregnation undertones of Aliens to Event Horizon's claustrophobia and fearsome trans-dimensional afterlife. In other words, each of Dead Space's influences has a certain imaginative spark that allows for viscerally exciting action while also digging a bit deeper than just "The enemies are ugly and must be killed in a creative fashion."
But hey, that's really okay. As pure pop entertainment, Dead Space 2 is plenty satisfying, and it is the most spectacularly gory piece of work I've seen in ages. I suppose it says a lot that even after so many hours of alien slaughter, I'm tempted to fire up my New Game Plus, crank the sound system and return to The Sprawl. There's this buzz-saw that I've been itching to try out. I bet it severs limbs really effectively.
Dead Space 2 was developed by Visceral Games and published by Electronic Arts. It is available on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. A 360 copy of the game was played for review.
Kirk Hamilton is Paste's games editor. He is a musician and writer in San Francisco and can be found online at Kirkhamilton.com and on Twitter @kirkhamilton. Email him at Kirk [at] PasteMagazine [dot] com.
Watch the trailer for Dead Space 2: