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Posted on Feb 9, 2011 in Electronic Games

Dead Space 2 – PC Game Review

By James Pikover

Dead Space 2. PC Game.  Publisher: Electronic Arts. Developer: Visceral Games. $59.99.

Passed Inspection: The most immersive videogame yet. Excellent score and combat. Memorable.

Failed Basic: Weak multiplayer. Not enough open areas. Some weak character and plot elements.

Dead Space 2 is a sequel sci-fi/horror thriller 3rd person shooter where protagonist Isaac Clarke fights to survive and destroy an alien menace. Based on Titan station, a space station in the deep reaches of space, Clarke discovers that for the past three years an unknown group has been probing his mind to build an alien device which, in turn, caused the mass death and further zombification of the human population in the prior game.

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For some background, the original Dead Space also featured Clarke, an engineer, who was sent to repair the communications on a ship called the Ishimura. His crew is quickly killed and he scours the ship to find a way to escape, where he learns of the Marker, an ancient alien artifact which reanimates the dead into Necromorphs, deadly creatures whose only purpose is to kill humans, and drives the living insane. Clarke managed to destroy it and survive, though he was taken by those who would rebuild the Marker to learn from it, disregarding the possible consequences. Anyone not familiar with the original game can watch an included video to fill in the missing plot gaps.

The introduction of Dead Space 2 is one of the best in any videogame, which I won’t spoil for interested buyers, though it is online if you wish to watch it. It doesn’t take long for players to realize what’s going on, and a roller coaster of anticipation, scenes intentionally meant to shock, and gruesome insanity unfolds quickly. Dead Space 2 is not a game for a weak stomach, and while it doesn’t afflict the sensibilities, it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. After all, developer Visceral Games also made the videogame version of Dante’s Inferno.

It should be noted that, at least in this writer’s opinion, the first playthrough of the game is the most pertinent. The shock and awe almost fully disappears when you know what’s coming, just like a horror movie, so selecting the difficulty setting is important. Normal and Easy modes are both relaxed, with plenty of ammunition and money to collect and use. It’s recommended that if you want to experience the game’s story properly without many interruptions or restarts, to select the Normal or Survivalist setting. For authenticity, the harder difficulties are of course optimal, though this is based solely on your style of play. Just the same, adjusting to the controls is a serious learning process because of the functions, and adapting to various environments and using unconventional weapons is also critical, especially at harder difficulties. This creative combat takes time to learn, and even more time to become second nature. After all, Dead Space 2 relies almost solely on player’s anticipation or lack thereof.

This feeling of constant anticipation is surprisingly well done, mostly thanks to a brilliant musical score, and often the utter deadness of space. Slight tones and minimal music, if any, provoke an eerie silence that causes suspense. It’s only when a giant husk jumps out of a ceiling hatch or a wall that the pace of music changes suddenly, and by then it’s too late, the chase is on. And as fast as the music arrived, it disappears just as quickly once combat has ended, peaking ever so gently with a ring of success. This battle is won, it tells players. The pace of music is so brilliantly done that players can’t help but sit at the edge of their seat, no matter how hardened.

Unfortunately, the tale of Isaac Clarke – a derivative of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke – is far too easy to dismiss after a certain point. He is toyed with nearly every step of the way, but never has a choice to do otherwise. His condition, a form of dementia acquired from coming into content with the Marker, causes him to see his dead girlfriend time and time again, but players can’t make an emotional connection with her. She literally haunts him, and while Clarke as a character cares and feels for her, we can’t.

Dead Space 2 features several unique aspects to combat. First is called “strategic dismemberment”, a system which rewards players for shooting off limbs of enemies instead of aiming for the chest. Because Necromorphs aren’t actually alive, shooting them in the chest does minimal damage, whereas removing a leg, arm or head cuts their mobility until they have none, and ‘die’. Second is the selection of weapons, most of which are futuristic mining tools. The Plasma Cutter, Line Gun, Javelin Gun and others are all repurposed to eviscerate Necromorphs through strategic dismemberment.

All weapons also include an alternate fire mode. For instance, the Line Gun can drop a mine, or the Pulse Rifle shoots a grenade. These secondary firing modes are critical at times, especially since only four weapons can be held at any one time. And depending on the suit of armor players have, only so many items can be stored in the inventory, including ammunition for those weapons. That leads into the scarcity mechanic, which is especially relevant on harder difficulty settings. On Normal or Easy, players can fire at will, and don’t have to worry about running out of ammo. On harder difficulties however, things get tricky. One strategy is to line enemies up, while another is to use kinesis, which allows Clarke to pick up objects in the environment and shoot them at Necromorphs, such as poles or spikes, large containers, or even the sharp claws Necromorphs grow. Finally, players can slow down enemies using stasis, which dramatically slows down enemies and surrounding objects.

Used in tandem, this combat system allows for so many variations that it would be impossible for two identical scenarios to ever end the same. There are even environmental cues that players should keep their eyes open for, such as shooting out airlocks or canisters of stasis fluid. Once again, it takes time to adjust to using the environment instead of simply shooting standard weapons, so choose the difficulty based on your learning curve, and your overall nerve.

Weapons can be upgraded to increase damage, speed, reload time, ammo capacity, alternate firing damage, and plenty more. Upgrades to any weapons, the rig (armor) and the stasis module are done on workbenches, scattered on every level. Collected power nodes can be used to upgrade the weapons on a point-by-point basis, though power nodes are rare and expensive to purchase. Upgrading one weapon fully is difficult in a single playthrough, and four is next to impossible. The variation of weapons will also take time to work out, to discover which guns suit your playing style best.

It is a shame then that the majority of gameplay takes place in small, cramped corridors and tiny rooms. There are never any people to save, nor is there ever a mission besides getting to a checkpoint and flipping a switch. Zero gravity sections are tremendously fun, but far too rare. However, the sheer intensity of the plot setup, in which Clarke is entangled far more than he could even know, is astounding in so many ways.

The single player campaign takes roughly ten hours to complete, with minimal deaths. Upon completion, a new game+ mode becomes available, which carries over all the abilities and items from the previous completion, so players don’t have to restart on a harder difficulty from scratch.

A multiplayer component is also available in Dead Space 2, featuring a monsters versus humans objective-based game modes, which are fun at first but don’t have the longevity needed to stay relevant. In my time with multiplayer, the gameplay got tiresome quickly, though playing in teams with friends will add much life to the nearly barren multiplayer. That said, the online component is a novelty, especially when compared to the single-player campaign.

Dead Space 2 is the most immersive game I’ve ever played. It demands the volume be turned up, the lights turned off and pitch black around your screen, and yet I was just as intensely focused in broad daylight, with birds chirping outside and the volume down to not scare the neighbors. In this one regard, there is no game that can compete. So while Dead Space 2 won’t frighten players, it will leave them walking a tightrope, hanging on the edge of a cliff, at all times. Ironically, battle-hardened soldiers will feel right at home in this thrilling, action-packed game.

Armchair General Rating: 93%

About the Author:

James Pikover is a veteran videogame and technology critic, covering high-profile games and hardware from coast to coast. He’s managed to continue being a PC gamer—against all odds—in the face of a monstrous console generation. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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