Review: In space, no one can hear your arms get ripped off.
Horror is a great way to get noticed. It's worked for so many directors; Steven Spielberg with Jaws, Sam Raimi with Evil Dead, John Carpenter with Halloween, even art house regulars like Roman Polanski and David Cronenberg would agree, shock your audience and they'll come back for more. Developer Visceral Games has proved that the same rule applies with video games. Until the original Dead Space in 2008, they'd been toiling in relative obscurity on movie properties like James Bond 007: Agent Under Fire and Lord of the Rings: The Third Age. Never mind the big franchise names, it was Dead Space that put them on people's radars. With the success of their first original property, Visceral Games now faces the challenge of a follow up. Will Dead Space 2 keep players pants-less with fright?
It's appropriate that Visceral Games started off on movie-licensed properties, as the Dead Space games are so cinematic. Like the original, Dead Space 2 has no HUD. Information such as health and ammo is displayed on protagonist Isaac's gear. Freed from that visual clutter, the game sucks you in and creeps you out like a good scary movie. Set in an orbiting space colony where lights flicker, horrors lurk, and violent dismemberment waits around every corner, Dead Space 2 is for those who like to sweat while they game.
The movie comparisons continue; the combination of creeping horror and industrialized deep space is reminiscent (some would say derivative) of Alien and Event Horizon. The Necromorph enemies are something out of John Carpenter's The Thing, former human beings, now mutated flesh crimes. They attack with a single-minded focus that brings to mind any good zombie movie. Critical consumers of such shocking fare will be pleased, the game isn't just parroting back tropes from horror movies. It understands the cinematic presentation of those films and applies it, for a truly dread inducing experience. Lights flicker to create taunting shadows, enemies scuttle past windows, and unsettling noises will have you steeling yourself before venturing further. Dead Space 2 knows the importance of the tease, subjecting the player to tortuous bouts of cat and mouse before unleashing hell.
This tension makes the battles downright cathartic. After stressing about what may or may not be skulking in the shadows, it's a relief to torch a Necro with your flamethrower, or perforate one with your assault rifle. While the greatest strife is still the sight unseen, Dead Space 2 ups the ante on both the enemy hordes and your tools for dealing with them. Among Isaac's new toys are a flamethrower, an assault rifle, and the Javelin gun, which pins Necromorphs to the wall, where they flail amusingly before expiring. Hardcore survival horror fans might be disappointed to find that Dead Space 2 is more of a shooter than the original. Still, even with your considerable arsenal, you're either quick or your dead. Missing is a waste of precious ammo, and letting an enemy dig into you for more than a second means a gruesome end.
Speaking of unpleasant ways to die, you'd be hard pressed to find a game with more repugnant deaths animations. They're long and lingering, Isaac struggles valiantly, only to be torn limb from limb, eviscerated, decapitated, melted, burned and crushed. This is a game with decadent levels of violence. Beasts jam their spiky limbs into your face, rip off your head, then separate your legs from torso, and that's just one animation. There's a comical obsession with dismemberment. Shatter a station window and the vacuum of space pull's you toward the opening. Up come the emergency shutters, only to catch and sever both your arms, leaving the maimed hero to writhe and die. This carnage, which took center stage in the gauche ?Your mom hates Dead Space 2? marketing campaign, becomes a weak link. Not simply because the stomach churning gore turns off many players, but because they're long, dragged out, and highly repetitious. Ask anyone who took the ?Bloody Mess? perk in Fallout 3; when every death is a shower of brains and guts it begins to lose its effect. If you can stomach the nastiness, you'll be rolling your eyes rather than hiding them.
It's worth mentioning that Dead Space 2 is fantastic at rendering people, not just butchered corpses. It's a waste that a helmet obscures the main character's face. The game's facial animation is cutting edge, when Isaac's mug is visible it's a pleasure to rotate the camera and watch the emotions play across his face. Without a HUD jumbling up the screen, I often found myself distracted with framing up a nice a shot in a particularly well-rendered area. Great voice acting, immaculate use of light and sound, as well as a keen sense of building up to a scare make Dead Space 2 one of the most cinematic games I've ever played.
The game's multiplayer is a more traditional gaming experience. Wisely built on the Left 4 Dead 2 engine, it pits four humans against four Necromorphs. The humans have an objective to accomplish, the Necros have to stop them, etc, etc. As in L4D, playing as the bad guys is the most fun, and the game gets you stalking your prey like a good monster should. There's a leveling system and lots of gear to unlock, but the multi still feels like an afterthought, something allowed by a bigger budget but not fully realized. Still, it's a nice addition, a fun break from standards like Call of Duty or Left 4 Dead 2, but it won't steal your attention for long.