The Necromorph are back to give us the willies all over again in Dead Space 2
Let's get one thing straight first - the Dead Space series is genuinely frightening. There's a subtle difference between experiences that make you jump out of your seat every now and again, and those that distil fear into your very being, causing anxiety with every groan murmured and every dark corner presented. Dead Space made us shit bricks, and now Dead Space 2 has followed suit.
It's the incredible atmosphere that does it. Pipes rattle, steam hisses through vents in the ceiling, and your mind starts to guess where the aliens are going to spring from. Then, as you reach the door and breathe a sigh of relief, the lights go out, the door displays 'MALFUNCTION' and you hear a smash of glass from behind. These are the moments that Dead Space 2 thrives on, and will really get your heart racing.
Lack of Vitamin C can lead to this lack of complexion
There's a great sense of epicness throughout play, with gorgeously gritty environments, teasing glimpses of the outside world every now and again, and an intro sequence to die for. Yet, as Dead Space 2 progresses, the repetitive, linear feel begins to dilute the experience somewhat. With barely any puzzles to get your grubby telekinetic hands around and more of a 'kill, move, kill, move' scenario on show, the edge begins to weaken.
The story picks up three years after the last time we saw Isaac, and he's not exactly in great shape, taking time out in a hospital on the moon of Saturn. In fact, he's gone a bit mental since the death of his girlfriend, or so the doctors say. When the Necromorph infestation ploughs through the city, you're immediately thrown into the action, straitjacket included.
If there were some sort of 'Game Intro of the Year' awards, Dead Space 2 would definitely be in the running. With grotesque beasts all around, Isaac must flee through corridor after corridor with no method of defending himself. Even though we were fully aware that he was going to be OK - there wouldn't be a game otherwise - we still felt his fear and egged him on to survive.
It also puts him in this position of looking like a weak, defenceless being so that once he begins picking up his suit and powerups, you can really sense his rise to power and authority. This man who once scarpered helplessly through the dark halls of a mental hospital soon becomes an ass-kicking force to be reckoned with.
Not that Isaac's problems leave him be. Throughout play, he not only must contend with the horrible monsters, but also his haunting memories, as images of his lost girlfriend Nicole provide some incredibly freaky moments. The story is told through these short flashbacks, and it can really do a number on you if you let it. It also means that we feel far more connected to Isaac this time around, especially since we begin with him outside of the iconic suit.
Action remains the same as the original game, for the most part. Necromorph's jump out of vents, walls, ceilings, pretty much anything really, and will proceed to rip you apart if you let them get too close. Delivering a couple of shots to their legs will cut them down to the floor, at which point they'll refuse to die, and start crawling towards you. A couple more shots to the head and it's (hopefully) all over.
This is one of the game's few cinematic style sequences. We want more!
Taking the different limbs off is still brilliant fun, and the variety of weapons available is a dream. The Javelin in particular is much too wonderful, allowing you to launch enemies across a room and pin them to the far wall. Of course, Isaac also has his special telekinetic powers for picking objects up (or even dead enemies) and using them as projectiles. Slow-down comes in handy too, hitting the pause button on enemies as they swoop in for a fatal blow.
We found, however, that his powers were not all that necessary for the most part. Dead Space 2 provides an abundance of ammo on Normal mode, and we only found ourselves using his powers during the puzzle areas. Even these are sparse - the gameplay for the most part consists of clearing a room of enemies and moving on, with not a single taxing puzzle to be had.
This is where Dead Space 2 begins to lose its hideous charm. Isaac's journey is extremely linear, with barely any wiggle room for trying different approaches or finding secrets. This would be fine - plenty of great, recent titles have been linear - except that the progression provided just isn't mixed enough. You kill everything in a room, you move on, you kill everything in a room, you move on... there needs to be more variety.
In the preview build we played a few months ago, we were subjected to a glorious Quicktime events style faceoff against a huge beast that ended with a breathtaking cinematic tussle in space. We'd hoped to see a good number more of these moments, but in fact that is one of the only moments of its kind in the game. Dead Space 2 throws alien after alien your way, and interesting puzzles and set-pieces take a back seat.
This linear progression eventually removes the edge from the blasting. After you've come up against the umpteenth batch of familiar aliens, they just don't look as scary anymore. Even as new creatures are introduced, we didn't particularly feel our hearts racing or our arses on the edge of the seat. That's not to say there aren't any incredibly nerve-racking moments - these in fact come in abundance - but the actual fighting parts lose their shine towards the end of play.
New to the Dead Space series is the multiplayer element. Two teams of four battle it out, with one team taking on the soldiers and the other being the aliens. Think a cross between Left 4 Dead and Gears of War, and you're roughly in the right area. The humans need to collect parts from around the level, and the aliens must rip them to shreds before they can succeed.
Once you understand the concept, there's plenty to enjoy, with most games ending with an epic stand-off, as one team tries to complete the objective as the timer ticks away, and the other attempts to slow them down to a halt. It's most likely that the action isn't in-depth enough that we'll be playing it for weeks to come, but there's easily enough there to warrant several hours of blasting with friends.
Dead Space 2 is a more than worthy successor to the original, adding plenty of oomph to the series and a solid multiplayer experience to boot. We would have preferred more puzzles and a little less linearity, but that doesn't stop us wanting a third Isaac outing.
Dead Space 2 is available on January 25th for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.
Top Game Moment: The gorgeous and action-packed cinematic moments. He's a mover is our Isaac!