Dead Space 2 opens with its (formerly-mute) protagonist, Isaac Clark, in a straightjacket, and the world going to hell around him. He’s defenseless, unable to stop the carnage around him as he runs past it, clumsily knocking medical equipment out of his way and narrowly escaping having his neck torn open by patients that have been turned into the twisted "Necromorphs." This opening sequence is brutal, disempowering, and one of the most cleverly implemented tutorials in a game I’ve ever seen.
Isaac’s abilities and equipment from the previous game have been taken from him during his three-year stint in the mental ward of a hospital on "Titan Station." He’s gone a bit crazy since his first encounter with the Necromorphs on the previous game’s mining ship, haunted by images of his dead girlfriend and traumatic flashbacks. Because his doctors were unable to help him get past these visions he’s been seeing, they do what any good sci-fi doctor would do and put him into cryonic sleep for a while.
When he’s awakened (still uncured), Isaac is in the thick of a Necromorph outbreak and has no choice but to make a run for his life. However, Isaac’s mad dash through the hospital allows him to get the majority of his abilities back.
Surprisingly, the first thing returned to Isaac isn’t his trademark Plasma Cutter, but his Kinesis ability. Kinesis acts somewhat like Half-Life 2’s gravity gun, allowing Isaac to mentally pick up and throw items. Whereas the first game utilized kinesis as primarily a puzzle fighting tool, Dead Space 2 turns it into a tool for combat by kindly scattering pointy and aerodynamic objects everywhere.
It doesn’t hurt that Isaac can also use Kinesis to tear the claw/blade/sharp thing off of a dead Necromorph and impale a living one with it. It’s hard to describe, but there’s a certain crispness to Kinesis. Spearing an enemy with it feels weighty and effective, whether they just stumble backwards or are skewered against the wall. It wasn’t uncommon for me to end battles with three or four enemies pinned to the wall (which coincidentally makes finding another claw to use much easier).
That said, all the psychic impalement in the world couldn’t make up for uninspiring combat. Fortunately, Dead Space 2’s combat is really, really good. It feels like a regular over-the-shoulder TPS at first (albeit one that wears its Resident Evil 4 influences openly), but it’s the wide range of combat options that set Dead Space 2 apart from every other third person shooter out there. Each weapon (generally based on industrial equipment) has two fire modes. The inventory ranges from the iconic Plasma Cutter, a weapon that shoots either horizontal or vertical beams that are lovely for removing enemy limbs, to the very traditional sci-fi Pulse Rifle, to (one of my personal favorites) the Ripper: a weapon that fires circular saw blades which can be used to hold a single rotating blade in front of Isaac as he walks through a horde of enemies.
Learning to use each weapon properly is a game in and of itself, and I occasionally found myself using some weapons for their alternate fire more than their primary because their alternate fire was simply more effective for the combat situations I was in.
By combining the aforementioned Kinesis with Isaac’s enemy-slowing Stasis ability and his arsenal of cutting tools, even the most imposing of situations can be overcome. Surrounded by enemies that split open and spill smaller exploding Necromorphs everywhere? Slow down the one closest to you, slice through it and the creatures in its stomach with the Ripper’s alternate fire. Then, switch to a Plasma Cutter to remove the Necromorph, pick it up with Kinesis, and throw the organic bomb into the swiftly approaching group behind you.
Alternately, with enough Stasis refill packs, you could just slow everything down and beat them all to death. There’s a considerable amount of freedom in how you dispatch your enemies that other games simply don’t have. It’s fortunate to have so many viable options, because battles can get pretty tough.
The Necromorphs are very intelligent for reanimated flesh, and it’s nice to know that for once in a game humankind wasn’t overrun by a bunch of brain-dead enemies. However, this does mean that it’s vital to pay attention to survive. For instance, in one encounter I was locked into a circular room and a handful of quick, almost Deinonychus-like enemies were running around behind these opaque gates. I’d try to fire at the enemies as they became visible, but for the most part I’d always miss. They were too smart to be caught by my ineptly-placed proximity mines, too.
After an assortment of violent and sudden deaths, I started to understand how these creatures behaved. It dawned on me that whenever I reloaded a weapon, one of these enemies would charge me. When I figured this out, I backed into a corner and baited them out by reloading a weapon with a quick reload time, before slowing them down with the "Stasis" ability and divorcing their legs from their torso with the wide-reaching "Line Gun." However, after systematically eliminating a couple of them, one burst through the gate next to me and nearly killed me. The fact that the game forced me to watch my enemies’ actions to defeat them, and that even then it was willing to change things around on me pleased me quite a bit. It’s refreshing to have an action game ask players to think once in a while.
"Time out, did he just say action game? I thought Dead Space was supposed to be a horror series!"
Yes, Dead Space 2 is an action game, but it’s a pretty horrific one. For me, the horror’s success rides high on a single element: humanity. The first step towards establishing this was giving Isaac a personality.
This gambit pays off pretty well, actually. Dead Space 2 took a character that could have essentially been a robot filled with jam (lots and lots of blood-like jam) and tried to humanize him. Sure, he’s not really redefining what modern third-person action game protagonist is (he’s a gruff white guy with short hair), but giving him a voice and a personality made me care about Isaac. Furthermore, Isaac’s new personality doesn’t feel jarring at all. It builds the horror of the game in a couple of ways. For one, hearing Isaac’s shouts of pain as he gets torn apart make the series’ gratuitous death scenes feel a lot heavier. When he was just a jam robot in the first game, seeing his appendages methodically lopped off was gross, but now that Isaac’s been established as a squishy human, it’s even more brutal.
It’s not just the cheap or violent scares that make the game horrific though — Dead Space 2’s most effective moments of horror come from the game’s tone establishing his human limitations. Sure, enemies popping out of the walls/floors/ceilings/vents can make you jump, but since (as you may have gathered from the last couple of paragraphs) Isaac is an able combatant, those jumps are quickly replaced with satisfaction upon annihilating whatever just stood in your way. It’s the ambient and subtle moments that are harder to shake.
As briefly mentioned earlier, Dead Space 2 takes place on "Titan Station" (more colloquially called "the Sprawl"). Titan Station feels like it was once an accomplishment: it’s a city in space, technologically advanced and beautiful, but filled with the mundane touches of everyday life. Everyday buildings like churches, theaters, and schools contrast the beautiful glimpses of space you get through the station’s picture windows. The Sprawl seems to convey mankind’s mastery over the formerly unknown: a society built apart from earth.
The wondrous environment makes the Necromorph plague feel more like a violation than it did on the first game’s mining ship. It feels like society has been violently interrupted. You’ll run into people who had their doctors leave them in the middle of open-heart surgery, see giant cracked screens running calm-sounding infomercials for the fictional Church of Unitology, or even come across almost blackly comical "Get Well Soon" balloons on a bloodstained reception desk. It’s disconcerting to walk through a formerly populated city and see nothing but death and the remnants of the people that once lived there.
For me, the apex of this ambient horror was in an apartment complex. On my first walk through the area I heard hysterical voices shouting at me to get away from their door or yelling at each other. About half an hour later, I walked through the same complex and everything was silent. To my left, I heard a baby crying. I approached the sound and discovered that it was behind a locked door. There was no way for me to get in, no way to break the door open. All I could do was listen to the baby cry and think about what might have happened to its parents.
Did they abandon it? Were they killed before they could get back? Did they commit suicide in the locked apartment? The baby has absolutely no effect on the game narratively or otherwise, and I’m sure some players will miss this moment, but it made me aware of Isaac’s limitations. He’s human, there’s no way that he can save everyone, but this seen made me feel helpless and small. It’s just a single ambient moment, but it cemented the game’s mood for me.
Horror isn’t born from mood alone though. There’s a lot of scary stuff that’s out to kill you, and you’re reminded of that at every turn. A tension is built around sound, whether it’s the subtle scurrying of feet in a room that you thought was empty, or a washing machine that’s making a lot more noise than it has any right to, there’s always something that reminds you that you’re surrounded by some very angry things. Even with these little audio cues, it’s a challenge to determine whether an enemy will appear or not, since some of the most ominous sounds are nothing but red herrings. There’s no chance to relax: you’re always worried that things are either too quiet or too noisy to be safe.
This nigh-on paranoia becomes so pervasive and thick that even the sound of a closing door or a depressurizing helmet can make you jump. You’re constantly on edge, never knowing when or if an enemy (or an entire horde) is waiting in the walls for the moment you make yourself vulnerable. It’s not quite survival horror (although you will get killed pretty quickly) because the player is given so many ways to deal with an onslaught of Necromorphs. It’s action and horror in equal measure, and that genre hybrid is something wonderful.
It’s not often that you get a game that mashes two genres together and stands strong on both ends. Dead Space 2 is both a really fun and flexible action game and a disconcerting horror title. It’s the kind of game that has you running from giant monstrosities one minute, and deftly clearing a room of twenty enemies the next. From the subtle differences in the sounds Isaac’s readied weapons make to the joy at figuring out a strategy for a difficult enemy, there’s not much more I could ask for in an action-horror game.
Food for Thought:
1. Dead Space 2’s UI is entirely built on Isaac’s gear, and stuff like health bars are incorporated into the other characters that you come across.
2. Dead Space: Extraction is included with the PS3 version of Dead Space 2. It’s a light-gun game, sure, but the story is even stronger than Dead Space 2’s, in my opinion.