There’s no denying that Dead Space is one of the great horror titles of this generation of gaming, a visually stunning and conceptually compelling exploration of sci-fi terror to rival the very best that Resident Evil or Silent Hill has yet to offer. As a lone engineer searching for his likely deceased lover on a derelict, alien-infested space vessel, there were more harrowing moments, sudden jump-scares and creative limb tearing in a single chapter than most games fit into their entire playtime. So it’s hardly a surprise that the acclaimed title earned itself a sequel.
We recently had the chance to go hands-on with the first few chapters of Dead Space 2 and we can definitively say that while the presentation and functionality remains the same, the title threatens to suffer from the common misconception that kills so many horror sequels: bigger is not always better. Set in a sprawling, residential space-station after a Necromorph outbreak, Dead Space 2 feels the immediate need to pull back the microscope on both the game’s setting and the mystery of the Marker, but at the cost of a few core components.
The game begins suddenly, and the opening moments – while not quite as explosive as in the original – are jarring to say the least. The station is over-run and Isaac is back, suffering now from hallucinations and the mental effects of his time battling the Marker in the first Dead Space. Soon, you’re corralled by a faceless stranger to head for safety, guided through a linear progression of hallways, junctions and commercial locations throughout the station. In our limited playtime, the environment never truly felt lived in and there were a ton of notably repeated textures and level lay-outs. We walked the same hallway a few dozen times at least, a problem that the smaller, more claustrophobic setting of the first game – ushering you from unique set piece to uniqe set piece – somehow managed to avoid.
That said, even if repetitious, the environments played host to a number of incredibly cinematic moments that have thusfar defined the series, including a sequence on a run-away mag-rail that finds Isaac sliding from car to car as the train plummets downward and then HALO jumping from one half of the vehicle to the other half far ahead. A few moments in the cathedrals of the Unitarian sector are equally involving while the sheer number of enemies thrown at you now skews the game slightly more action-oriented than its predecessor.
Players will likely have to adjust to the control scheme which requires that you balance the usage of your weapon’s primary and alt-fire modes, your limited stasis power and your unlimited kinesis ability far more than in the first title. The mechanics themselves are relatively the same, though using kinesis to thrust the severed limbs of your enemies back through their still-moving bodies is always a treat. Additionally, shops and work benches operate much the same, but don’t expect a bevy of new weapons in the first few chapters, though we’re told that flamethrowers, detonators and force guns are introduced later on…
There are distinctly more Necromorphs rushing you at any given time, flocking in different types with various attacks, so strategizing the use of your tech is a key element to surviving most of these encounters. Just bear in mind that if you see a large room ahead, or a long, receeding hallway, you’re about to be swarmed.
What little of the story is revealed in the first three chapters puts a greater focus on the Unitarian religion, the origins of the Marker and the apparition of Nicole, a great narrative motivator in the first game, but a potentially smirk-inducing, dead-girlfriend focus in the second. Thrust into a larger, more generic environment and provided more information than ever before, so much of the inescapable, unknowable quality that makes for good horror is stifled, though certainly not gone, from the early portion of the sequel. The game does, however, feel slightly more unnerving from a straight-forward action perspective, but it’s an unsettled feeling that can quickly give way to frustration as you die and die again, albeit in a number of gruesomely fantastic death animations.
While the visuals, mechanics and overall atmosphere are very much the same, there’s something about this early portion of Dead Space 2 that feels less terrifying and inspired as the original. While we’re still having a blast dismembering Necromorphs, we’re hopeful that the presentation can pull us into the terror as effectively as before…And also that in our apartments, nobody can hear you scream.