Here at GameOn Dead Space 2 has been a hot topic of conversation recently despite the game being several months old. With higher production values, a more developed back-story and the addition of multiplayer it seemed a big step forward from the 2008 original. However, the sequel has unquestionably lost some of the subtlety, atmosphere and personality of its predecessor. This raises the age-old issue of whether bigger is necessarily better.
Dead Space was an enormous surprise when it was released. Coming from a studio not known for its horror titles, it was a highly effective shock-based experience with some cleverly constructed scares and a great new premise for combat. The focus on the strategic dismemberment of enemies was a brilliant decision that was not only gruesome but challenging. While there was certainly too much back-tracking and the reuse of a number of locations, it was otherwise excellently paced and highly memorable. It was also a huge critical and commercial success being showered with numerous awards and selling over 2 million units, making a sequel an inevitability.
When Dead Space 2 was released earlier this year, Visceral Games had spent a lot of time tweaking the formula to refine it further. These changes hugely improved the Zero-G sections, provided more options in combat (impaling Necromorphs with their own limbs!) and helped to expand the set pieces to be truly cinematic in scale. However, in doing so the game’s unique atmosphere and some of its tension have disappeared. This is partly due to the fact that the game can no longer be as new and original as the first title, but at times it feels that it is more than that.
Perhaps the most instantly noticeable change is the removal of much of the build-up and tension. Dead Space 2 instantly drops you into the carnage and there is seldom chance for the title to create a real sense of fear. The original game had a carefully calculated introduction and even once that was over there were later stages in the game when the combat was rationed. That’s not to say that this doesn’t happen in the sequel and there are some memorable moments (such as the opening portion in the Church of Unitology) but the action and combat rarely let up. The first chapter even has a boss encounter at the end of it, only a handful of minutes after you collect your first weapon. One of the best portions of the sequel is a direct throwback to the beginning of Dead Space which only serves to remind you how effective that introduction was.
The other large development is the manner in which the story is told and the role that protagonist Isaac plays. In Dead Space Isaac was a silent character, with the story mainly unfolding courtesy of the supporting cast and a system of audio and text logs straight from System Shock 2. This seems to have developed as a reaction to the criticisms levelled at Dead Space 2’s predecessor that Isaac was simply a dogsbody that would be ordered from location to location to advance the story. However, this is very much the same in the sequel but now Isaac has a gung-ho American personality, which removes the sense of the everyman about him. Part of the reason the first title was enjoyable was that as a silent protagonist, Isaac was easy to relate to and empathise with and this n allowed you to give him your own personality.
Dead Space 2 also removes a lot of the subtlety from the depth of the plot. In the first game the Church of Unitology was very much a mystery with only vague hints and suggestions about their true purpose. While this is somewhat retained for the follow-up, it is laid on a lot thicker and the feeling of a deep “mythos” is undone somewhat. As with most horror games, it is best to leave a lot up to the imagination and the more details are fleshed out, the less mystery there becomes.
Despite these criticisms, we still really enjoyed playing Dead Space 2 and the action sequences are fantastic with some really impressive set-pieces. But it is a shame that the more subtle horror has been replaced with more outrageous and extreme set pieces that now include exploding babies, packs of dead school children and Isaac Clarke’s face. At times these can be genuinely creepy and unsettling, including the introduction of the Necromorph infants in an inspired sequence in a school. But more often than not there just isn’t enough build up, which is a shame as if Visceral Games had just tweaked the balance slightly then Dead Space 2 might just have got the formula perfect.
The other minor quibble is the game’s multiplayer modes, which just don’t match the same standard set by the single player experience. After the carefully judged main course, the multiplayer function seems tagged-on and perfunctory and has been seemingly included to fill the burgeoning desire for every game to include such an option. It seems an odd mode to include in a title that is predominantly about pure horror, but feels a little too clichéd when viewed alongside other comparable games like Left 4 Dead.
Dead Space 2 is still one of the best games released this year and is an uncompromising, violent and grisly experience but it never manages to truly scare in the way that its predecessor could. By upping the action factor, this sequel feels like a different beast that’s more about sudden shocks followed by gruesome action and while that certainly isn’t terrible, it just feels like a shame. As the survival horror genre gradually undergoes a resurgence, it seems that less and less of these new titles are actually about true terror anymore. The recent changes to the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series are clear examples of this and even upcoming titles such as Shadows of the Damned seem to be continuing the trend. Here at GameOn we hope that when (rather than if), Dead Space 2 gets a sequel, that Visceral Games can tip the balance back towards the fear, rather than the spectacle.