While our intrepid Anthony Taormina is busily wrapping up his full review of Dead Space 2, let me tide you over with a brief writeup of my initial impressions of the game.
I sat down with Dead Space 2 on the night of its U.S. launch, and sampled a good chunk of the game’s opening acts and the initial few chapters. Most of us are very familiar with the original Dead Space, so I will cover the standout differences between the old and new games, and hopefully give you an approximation of how the game will sit with you.
If, for reasons unknown, I were forced to describe Dead Space 2 in one word, it would be this: Confidence. This game is absolutely packed from stem to stern with exhilarating set-pieces, excellently-performed dialog, delightful controls, and the game propels you through all the various finger-biting moments with the confident swagger of a seasoned veteran. Visceral Games has clearly mastered the space-horror genre and made it their own. With this sequel, the Dead Space franchise has had its ‘Riker’s Beard’ moment — where everything suddenly comes together – feeling very confident and natural.
Visually, Dead Space 2 is just downright stunning. From a purely cinematic point of view, it is almost flawless. Any direction you aim the camera at will yield an image worthy of a screenshot. There is an abundance of ambient lighting to be found throughout, enhanced at all times by atmospheric wisps of fog and smoke — you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped out of The Sprawl and onto the set of Blade Runner.
The sound design, unlike the first game, is all over the place. Every effect in the game is, at the very least, competent, but I have yet to witness anything as audibly nerve-wracking in Dead Space 2 as the metallic creaks and groans of the Ishimura’s hull straining and settling in the original. Also I noted that the sound mix is a little off-point when a certain character talks. Without spoiling anything, the character is somewhat defined by having a freaky voice, but the freak-affect applied to that voice makes the character’s words almost unintelligible, and I’m not certain that’s the point.
The voice acting, on the other hand, is second-to-none. Initial encounters with a certain creepy doctor are absolutely terrifying — not because of the things he does, but by the hateful, almost obscene, emotion in his voice as he whispers with longing into the ear of a freaked-out patient.
The overall feeling of controlling Isaac Clarke remains unchanged from the first game, although I got the distinct impression that the camera is closer to his right shoulder this time around. This of course makes intimate encounters all the more immediate and terrifying, but at the same time, the simple act of walking forwards is hampered simply because Isaac is obscuring a large portion of the screen.
One little beef, where I’m probably alone, is the expertise with which Isaac now swings his Plasma Cutter. The melee function in the original Dead Space was reserved for last-stand scenarios, and Isaac’s clumsy and desperate swings of the Plasma Cutter reflected this perfectly. Dead Space 2‘s Isaac Clarke has apparently been taking some self-defense classes, though, because the melee animation is more of an aggressive punch than a desperate swing. Although this was a minor change in the grand scheme of things, it has fundamentally altered the way I relate to Isaac Clarke.
One other item that really did not sit well with me — and again, I am probably alone in this — is how Isaac now retrieves ammo and other dropped items from dead Necromorphs. The scavenging gameplay element in any type of survival horror game is a key component of the genre and, to its credit, the original Dead Space played that oft-elusive balancing act very well. With Dead Space 2, however, the simple act of killing a Necromorph and collecting its dropped inventory is not enough to yield ammo. Now Isaac must literally stomp the ammo out of the corpses of Necromorphs he slays, or he misses out on the loot completely.
On the surface it doesn’t sound all that bad, but this game is filled to bursting with secret node boxes, hidden credits, and obscured ammo lockers. There is more than enough scavenging to be had in The Sprawl without the need for an extra and unnecessarily-savage step in that process.
Even though it is a small detail in the overall scheme of things, its inclusion now means that the end-game of any tense encounter results in an OCD-fueled floor-hunt, followed by screaming stomp-athon for several minutes as you literally trounce ammo out of the the torsos of Necromorph husks in an explosion of limbs and blood. It feels cheap, it feels gratuitous, and in my mind it is so far the only misstep in an otherwise incredible and classy gaming experience.
These two admittedly small grievances aside, I can tell you without hesitation that, so far at least, Dead Space 2 is every bit the shocking, amazing, beautiful nightmare survival horror game you are hoping it is.
Well, that just about wraps up my initial impressions of Dead Space 2. Hopefully it will tide you over until our full review of Dead Space 2 goes live soon.
Dead Space 2 is available now for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC