Dead Space is one of my favorite series of all time. I was too terrified to even beat the first game until I had played through Dead Space 2 in 2011. At the time, Dead Space 2 was easier for me to charge into, and it gave me the confidence to beat the original scares of the first game. However, I have never played these two entries close to one another.
Usually, years have gone by before I picked up the other game, but I just revisited Dead Space 1 within the last year, and it still feels kind of fresh in my mind. That has made a huge difference in my perception of Dead Space 2 this time around. For better and for worse.
A Terrifying Wake-Up
Isaac is locked up in a psych ward until Franco releases him before meeting an untimely end himself. Isaac is then forced to find an exit while still in a straight jacket, so all he can do is run. Necromorphs are pouring out of every corner, with vents blasting open and other patients screaming in horror as they are disemboweled.
It is a much more fast-paced start than the original’s slow and methodical reveal of the necromorph menace, which makes sense since we are familiar with the enemy. However, this is a sign of what is to come because this pace rarely ever stops. Isaac will usually be going from one terrifying onslaught of enemies to the next for the next 15 chapters.
It turns out that the necromorphs have found a foothold in the space station, the Sprawl, because Isaac is among a group of people who the government has been experimenting on in order to retrieve the data of the artifact known as the Marker from the first game.
The Marker causes the necromorph infestations, yet religious fanatics and government groups are obsessed with it for spiritual and power reasons. This is one of the more understandable reasons for this enemy to make a return, and the game uses this experimentation to manipulate Isaac’s (and the player’s) perception of the world around them.
This is one thing that Dead Space 2 does infinitely better than the original; it makes Isaac a human being struggling with the events of the first game while trying to navigate the current situation. Isaac will see images of the Marker flash before his eyes and often imagine seeing Nichole, his dead girlfriend from the USG Ishimura. It can all feel a bit discombobulating in the best way.
A Lot More Action and a Little Less Horror
Despite having a much more character-focused psychological element to it, Dead Space 2 is a lot less terrifying than its predecessor, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its moments. The powerlessness that comes with the opening sequence is great since you don’t have much available.
You are fighting with whatever you come across, which starts with a Kinesis module that Isaac yanks out of a machine. Back against the wall using limbs and spears to take out necromorphs is excellent, and I wish more of these uniquely desperate moments were made prominent in the game.
The biggest problem with Dead Space 2 is that it doesn’t have the same philosophy in regard to its horror element. Too often, the game will send Isaac into back-to-back encounters with necromorphs, bosses, and other baddies so quickly that the player doesn’t have time to become afraid.
In Dead Space 1, there were a lot of quiet moments to build up the fear within the player using the creepy setting, ambient noises, and environmental storytelling to increase the fear. It might be a double-edged sword for both games in this regard. Dead Space 2 is a much more accessible game by downplaying the psychological fear of the player and focusing on creating intense firefight situations.
Dead Space would give you an encounter and have you stew in your fear of another just like it. Dead Space 2 decided that everyone was too familiar with the threat to make that same approach. Instead, the fear comes from cheap jump scares or relying on a familiar friend: the USG Ishimura.
The power that the prior setting holds is palpable because as soon as Isaac announced to Ellie that he was going to board the old mining vessel in order to use its gravity tethers, I could feel myself break out in a cold sweat. I would probably struggle to come up with more than a handful of times that are etched into my brain with fear that occurred on the Sprawl. That just isn’t where its focus was this time around, for better or worse.
The game feels more like a third-person action game rather than a survival horror game, more so than I remember. However, it is still creepy enough for me to enjoy it, and it kept a lot of the interesting mechanics from the original.
Fast-Paced Space Faring Adventure
What Dead Space 2 does well is improve upon the combat from the first game by making it much more fast-paced. The enemies will not give you room to breathe this time around by slowly lurching towards you on their deformed limbs. Instead, they will lunge, jump, and sprint in a frenzy to get at your no matter how many other necromorphs you might be dealing with. Isaac will often have to deal with large firefights of 15 or more enemies, while in the first game he only had like eight (on average) in a total encounter.
What this means is not only that the game is faster but that it is harder than the first game. I have beaten it on the second and third highest difficulties, but the last one, “Zealot,” requires that the player only has three save points in their journey, and I don’t have that in me at the moment. I died a lot more in Dead Space 2 than I ever did in the first game. In fact, I could probably beat the first game on Survival without dying more than once. Dead Space 2 really increased the difficulty, and I really appreciate that.
Some of the most memorable moments of surviving on the Sprawl are the moments when there is just a hoard of enemies where a minute ago it was blissful silence. Whether running around a school gymnasium or hanging upside down from a train car, Isaac is able to make surviving his number one priority.
I do wish there were more quiet world-building moments instead of getting ready to fight every time I stepped into another part of the station. There are almost no safe rooms or creepy environmental storytelling areas. Ultimately, it takes away part of the surprise when enemies will show up because I always expected them to. I was only surprised when they didn’t.
The weapons are all great, and because there are so many more enemies, the game strongly encourages that the player uses more than just the plasma cutter as ammo will. I typically stayed with the contact beam as my direct backup, but the line gun was also great for those hoards that came at me in a straight line.
One of the better gameplay additions are the hull breaches. If Isaac intentionally (or unintentionally) breaks certain glass walls, the air and everything in the room will begin to be sucked out into space. Isaac has the opportunity to shoot a manual shut button before being closed inside the backup door. It can be a great strategy to let a bunch of enemies get close, only to blow the wall out to save a little bit of ammo.
The new enemy varients are also pretty good. There are some good additions and some lackluster ones. The pukers are a frustrating inclusion with their slow speed and awful bile they throw on the player, which slows Isaac down and deals damage. Or the lurker, which is easily my favorite. These conniving guys will hide behind objects and pounce when they think you are least expecting it.
They snort like raptors in Jurrasic Park and can make you feel like they are working together. I only wish it wasn’t obvious when these enemies would be used. Oh, there’s a bunch of player-high walls and containers in a room? Guess there are going to be some lurkers sneaking about.
However, for every good addition, there are the ones that feel like they just missed the mark. The pack, for instance, are necromorph children that rush at you in large numbers. These guys throw out the whole “shoot for the limbs” concept as they are just one-shot kills. Their gimmick is that they are a lot of them, and you often miss out on their loot since they disappear so quickly. The crawler is similar as they are babies that explode.
Their introduction is creepy, but in battle, they often are more helpful than something to be feared in any way. I like the emphasis on shooting the limbs to survive that Dead Space focused on. It increased the terror and required a tiny bit of skill, so when some enemies don’t require it, the game loses a little bit of its charm.
I played this time on the Steam version of Dead Space 2, which apparently comes with a bunch of the microtransactions that EA was beginning to put their games at the time. However, it sort of ruins some of the fun of the game. Almost all the guns and armor pieces are unclocked from the beginning of the game for zero in-game currency.
All the player needs to do is find the first store. It removes a lot of the fun of finding the schematics for these assets and made it, so I didn’t feel the same level of FOMO if I didn’t search every nook and cranny. The suits in the original game had to be found by the player and required that they look everywhere for them. It added to the intensity, and if you hadn’t explored enough, you risked being at a disadvantage in later parts of the game.
Speaking of exploring, the original Dead Space wasn’t super large, but it offered interconnected hallways and one-off doorways that gave more supplies or lore about the world. Dead Space 2 may seem bigger, but it also feels even more linear in scope. There didn’t seem to be as many branching halls or interesting things to find. Like in Dead Space 1, there were those weird mini-games that gave players rewards like the gallery shooter. Dead Space 2 doesn’t have any of that and feels like it is always guiding the player a little too closely.
Dead Space 2 does a lot to further the plot of the series and make Isaac a more interesting character. It also gives a few really great additions to its weapon sandbox, but the elements of horror have significantly shrunk compared to the original. Like House of the Dead, Dead Space 2 hopes to scare the player using jump scares and overwhelming “scary” enemies.
The problem is that pacing is a huge part of horror games, and it was my main fascination with the first entry. As a creepy action game, Dead Space 2 does a good job, and the combat is fun (though it can be frustrating at times), but I wish that it had stayed in line with how dark and isolating the original could be.
I feel like if Dead Space ever returns, it will not be like the original, but if it is like Dead Space 2, I will be more than happy to play it. This world has a lot to offer, it seems, and plenty of factions and people who could make great protagonists of new games. We will just have to wait and see if EA is run by people in the Church of Unitology.