Dead Space 2 is the only game I’ve ever beaten and immediately played through again. It’s something of a twisted marvel. I got the same sort of sensation that I had playing Metal Gear Solid as a kid, like I was experiencing something synonymous with a movie rather than a traditional combat-based shooter. Scary isn’t always the operative word in Dead Space 2, not to say there aren’t make-you-jump moments. The really masterful strokes in DS2’s design are found its slow-burning interaction with the human mind, something the story’s subject matter embraces with a sinister grin.
I’m not going into too many story spoilers. After all, this is a Dead Space game, and using the term story at all is loose at best. Dead Space falls into the category of games that feel like theme park rides, in this case a haunted house. The haunted house is a huge city-size complex in outer space, crawling with reanimated corpses, twisted and mangled and granted with bestial sentience. That sounds pretty scary, but the game does well to desensitize you to violence in the first few minutes, introducing you to the absolute hell you’re about to endure with one of the most shocking kills on any screen. The game is not short on gore, and those who are faint of heart should probably play Barbie’s Horse Adventures instead. I’m not one to shy away from gore (after that one scene in Hannibal where the guy eats his own brain, I’m pretty much broken as a human being), but this game made me wince from time to time. There’s a specific sequence with a horrible twisted machine in the game’s final moments that is enough to render you unconscious with either fear or disgust.
I’m going to talk about this game as an experience. As an experience, it is incredible. Fans of the Dead Space franchise will find a few improvements, like more mobility for zero-gravity monster combat, but otherwise there is a fairly standard pattern of wandering into a darkened room and waiting for something to jump out at you before you shoot it to pieces. The monsters in the game, or Groovy Ghoulies if you will, play an insidious game of hide-and-seek with the player, forcing them to tip-toe into seemingly innocuous environments with the expectation of terror. There’s a specific breed of undead creature made from dead babies that explode on proximity contact to the player. Now if you’re a parent, you might find this hilarious. But for the rest of us more even-tempered mortals, this is decidedly unsettling. The dead baby necromorph’s older cousin is something of a rambunctious ten year old, howling with delight as it and its friends tear you to pieces during recess. The game is not short on frightening material, to be sure.
Players star as the hero of Dead Space, engineer Isaac Clark. He’s picked up a few silver hairs since his last tango with the necromorphs, thanks in no small part to the designers’ ability to accurately portray human beings in virtual shells to a compelling and revolting degree. The game has a trope carried over from survival horror trend-setters like Resident Evil. When you die, you don’t simply see ‘Game Over.’ You instead watch your character, Isaac, torn to shreds during increasingly brutal depictions of monster murder. It makes you really want to stay alive.
Like the best of modern shooters, Dead Space 2 commends you for studying its opponents and devising the best strategies to pass them. In terms of design, this game is Legend of Zelda if Zelda were all dungeon. The real Zelda is packed with back-story to make the experience more epic. Dead Space 2 is packed with fear and uncertainty. This fear begets the driving force of the game: “I’ve got to find a way out of here, or else I might lose my mind!” That fear drives Isaac Clark to take incredible risks and face a surprising series of challenges along the way. He’s willing to do anything for survival, and so must the player in order to succeed.
The best portion of the game for me is the New Game +. After you complete Dead Space 2, you can start a new game with the same weapons and armor statistics from your previous game. The second play through is even more fun, because you get to absorb more of the experience and fret less about the puzzles. There are some hardships to endure, to be sure, and again, this is not for the faint of heart. But I think the marketing team made that very clear.