Visceral’s Dead Space was a match made in survival horror heaven. Combining elements of John Carpenter’s The Thing and Paul WS Anderson’s Event Horizon, and putting it all into a video game made for some truly entertaining (and horrifying) moments for PS3 and Xbox 360 fans. It was no surprise that EA and Visceral got right to work on the sequel after Dead Space‘s critical acclaim. The resulting Dead Space 2 not only gave us more horror, but ultimately ended up as one of the scariest titles of the generation.
Three years after the events of the first game, engineer Isaac Clarke awakens with no memory of these three years on a space station called The Sprawl. It turns out that the Necromorphs are back, and have infested the space station. Complicating matters is the fact that Isaac is suffering from progressively worsening hallucinations. Isaac must now meet up with a woman named Daina Le Guin, who promises a cure for the hallucinations, as well as a rescue from the Necromorphs.
Visceral clearly knew what they were doing with Dead Space 2. The game hits the ground running almost immediately, relegating the recap for those who “walked in late” to a cutscene, in favour of throwing players into the action. The result is some of the most intense (and horrifying) opening 10 minutes to a game in recent memory. When the first tutorial message is to remind you that ‘x’ is to run, you get the idea of what’s in store for you. Sure, you’re being led around in a fairly obvious way at the start. But when people around you are either slitting their throats or being killed by Necromorphs, it’s probably best to have some guidance.
It’s been said that much like James Cameron’s Aliens, Dead Space 2 built upon its predecessor in terms of horror as well as action, and it’s easy to see why. In addition to the tension-filled start of the game, Dead Space 2 offered players more firepower, more action sequences, and of course, more horrific sights and sounds. The team went so far as to research photos of victims of car crashes and war to get the look of the gore they desired for the Necromorphs and Isaac’s numerous deaths. The results speak for themselves. Visceral even went further this time, adding new Necromorph enemies to include children (The Pack) and even explosive babies (the Crawlers), which is horrific on several levels. For added fun, you could even pick up the Crawlers via Kinesis and throw them like grenades.
Obviously, the gory scenes weren’t the only horror of Dead Space 2. The mental horrors and anguish of Isaac’s hallucinations were on full display, again calling back to what film fans experienced in Event Horizon. Adding to that is the guilt that Isaac feels not only for what transpired in the Ishimura incident, but also the fate of his girlfriend, Nicole Brennan. After all, Isaac was the one who pushed Nicole to accept a position on the doomed spaceship.
Of course, Nicole (or rather, the hallucination of Nicole) won’t let Isaac forget this, and results in torment for the player. You’re never quite sure what will transpire when her specter shows up. Will it be something as benign as a taunt, something that results in Isaac almost killing himself, or being bombarded with a torrent of Necromorphs? Despite being a cliché, Nicole as a vehicle for Isaac’s guilt is a perfect way to get some psychological horror in the game.
All of this is brought home even more by Visceral’s decision to give Isaac a voice. Gone is the largely silent protagonist, bereft of a true personality. Gunnar Wright’s portrayal of Isaac gives us a more complete character. One with emotions and a moral compass. It just makes the events of the game that much more palpable.
Dead Space 2 didn’t see many changes gameplay-wise from its predecessor, but what was added just made it a more engaging experience. Apart from the four additional weapons (each with alternate firing modes) and new suits, players now had moments like the Subway sequence where Isaac is suspended upside down against waves of Necromorphs, unable to flee or seek cover. Visceral also expanded upon the space sections, now having Isaac freely fly through zero-gravity environments, which added a new dimension (literally) of encountering and dealing with Necromorphs.
This is also where I’m required by law to mention that “stick a needle in your eye” scene. Fulci fans were no doubt enthralled with this one. If you moved the Diagnostic Machine’s needle around too much, or allowed Isaac’s heart rate to get too high, you can guess the result.
Tying all of this together is the atmosphere. Dead Space had it and then some, but the sequel seemed to crank that up even more. From the very beginning, The Sprawl is shown to be massive and oppressive, with dimly-lit corridors and various “traumas” scattered about. The sound design again envelopes the player and raises the tension, all without an over-reliance on jump scares.
Admittedly, Dead Space 2 isn’t perfect, but it’s damn close. Going back to the Aliens comparison with action, one could argue those moments like the aforementioned subway sequence, while terror-inducing, felt more like something you’d find in Uncharted. Then there are the zero-gravity puzzles, which unlike the first game, no longer had you being bombarded by Necromorphs while you solved them, and other zero-gravity moments are turned into glorified obstacle courses while navigating environmental hazards. They don’t quite sour the experience, but taken by themselves, they don’t quite gel with the purer horror of the original.
A more significant complaint can be made about the title’s multiplayer component. Known as Outbreak mode, it pits two four-player teams, one of human Sprawl Security forces, the other a pack of Necromorphs, against each other. It sounded interesting, but ultimately wasn’t up to much. It felt cynically tacked on, and really didn’t capture the same levels of tension found in the single-player campaign. Nevertheless, it didn’t ruin the main draw of the game itself, and was “nice to have”.
But, even with all of these delectables, you have to hand it to EA’s marketing for the proverbial cherry on top. Having a stop-gap with Dead Space Ignition to prime fans was one thing, but the whole “Your Mom Hates Dead Space 2” campaign was a thing of beauty. Sure, it preyed upon the stereotype of uptight moms not liking violent video games (and the fact that the game was already getting a Mature ESRB rating), but it’d be absurd to deny that exists in the first place. Plus, it was just plain fun! Of course, the award-winning campaign ate into the game’s $120 million budget, which brings into focus the downside of Dead Space 2.
Despite rave reviews, Dead Space 2 surprisingly failed at retail. The game shipped two million units in its first week, but ultimately sold only four million copies. While those do sound like good figures, keep in mind that $120 million hole EA had to fill, not to mention Sony and Microsoft taking cuts from the sales on the PS3 and 360. Former Visceral employees have remarked at how there were several factors in the game’s underperformance at retail, with marketing costs being one of them. EA did give Visceral another shot with Dead Space 3, but ultimately, the results were the same. And the discussion of Dead Space 3 is for another time.
Even a decade out, Dead Space 2 still scares and entertains with ease. Everything from the characters to the environments to the gameplay are still top-notch, despite now being out two generations of hardware. And the horror still hits hard on multiple levels, leaving you wanting to experience it again. But with the failure of Dead Space 3 (which, like Resident Evil 6, took on a more action-based approach, and started to veer away from horror), and subsequent dismantling and closure of Visceral, fans can only hope that The Callisto Protocol by Striking Distance Studios (headed by Dead Space creator Glen Schofield) would recapture the horror and fun that Dead Space 2 gave us. But who knows? EA might one day revisit Isaac and the Dead Space universe. Until then, Dead Space 2 can still lay claim to being the go-to for those looking for the best of the series, and one of the best survival horror games of the era.