Airlocks and Body Parts: “Dead Space 2” Review

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Dead Space 2
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Visceral Games
Systems it’s available on: PS3/Xbox 360
ESRB rating: Mature
System reviewed on: Xbox 360

In the year 2511 on one of Saturn’s moons, a man with serious girlfriend issues dismembers a race of alien monsters called Necromorphs. Dead Space 2–already positioned to be one of the goriest major releases in 2011–is a refined follow-up to 2008’s rough but promising survival horror game.

Where we left off in DS1, the Marker, a symbolic monument with supernatural properties, had put the Necromophs to rest. Naturally, everyone, from Earth’s government to a religious cult, wants to possess this mystical beacon and the unmatchable power it comes with. The dance for control between opposing sides results in the Necromorphs’ release amongst an innocent-ish public and you’re left to play janitor amongst a stainless steel world covered in spilled intestines and monster goop. The hero in both games is engineer/sharpshooter Isaac Clarke, a name that is an homage to science-fiction writers Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, much like Will Smith’s movie “I, Robot” riffed on Asimov’s book of the same name.

In many ways, Dead Space 2 is like a Hollywood tentpole film that stubbornly wants to also run at the arthouse and, in that respect, the game stumbles out the gate. The story is both undercooked and overambitious. The horror plot flirts with profundity, particularly with the Unitology cult, which shares more than a passing resemblance with the Unofficial Church of Hollywood, Scientology. People enjoy stories because they show progress and growth. These characters show literal progress moving from points A to B to C to D, but most growth is shoehorned into the final moments. But, overall, Dead Space 2 errs when it relies on plot, or at least on one that lacks discernible act breaks and character motivation. Electronic Arts has partnered with book publishers and movie studios to create books and DVDs that may or may not fill in some of the blanks, but when a game asks the player dedicate nearly 10 hours, it is to fair to assume that supplementary material provides color — not key plot points.

What Dead Space 2 does well, though, is the mega-budget action set piece. The team at Visceral Games have a gift for spectacle. If you’ve enjoyed a sci-fi action film in the last two decades and wish to reenact the best scenes, Dead Space 2 provides with slow trips across dark medical bays, free falls through space debris and throat-clenching gravity walks where Isaac’s oxygen tank is always a few seconds from empty. And it crafts a number of unique scenarios that Michael Bay should jot down in his nearest Idea Journal.

Necromorphs of varying makes–the eight-foot-tall, razor-armed fleshbag, the bouncy baby hungry for blood, and the explosive fetus-thing–stitch together the action.

The graphic, crunchy method in which the player dispatches monsters is the soul of the Dead Space franchise. You will “shoot their arms” a number of times in-game because head shots fail to stop the Necros’ persistent lurch. The effect is disgusting, comical and compelling. Appendages clip off like lobster’s limbs, spritzing toilet fluids from the fresh wounds. With more weapons and more enemies, the kills (if you have the stomach) are the chief reason to play the lengthy campaign. Oddly enough, the careful aim and physics-based rewards might appeal to the audience of causal gamers cutting their teeth on Angry Birds. After a playthrough, the story can be played again on a new difficulty setting and with the help of some supplies from the completed game’s save file. There’s also a sizable multiplayer mode that while engaging, won’t distract most deathmatch fans from popular multiplayer in Call of Duty: Black Ops or Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.

Dead Space 2 shows that the franchise still has room for improvement in the story department. The level of fright’s a key metric for a franchise like Dead Space. When compared to its sequel, Dead Space 1 still feels scarier from beginning to end but Visceral Games’ latest effort has more terrifying one-off moments. DS2 harbors different kinds of scares, more in the survival-action mode and less of the moody atmospheric stuff. Going back to film comparisons, Dead Space is to Alien what Dead Space 2 is to Aliens. The plot may fall short of its ambitions, but the action is so polished, the violence so engaging, that it’s easy enough to ignore an occasionally sloppy exterior and embrace the sticky, bloody bits inside. It’s awkward, grotesque and will probably rival anything you’ll see in theaters this summer in terms of sheer entertainment.

Official Techland Score: 9 out of 10