Pity Isaac Clarke. Fate has not been kind to him, to put it mildly. All the poor chap wanted to do when he graduated from Close-Shaven Space Marine college was fix radiators and pimp the odd warp drive, pick up a nice, blonde girlfriend with zero damsel-in-distress potential and spend the next two decades on the star-going equivalent of a cross-channel ferry.
But those Necromorphs, they just won’t let up. They dog his heels like a bad smell, rearing their oddly jointed, toothsome maws wherever his increasingly irrelevant engineering work sends him. In the first Dead Space it was the Ishimura, a giant, blacked-out “planet cracker” orbiting a part-consumed world. That went well. This time it’s the Sprawl, mining metropolis and the birthplace of planet crackers, cut from the ruins of Saturn’s moons.
The game’s first few playable moments feel like a Necromorph award ceremony, as Isaac flees down an infested hospital corridor, spine-mounted health read-out blinking, memory reduced to ribbons of alien code and VHS close-ups of his (as it transpired) fatally distress-prone girlfriend. Ghastly patchwork entities totter into the flight path, baring elongated canines and flexing their toenails for the cameras. They might as well have laid out a red carpet. Blood will have to do.
The gang’s all here – spindly pink threshing machines, fat mutant mommas stuffed with angry maggots, scuttling sabretooths and those weird Manta ray things who flap around injecting the Necro-juice into butchered humans. Even if you skip the “previously on Dead Space” cinematic, or somehow sleep through the superb preliminary interrogation sequence, newcomers to the franchise should know exactly where they stand: as far away from these noisy, attention-seeking ambulatory food-blenders as possible.
But Necromorphs are ultimately more of a problem for Visceral Games than Clarke himself, who quickly reacquires the means to fight his corner, including a new electrified javelin thrower and mine layer. The developer doesn’t quite know what to do with them. Splashing around in a soup of Resident-Evil-era gross-out and Event-Horizon-flavoured interior design, Dead Space soon found its depth as a horror experience. The sequel introduces new monsters and squeezes a few, more introspective chills from Isaac’s botched psyche, but it readily defaults to the same, shallow scares.
So the bad guys, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, are rather fond of ventilation systems. When they aren’t popping through grills – often on the periphery of your vision, if not right behind you – they’re crawling around in the walls, conscientiously layering the sound-scape with scratches and rattles, remote thumps and foreboding clatters. Lord only knows what they’d make of free-standing air-conditioning units, or an old-fashioned English chimney flue. Necros also like to play dead among clumps of corpses – indeed, they enjoy doing this so much that you end up carefully dismembering every innocently decomposing body you see, like a shop assistant snipping at price tags.
The genuinely horrific is again conflated with the superficially gruesome or the trashing of taboos. Habituated to the sight of deformed, chitinous babies whose tentacles sprout armour-piercing darts, returning players are unlikely to be put out of countenance by exploding newborns, or by the packs of ghoulish primary schoolers who get under your feet towards the mid-part of the game. These are hammer-blows on already deadened adrenaline glands: a lighter, more incisive touch is needed if the game is to rival the likes of Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
Is Dead Space 2, then, no more than an action game with Tourette syndrome, a shooter that periodically and predictably yells “boo”? Well, that’s not quite fair. If there’s terror to be found in this game, it’s in the frantic, unhinged messiness of those firefights rather than creature concept or direction. Dead Space 2 might not get under your skin, but it will keep you hopping on the edge of your seat, struggling to maintain precision – the beasts go down faster if you pare away their limbs – in the face of assault from all angles.
Larger breeds of Necromorph may grandstand, leering grotesquely while the soundtrack breaks out in ecstasies of string-plucking, or close the gap at a furious sprint, soaking up defensive fire. Drawn to these posers, it’s easy to miss the gibbering wretch lugging a sac of volatile fluid down one flank, or the distant wall-crawler preparing to leap. Meanwhile, new “Pukers” are dousing you in bile, draining the urgency out of Isaac’s ponderous stride, and bone-headed hunchbacks are peeking round crates, inviting you to play matador.
Dead Space 2 likes to fight dirty. You won’t fear the enemy – not if you’ve played a horror game before, at least – but by God will you hate the evil, excitable, unsporting bastard. You’ll want to knock him down and stamp on him again and again, swearing like you’ve got your thumb caught in a door jamb, and Visceral clearly wants you to want this, as stomps can now be chained. Encounters thus generally tail off into wheezy, cathartic fits of boot-sole punishment. It’s gotta be da shoes!