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Isaac Clarke: Necromorphs are not a fan...
10 hours and 15 minutes: that's how long the save data for our Dead Space 2 game suggests it took us to complete the story. But it lies - oh, how it lies. Just like the original, this sequel is an exceptionally hard game and, like with Bayonetta at the start of last year, it's a stark New Year's wake-up call that makes pretty much every other hardcore game of the past year look like a fluffy bunny rabbit eating candyfloss. Dead Space 2 is so gory that it would shock abattoir workers, it has numerous set-pieces that are as packed with enemies as the 50th wave of a Gears 2 Horde game and it's got a darker, more intimidating setting than Hannibal Lechter's larder. The save data may say 10 hours and 15 minutes but, we can assure you, it actually plays-out more like 15-20 hours once you factor in all of the copious amounts of dying that you'll be doing - it seems the clock resets itself every time you cark it and return to a checkpoint.
But it's a survival horror game after all or, as we like to call it, a sci-fival horror game (chortle). The fact that it ticks all of the boxes mentioned above is to its credit in a genre like this; a genre that's been somewhat forgotten on current-gen machines, we might add. Beyond the original Dead Space, it's hard to pick out many pure survival horror games that have left a lasting mark on the Xbox 360/PS3. Alan Wake ultimately ended up as a bit of a disappointment after years of hype, Konami's Silent Hill series has gone through something of an identity crisis during this hardware cycle, while Resident Evil 5 was as much action as it was survival horror. Pure survival horror seems to have gone the way of pure stealth, with former stalwarts of the genre diluting their experience and moving a once distinct genre further into the ever-growing homogonous goo of generic shooters.
And so it was with great relish that we sat down to play Dead Space 2 - for a game that sticks so closely to the accepted principles of a genre, it actually feels remarkably fresh due mostly to a vacuous absence of top-class alternatives. Of course, it doesn't hurt either that the game's production values are top-notch across the board. In terms of cinematics, sound, character designs, game environment, visual effects - pretty much any element of the game's overall sheen you can think of in fact - Dead Space 2 is right at the top of the pile, not just of survival horror games, but of any game currently on the market. Visceral Games' vision of The Sprawl (its space station setting for DS2) is one you can believe and immerse yourself in from the outset, just as The Ishimura was back in 2008. With most games you can see how an environment has been built up from assets - a computer console here; some crumbling walls there - but The Sprawl is so vividly imagined and designed that there's an almost film set-like quality to the environments.
It's the atmosphere that really stands out with Dead Space 2 though. As you meander through The Sprawl's maze of corridors, Visceral Games occasionally treats you to a window pane with an impressive vista out into space. It's a chillingly dark and lonely depiction of the final frontier that the developer orchestrates, while the story's themes of power and corruption at the centre of a potent and deadly force put it on very similar grounds to the Alien movies. Here, Dead Space 2 sits as sure-footedly as any other form of entertainment to attempt similar themes. The icing on the cake comes from a level of suspense that's certainly not for the faint-hearted - Visceral constantly teases you with all the tools at its disposal (be it lighting, sound, or visual effects) so that you're never quite sure where the next onslaught of enemies is going to come from and, when they do, they never fail to deliver on the heightened levels of unease and anxiety that Visceral skilfully builds up. Our best advice is to get hold of a decent pair of headphones and play Dead Space2 in a pitch-black room - it may warp you mentally, but it'll be worth it.
It's one thing building up the suspense and atmosphere, but you've got to have decent enemies on the other end of it otherwise all the hard work is lost. Once again, Dead Space 2 delivers: the enemy classes are differentiated well enough to keep the gameplay varied, while the AI is just something else in parts. The Stalker class in particular will keep you on the tips of your toes: these bi-pedal beasties hunt in packs and stalk you in a seemingly organised way - they're not unlike the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park, which is undoubtedly why you'll unlock an Achievement called 'Clever Girls' the first team you manage to defeat a pack of them. So, you're probably noticing a trend by now: pretty much everything in Dead Space 2 nails the remit. In fact, all of the various game components emphatically hit their respective remits for six (that's a 'Homerun' to all of our American friends).
It does everything you'd expect of a sequel, and it does all of those things exceptionally well. The Sprawl makes for an intriguing new setting, the storyline is moved along well, and there are advancements to the gameplay throughout (more weapons and customisation options, new enemies, and full 360-degree control during zero-gravity sections that helps to improve the puzzles). What Dead Space 2 doesn't do, though, is surprise you. It does what game sequels do, albeit to an incredibly high standard. There are refinements and advancements to previously established ideas but very little that stands out as entirely new from a conceptual standpoint. Multiplayer is the biggest new feature in this regard, although it feels a bit tacked-on unfortunately.
A total of five maps and one mode ship with the game's multiplayer, which plays-out through 8 player matches that are split down the middle with half the lobby playing as humans and the other half as Necromorphs. It's very similar to Left 4 Dead's Versus mode - four different types of readily spawning Necromorphs have to take out human players before they reach and trigger set objectives. An XP system then unlocks new suits and weapons with a bit of perseverance, although there's not a massive amount to play for in that regard. All-in-all, it's a derivative mode without much depth or content, so certainly not worth buying the game for by itself. Single-player is what it's all about in Dead Space 2 and with unlockable difficulty modes as well as the ability to retain your upgraded Isaac Clarke character from the first play-through in any subsequent attempts, there's considerable replay value here too (not to mention the chance to use the quite awesome 'Hand Cannon' when you complete the ludicrously difficult Hardcore Mode).