Necromorphs are among the most hideous and terrifying creatures to have ever graced a third-person shooter. In the click of a finger, these mutated corpses will bury their sharp claws right through your skull and tear your head clean off before ripping you apart limb from limb. Relentless in their pursuit of any non-Necromorph creatures – keen to spread the alien infection and adopt new body forms – these alien freaks are brutal in their execution. They burst out of air vents to take you by surprise, hunt in packs to try and overwhelm you and creep around dimly-lit corridors ready to leap on your shoulders and feverishly claw away at every part of your body like Freddy Krueger on meths. Like any good horror movie and videogame creation, the presence of the Necromorphs stays with you long after you’ve blown them into pieces.
In the original Dead Space, the Necromorphs cemented their place in videogame history as some of the most evil creatures you’ll ever encounter. For the sequel however, Visceral Games has pushed the boundaries even further by designing a bunch of freakish corpses and big bosses that take the gore factor to new heights for this particular genre. Take the Pukers, for instance, who disgustingly projectile vomit all over you, or the Guardians who stick to the ceiling with their tentacles dangling crudely out of their wide-open stomachs. These new creatures and others work in perfect disharmony with some familiar old faces, like the infected babies that screech like Banshees and grab you with their trio of tentacles as they savagely rip away at your flesh; or the horrific-looking, lightning-quick Leapers who sport human heads, yet possess massive in-human jaws that house their repulsive razer sharp fangs. The cast of particularly nasty characters are undoubtedly the stars of the show due to their ability to shock and frighten with their array of inhuman attacks, but Visceral Games has also pulled out all the stops in terms of the overall production, which is award-winning in quality.
Whether you’ll be actually scared by Dead Space 2’s collection of hideous Necromorphs though, will really depend on what type of things really frighten you. For some, psychological horror games like Silent Hill and Fatal Frame will be where the real scares lie. However, even if you’re not freaked out by a sack of guts spilling all over your head, or alarmed by the frequent visions of your dead girlfriend, there are still plenty of frights to be had, because Visceral Games uses every trick in the book to make you jump out of your skin. Dead Space 2 is designed to thrill, excite and make you jump; and it works spectacularly, regardless of whether you’re truly scared or not. Though we’ve played a hundred-and-one horror-themed games over the years, Dead Space 2 has an atmosphere so thick that a chainsaw couldn’t even cut through it.
The action and the thrills start immediately. After waking up from a coma on a massive space city known as The Sprawl, you have no memory of the last three years. Once again, you play the role of Isaac Clarke, now battling against dementia and dealing with a new infestation of Necromorphs. Trying to survive, while fending off hordes of nasty creatures, is really what the game is all about. From the very second the first cut-scene kicks in, you get your first sight of a Necromorph – an Infector that sneaks up behind Franko (last seen in Dead Space Ignition) and plunges its sharp talon right through the center of his forehead. Taking over his body, it then stretches the poor man’s neck to such an extent that you see all the muscles, ligaments and nerves expand in front of your eyes as tentacles burst out of his head. The man writhes in pain and begins the short transformation into a hideously mutated Necromorph. Such is the graphic nature of this opening scene, you can’t fail but be taken aback by its power.
This impressive opening sets the tone nicely for the rest of the game, and the action rarely lets up from this point forth. You now need to run for your life because the straight-jacket you’re wearing means that you can’t fight back. And, just like other moments in the game, it’s quite a natural reaction to flee because this creature is hideous. As you move swiftly through dingy corridors and rooms packed with dead bodies slumped over chairs, frantically looking for somewhere safe to hide, you get a sense of urgency that rarely lets up throughout the game’s fifteen action-packed levels. As you dive into a secure area, the shutter doors automatically begin to close behind you and a Necromorph leaps at you only to get dismembered in the shutters, his bloody head rolling across the floor nearby. You continue your search for a way out, but the lights in the elevator blow – the power has completely gone in the building. Immediately, the lack of light instils a sense of panic, as do the noises – the sound of a sprinkler system going off, the distant moans and muffled screams, even the deafening noise of silence serves to make things more nerve racking as you frantically search for any areas of light that might indicate a way out of this hellish nightmare.
Footsteps shuffle around corners, muffled voices mumble behind doors and disturbing visions of your dead girlfriend all add to the tension – as does the excellent use of light and shadow. Dead Space 2 blends clever audio work and powerful visuals to keep you on edge, and then backs it all up with some great set-pieces, clever level design and detailed assortment of horrific-looking creatures. The fact that the action is quite relentless in pace, makes every corner you turn and every room you enter a nerve-racking experience. And the setting of The Sprawl, the civilian space station where the infested now roam, echoes with the life that used to inhabit it. The Sprawl is a much more entertaining and colourful place to explore than Dead Space’s rather gloomy mining ship, but it’s nonetheless still just as unearthly and ominous to explore. In some ways, its colors and iconic imagery mimic the beautifully conceived Rapture City from Bioshock.
As well as injecting some color into the scenery, Visceral Games has also brought the main character Isaac Clarke to life. Unlike the previous game, Clarke now speaks to those trying to get him out of this mess. As a result, you do feel more of an emotional connection to his character. The story, which follows Clarke as he battles with dementia and tries to destroy a religious cult, is nicely augmented by some well-produced cut-scenes and text logs that you find littered all around The Sprawl if you dare to stray off the beaten track. In reflection though, come the final battle, the story had washed over us somewhat; though you could attribute this to the intensity and relentlessness of the combat come the final third. Nonetheless, it provides a suitably mysterious backdrop to the feverish bouts of combat.
The satisfying dismemberment mechanic that debuted in the original game makes a welcome comeback in Dead Space 2. The natural reaction each time you see a Necromorph is to back off and keep back-peddling, as you furiously blast away – you can’t help but be intimidated by these aggressive beasts. The Necromorphs can appear out of nowhere, often in groups, and they attack quickly, barely giving you pause for thought. Like the previous game, head-shots don’t kill these creatures. Instead, you have a three-pronged process of having to shoot at their limbs until they can move no longer, which makes combat all that more intense. Knowing that you have to be so accurate and quick to take them down before they get too close does add to the excitement of the hunt. Visually, combat and creature animation is spectacular as you blow heads and limbs clean off, execute finishing moves, and dramatically tap away at the ‘X’ button to prize off any Necromorph that grabs you.
The weapons on offer, such as the Plasma Cutter, Pulse Rifle and brilliant Flamethrower, handle well, and offer a good degree of tactical opportunity against an array of creatures that all have their own strengths and weaknesses. The upgrade feature, which allows you to change rate of fire, clip size etc., is still fairly unspectacular, but rarely does shredding Necromorphs get boring. There’s also a range of special powers that can be used to add a bit more variety to combat, such as Telekenisis. You can do some great things with these powers, such as pick a limb off the floor and impale it through a Necromorph, and you’ll also use it for some puzzle solving aspects, like slotting fuses into boxes. Similarly, the Stasis ability is excellent for slowing creatures down – something you’ll need to do often to stop the onslaught. And then, just when you think you’ve seen and done it all you’re thrown into an exciting Zero-G fight, or impressive set-piece, such as having to fend off a horde of ravenous Necromorphs while hanging trapped upside down.
And, when you do finally catch your breath and see off the last boss, Dead Space 2 introduces a multiplayer component for some added thrills. Multiplayer is a mode that a lot of developers, particularly in this genre, now feel compelled to include, but here it feels quite unnecessary because the story mode is so good. What you do get though, is fun for a while as four engineers go up against four Necromorphs racing to complete objectives across five maps – assembling a bomb and trying to get it back to an set area, while Necromorphs pull out their rage of gruesome attacking moves to attempt to stop you. We’d sooner have had a few more levels to play, or a co-op feature, but some will get joy out of playing the role of the Necromorph and slicing and dicing their opponents, or get a buzz from frantically trying to get away from these despicable creatures.
Visceral Games’ main strength as a developer lies in its ability to create an immersive game world that sucks you right in from the outset with a blend of great visuals and audio work. The attention to detail throughout the game is brilliant – the lack of a HUD, for example, draws you right into the screen, or the fact that you can’t turn your flashlight on while using the path-finder tool, adds to the drama. In the last quarter of the game, the thrills do lessen slightly and it can be a little frustrating as you get swamped by Necromorphs, but it’s hard to be negative about some bouts of repetitive combat when it’s these intense fights and the brilliant dismemberment mechanic that form part of the reason why it’s such a great game. Without a doubt, Dead Space 2 is going to win many awards come the end of the year, and deservedly so. Not only is it one of the finest looking games that we’ve ever had the privilege of playing, but it’s also one of the most intense cinematic experiences to date. As such, it’s no wonder EA is in talks to turn the franchise into a movie.