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Two words: baby maggots. Maggots are already babies (OK larvae, sue me) so I can only be talking about one thing. A hideous combination of human babies and maggots. That explode. Say what you will about sequel slumps for any other game but Dead Space 2 went hard. Any sequel, especially a second game in a series, should know that in order to be worth its salt it should be bigger and better. Functionally Dead Space 2’s core mechanics were the same as the original game’s: repurposed mining tools as weapons, zero-g combat, stasis, kinesis and the twisted monsters known as necromorphs. What Dead Space 2 did was deepen the game world and open up a whole new door on psychological terror even as it fleshed out the gross and gory body horror that made it famous.
It’s 2511, three years after the USG Ishimura incident. Sole survivor Isaac Clarke, engineer turned catatonic mental patient, wakes up on the Sprawl a metropolitan space station orbiting the remains of Titan. All hell has broken loose after Hans Tiedemann, Director of the Sprawl, has reverse-engineered a new Marker like the one Isaac destroyed three years ago on Aegis VII. With the majority of the Sprawl’s population dead, insane or reanimated as necromorphs Isaac must destroy the new marker and absolve himself of the guilt caused by being unable to save Nicole Brennan, his girlfriend on the Ishimura.
In its jump from the claustrophobic corridors of the USG Ishimura to the more varied spaces of the Sprawl Dead Space 2 loses some of that tightly wound terror it had in the first game. It makes up for this loss by piling a lot more enemies into the game. Classic necromorphs like Lurkers, Slashers and Dividers return with the addition of charging Stalkers, bile-spewing Pukers and the massive Tripods. Dead Space 2, much like its predecessor, throws you right into it only this time it sticks Isaac in a straitjacket for the first 10 minutes forcing you to dodge and duck your way through a chaotic hospital escape before an insane soldier cuts Isaac free and then sets himself free by slitting his own throat. Only then does the game give you access to the plasma cutter that Isaac used to strategically dismember the endless tide of rotting horrors on the Ishimura.
While trauma is not an uncommon theme in horror it’s not something that was often looked at too deeply in popular horror games before Dead Space 2 came along. The Resident Evil franchise barely gave it a passing thought until Resident Evil 5 when big boy beefcake Chris Redfield thought about his presumed dead partner Jill Valentine for all of five seconds. Dead Space 2 gives Isaac Clarke’s guilty conscience as much time as it does it’s dripping body horror. Visions and delusions regularly attack Isaac’s mind often taking the form of Nicole, his girlfriend who committed suicide on the Ishimura three years previously. The cold greys and blues and deep blacks that form the colour scheme of the Sprawl are replaced by the pale saturated yellows and rust browns that coloured the Ishimura.
It’s hard to pick a highpoint from Dead Space 2. The battle in the Unitology Church is pretty damn good but the fight through the Sprawl’s elementary school was what I found most horrifying considering it had Isaac fighting the Pack (necromorph children) and the aforementioned exploding maggot-babies which I just learned are called Crawlers. Fun! But the area that deals with the games themes the best and also has some of the scariest sequences is Isaac’s return to the wreck of the Ishimura.
The original Dead Space could be subtle when it wanted to be. Outside of the ravening hordes made of sharpened bone and sloughing flesh there were the auditory hallucinations. The alien Markers would often drive people insane through constant psychic whispering as often as they would turn them into necromorphs. Aboard the Ishimura in both games this psychic whispering often comes in the form of a distant voice singing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ or voices whispering variations on “Help us Isaac”. Returning to the docked Ishimura in Dead Space 2 brings the voices back along with some of the games toughest battles. A long walk down one of the Ishimura’s endless maintenance corridors sends a host of Slashers, Pukers and Brutes at Isaac. Dead Space 2 was always very good at making its wider, more open spaces seem very cramped once it started packing them with enemies.
Isaac’s slog through the bowels of his own personal hell is ultimately worth it. Soon after he manages to forgive himself over his inability to save Nicole. At the end of the game the Ishimura is still docked in the Sprawl as the station explodes. As another famous sci-fi character once said: “Let the past die, kill it if you have to”. But of course it was never just his own mind that Isaac was up against. Mentally it was a two way battle. He was fighting both the schizoid fantasies projected by his fevered brain as well as the influence the Marker wields against human thought. Dead Space 2 is a horror game within and without of Isaac’s head. The necromorphs are a real, flesh-rending threat but so is the Marker, just in a more insidious way. Isaac is an unreliable player character in that he will turn against himself from time to time and in the guise of Nicole or the Marker attempt to end his own life with whatever’s available.
Dead Space 2 reflects Isaac through the character of Nolan Strauss. Strauss was a scientist driven insane by a fragment of the Red Marker Isaac destroyed on Aegis VII. A resident of the same hospital as Isaac Strauss escaped and later meets up with Isaac after being found by pilot Ellie Langford. The Marker plays havoc with Strauss just as it does with Isaac only Strauss doesn’t have nearly the resilience or experience to really fight back. He progressively grows worse as the game goes on, tormented by visions of the wife and son he murdered, until eventually he snaps. In a fit of sustained madness Strauss gouges Ellie’s eye out and attacks Isaac forcing the engineer to put him out of his misery. It’s a grim look at what can easily happen to Isaac if you’re not vigilant enough as a player.
Dead Space 2 ends in the same place it begins: in the diseased confines of Isaac’s head. Much like fighting the Hive Mind in Dead Space the fight against the Marker’s version of Nicole and her brood is a disappointment when compared with the rest of the game. Still, it makes sense that this is the place that the now defunct Visceral Games chose to end Dead Space 2. It’s not just the Sprawl that’s infected it’s Isaac too. In order to win the battle without he has to win the one within first. The instant death, cheap enemy models and ugly arena don’t make the fight a particularly pleasant one to play but at least it’s thematically consistent. And in fairness you destroy Isaac’s guilt and the Marker’s influence the same way you take apart the necromorphs: piece-by-piece.