Remember 2011 for: Dead Space 2

As 2011 draws to a close TVGB takes this week to look at some of the best games of the year. No, we’re not going to be the hundredth site to tell you that Portal 2/Skyrim/Batman/Uncharted 3 was the best game to release in the last 365 days, but rather remember some of the titles that, while not necessarily forgotten, won’t be at the forefront of the GOTY nominations. Today we take you back to The Sprawl for one of 2011’s best games, Dead Space 2.

We live in a cruel world. Sure, Skyrim is incredible and Uncharted is jaw-dropping, but the fact that Dead Space 2 is missing out on any GOTY nominations this year breaks my heart like a Plasma Cutter’s just hit it. You can’t help feeling that, had it not released as early as January, the game might have been up for a few more nods.

Of course, Dead Space 2’s world is far more cruel, thrusting Isaac Clarke back into a tale of flesh-eating necromorphs and psychotic cult religions. It’s a horror game with a sprinkling of Uncharted and Modern Warfare, but it’s got a unique identity and enough of its own ideas to stand tall next to those two franchises as well the horror titles it so obviously draws influence from.

Drowning is the best word I can use to describe my feelings playing through the game. Sometimes I’m drowning in fear, other times in amazement and sometimes in overwhelming pressure, but I never feel afloat, calm, at peace, and that’s brilliant. A good horror game will evoke all of these emotions through its fleeting moments of unnerving silence and seemingly impossible battles. Dead Space 2 does all of that and more.

Rather than twist gaming conventions on their heads or introducing bold new ones, this sequel simply nails the fundamentals of a great action-horror game. Its ruthless pacing makes it hard to put down, perfectly mixing the action with story and sight-seeing that never allow for even a hint of dullness.

Setting, shooting and survival are the three key components that make Dead Space 2 an atmospheric and intense adventure. Trading the brilliantly compact Ishimura from the original game for a huge space station named The Sprawl was a risky move for developer Visceral but one that paid off in spades. Every day settings like schools and shops are turned into arenas of death that play host to frantic battles against overwhelming odds, yet there are enough ventilation shafts and dingy back rooms to capture the feeling of dread that the first game created so well.

Dismemberment is the game’s real star, turning fights from simple third person gunplay into pressured, tactical battles that often find Isaac with his back against the wall, desperately blasting away at legs, arms and weird tentacles that fire… something harmful. While the Plasma Cutter’s helpful ability to fire either horizontally or vertically makes it a mainstay in your arsenal, there’s no shortage of inventive weaponry like the saw-firing Ripper to aid your quest. And you’ll certainly need them against the swarms of bomb-blasting, baby-exploding, vomit-spurting enemies Isaac comes up against.

Dead Space 2’s creatures are truly horrific, and the game benefits all the more for it. The standard necormorph, a fearsome creature with blades for arms and a scream that never fails to send a shiver down the spine, is a tough opponent, but the towering boss battles are truly a sight to behold. Thanks to the sheer amount of enemy variety, no two encounters are the same, keeping you on your toes all the way through.

But the game’s insistence on the player having a hand in Isaac’s survival both in and out of battle, combined with a lack of a HUD and natural implementation of ammo counters and health bars connects you with the character more than other games do. While it boasts the shooting of an AAA blockbuster, the game doesn’t fall back on other hand-holding conventions like regenerating health or unlimited inventory slots. Health and item management are essential to survival, especially considering the limited ammo availability on harder difficulty settings. There are more than a few times when you’re sitting there, ammo depleted, health as low as it can be, facing a horde of enemies, and you can’t help but feel like the game is swimming in your sense of dread, laughing at you. What a bastard Dead Space 2 can be at times, what a glorious bastard.

We’ve used the phrase “at its best” a fair amount in this week’s previous features, but it doesn’t apply to Dead Space 2 because the game really does feel like it’s reaching that high from start to finish.

There are plenty of moments, though, that define the game. The incredible opening sequence that sees a defenseless Isaac escape a horde of necromorphs, the “bring it on” feeling of acquiring a new suit, seeing a monster four times Isaac’s size emerge from the flames of a wrecked ship, finding yourself surrounded by exploding babies while slightly demonic lullabies play overhead, surviving a frantic scrap in a sports hall, flying against the force of a garbage chute, getting flung into space by a gigantic beast, being—okay I’ll stop.

Sure, Dead Space 2’s action is Resident Evil 4, its set pieces are Uncharted 2 and its story-telling is BioShock, but it’s the perfect mix of all three. Innovation is vital to the industry, that seems to be 2011’s message, but Dead Space 2 is also a strong reminder that any game with enough love and attention poured into its development can come out on top, shooter or otherwise. When you’re knee deep into this adventure, it makes you feel like no other game has this year. For a game all about death, it makes you feel strangely alive.