Dead Space 2 was released ten years ago. In the time since, we have seen the size and ambition of balloons in setpieces in the game. Play as god of war place great emphasis on their cinematic camera techniques. It was recently released Resident Evil 8 has some of the most technically complex scenes ever put into a horror game.
And still. Even a decade removed from Dead Space 2I still think it pulls tense action sequences better than most modern games. Through a combination of clearly communicated motifs, well-considered tempo and dizzying aesthetic design, Dead Space 2Set pieces continue to stand tall with the best of the medium.
This essay about Dead Space 2 was written as a companion to the video above, also created by Jacob Geller.
Horror media often follow a predictable pattern. The first post in a series tends to have a relatively small scale with a focus on an intimate scenario and only a few characters. If the first post succeeds, the franchise will return with a successor that has a larger scope, wider audience and higher budget. This cycle is repeated until later items in the series hardly resemble the first. This happened with Strangers. It happened Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and So V. Resident Evil has existed long enough to experience and reset this pattern several times. And it’s easy to identify this pattern within Dead Space series.
For a game where you separate monsters with a mining tool, the original Dead Space is surprisingly withheld. The atmosphere comes from quietly wandering in the squeaky halls of an abandoned spaceship as much as cruel combat. However, by Dead Space 3, much of this subtlety was replaced by co-op, microtransactions and boss fights against giant drills. It’s easy to paint the series as one that lets commercial success get in the way of its minimalist roots.
But Dead Space 2 proved that it could tighten over the detention of the first entry and the profits of the third. It could add bombast while maintaining a clear connection to the horror on which it is built. And nowhere is this more evident than in the game’s standout set: the HALO jump.
Dead Space 2 takes place across a massive space station called “The Sprawl”, essentially a donut-shaped city in space. In the middle of the game, the series’ main character Isaac Clarke solves something on one side of The Sprawl when he gets a panic call from his friends located on the opposite side. This is a classic Dead Space move – a straightforward engineering activity is suddenly stressed thanks to external pressure. In the first game, Isaac would probably have completed the repair, taken a train over the station and arrived to find his friends who were already dead. But thanks to the expanded scope of the second game, we get a sequence that is more tense at the same time and more explosive.
Upon receiving the emergency call, Isaac realizes that the only way he will get through the space station in time is a HALO jump (it is an acronym for “High altitude, low opening” – basically a risky form of parachuting in atmosphere). He hurries to a control room, yells at his friends to just hold on, throws himself into an ejector seat and shoots himself – in a beautiful camera movement – into the room.
In space, no one can hear you shoot across the void in a desperate attempt to save the people you care about from imminent division – at least not at first. In a glorious undermining of all the excitement that led up to this point, the first few seconds of Isaac’s HALO leap are completely silent. The sound of the ejector seat rockets disappears and we are left with the quiet horror of the space vacuum. It’s a moment that takes my breath away.
Then the scene, tormenting slowly, adds noise back. First comes the bas-y rumble from Isaac’s rocket thrusters, then the deep “woosh” of objects flying past you. None of these really register as noise; they are more like vibrations captured through a spacesuit. After a few seconds, Isaac’s thankful breathing cuts through the void and gets louder and louder, until finally, just before landing, a completely screaming horror orchestra breaks out of the silence. It is a technical tour de force, a demonstration of the power of auditory restraint that lasts through all 45 seconds of the stage.
The minimalism of the soundscape serves to further emphasize the stunning images displayed. There is no restraint here, only a spectacle. As soon as the scene starts, we are treated to a perspective we have not yet seen in the game: a viewing of the entire The Sprawl, laid out in front of us. At first, we can hardly identify the massive city blocks that have been put into the space station. As Isaac approaches, the city blocks in individual buildings, huge spiers and apartments drawn in sharp detail.
Equally detailed are the objects we avoid passing on the way to the other side. Instead of informal space junk or indescribable asteroids, Dead Space 2 fills its void with objects with dense texture. We fly past a dilapidated ship with a visible airlock and the paint rusts off the hull. We narrowly avoid an entire hallway, broken away into a complete piece, still full of broken light fixtures. We dodge, not around, but through a colossal part of the infrastructure, so large that it blocks our entire view for a few seconds.
While these are simple obstacles from a strictly gameplay point of view, their details give the scene a surprising credibility. It doesn’t feel like game designers filled the space between two points with junk because players needed something to do. Instead, this level of detail implies that any other point in space around The Sprawl would have just as unique detritus. So absurd is a premise like an “outer space HALO-jump” on paper, Dead Space 2 uses it to deepen the character of his world.
It’s not hard to imagine a similar sequence in one Unknown title. The music swells, Nathan Drake acknowledges, the player gets help at the last second from an unexpected ally. But perhaps most importantly, this setpiece does not betray the basis of horror Dead Space the series is built on. While not terrifying in the traditional sense, the HALO jump is very tense. The game makes us understand the desperation in this moment; Isaac has to make this leap, and if he destroys, his friends are likely to die. As the sparse sound design escalates in intensity and the obstacles become more complex and harder to avoid, I start sweating. Every time I have to dodge through the huge part of the infrastructure, I grind my teeth.
Rumors continue to swirl around a return to Dead Space in one way or another. EA may be reviving the series, and some of the original game’s lead developers are working on a new IP with a familiar style. I’m excited about this generation’s spin on the franchise, but I hope we do not let it Dead Space 2 slips from our collective memories. For despite all the technical advances of the last ten years, I have not yet found a title that manages to balance more effectively the balance between stress and glasses, horror and awe.