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Isaac floats through space in Dead Space 2 Image: Visceral Games

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Dead Space 2’s setpieces remain unmatched

Visceral Games’ horror game manages the perfect balance of stress and spectacle

Dead Space 2 was released ten years ago. In the time since, we’ve seen the size and ambition of in-game setpieces balloon. Games like God of War place huge importance on their cinematic camera techniques. The recently released Resident Evil 8 has some of the most technically complex scenes ever put in a horror game.

And yet. Even a decade removed from Dead Space 2, I still think it pulls off tense action sequences better than most modern games. Through a combination of clearly communicated motivations, well-considered pacing, and staggering aesthetic design, Dead Space 2’s setpieces continue to stand tall with the best of the medium.

This essay on Dead Space 2 was written as a companion piece to the video above, also created by Jacob Geller.

Horror media often follows a predictable pattern. The first entry in a series will tend to have a relatively small scale, focusing on an intimate scenario and only a few characters. If that first entry succeeds, the franchise comes back with a sequel that has a larger scope, wider target audience, and higher budget. This cycle repeats until later entries in the series barely resemble the first. This happened with Alien. It happened with Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Saw. Resident Evil has been around long enough to experience and reset this pattern several times. And it’s easy to identify this pattern within the Dead Space series.

For a game in which you dismember monsters with a mining tool, the original Dead Space is surprisingly restrained. Its atmosphere comes from quietly wandering the creaking halls of an abandoned spaceship as much as gruesome combat. However, by Dead Space 3, much of that subtlety was replaced with co-op, microtransactions, and boss fights against giant drills. It’s easy to paint the series as one that let commercial success get in the way of its minimalist roots.

But Dead Space 2 proved that it could straddle the restraint of the first entry and the excess of the third. It could add bombast while maintaining a clear connection to the horror it’s built on. And nowhere is this more clear than in the game’s standout setpiece: the HALO jump.

Isaac straps into an ejector seat and prepares for the HALO jump in Dead Space 2 Image: Visceral Games via Polygon

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, series protagonist Isaac Clarke is fixing something on one side of The Sprawl when he gets a panicked call from his friends, stationed on the opposite side. This is a classic Dead Space move — a straightforward engineering activity suddenly becomes stressful thanks to some external pressure. In the first game, Isaac likely would have finished the repair, taken a train across the station, and arrived to find his friends already dead. But, thanks to the expanded scope of the second game, we get a sequence that’s simultaneously more tense and more explosive.

After receiving the distress call, Isaac realizes that the only way he’s going to make it across the space station in time is a HALO jump (that’s an acronym for “High Altitude, Low Opening” — basically a risky form of skydiving in-atmosphere). He rushes to a control room, screams to his friends that they just need to hold on, throws himself into an ejector seat, and — in one beautiful camera motion — shoots himself into space.

In space, no one can hear you rocketing across the void in a desperate attempt to save the people you care about from imminent dismemberment — at least, not at first. In a brilliant subversion of all the tension that led up to this point, the first few seconds of Isaac’s HALO jump are completely silent. The sound of the ejector seat’s rockets disappear, and we’re left with the quiet horror of the vacuum of space. It’s a moment that takes my breath away.

During the HALO jump sequence in Dead Space 2, Isaac rockets through space Image: Visceral Games via Polygon

Then, agonizingly slowly, the scene adds noise back in. First come the bass-y rumblings of Isaac’s rocket thrusters, then the deep “woosh”-ings of objects flying past you. Neither of these really register as noise; they’re more like vibrations picked up through a spacesuit. After a few more seconds, Isaac’s jagged breathing cuts through the void, getting louder and louder until finally, just before landing, an entire screeching horror orchestra breaks out of the silence. It’s a technical tour de force, a demonstration of the power of auditory restraint that lasts through all 45 seconds of the scene.

The minimalism of the soundscape serves to further emphasize the astounding visuals on display. There’s no restraint here, only spectacle. As soon as the scene starts, we’re treated to a perspective we’ve not yet seen in the game: a view of all of The Sprawl, laid out in front of us. At first, we can barely identify the massive city blocks set into the space station. As Isaac draws closer, those city blocks fragment into individual buildings, enormous spires and apartments drawn in crisp detail.

Equally detailed are the objects we’re dodging past on our way to the other side. Instead of featureless space junk or nondescript asteroids, Dead Space 2 fills its void with intimately textured objects. We fly past a decrepit ship with a visible airlock and the paint rusting off its hull. We narrowly avoid an entire hallway, broken away in a complete piece, still full of broken light fixtures. We dodge, not around, but through a colossal chunk of infrastructure, so big that it blocks out our entire view for a few seconds.

An animated gif of Isaac Clarke rocketing through space in Dead Space 2 Image: Visceral Games via Polygon

Although these are simple obstacles when viewed from a strictly gameplay standpoint, their detail lends 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 equally unique detritus. As absurd a premise as an “outer space HALO jump” is on paper, Dead Space 2 uses it to deepen the character of its world.

It’s not hard to imagine a similar sequence in an Uncharted title. The music swells, Nathan Drake quips, the player gets last-second help from an unexpected ally. But perhaps most importantly of all, this setpiece doesn’t betray the foundation of horror the Dead Space series is built on. While not scary in a traditional sense, the HALO jump is achingly tense. The game makes us understand the desperation of this moment; Isaac has to make this jump, and if he messes up, his friends are probably going to die. As the sparse sound design escalates in its intensity and the obstacles grow more complex and harder to avoid, I start to sweat. Every time I have to dodge through the massive chunk of infrastructure, I grit 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 games’ lead developers are working on a new IP with a familiar style. I am excited for this generation’s spin on the franchise, but I hope that we don’t let Dead Space 2 drift from our collective memories. Because, despite all the technical advances of the past ten years, I’ve yet to find a title that manages to more effectively balance stress and spectacle, horror, and awe.