While it focuses more on action, Dead Space 2 is every bit as good as the original, offering a gut-twisting experience.
In 2008, Isaac Clarke, a space engineer from the 26 century, first survived the horrors aboard the U.S.G Ishimura in Dead Space, one of the best horror-action games in years. But now, three years later, the Necromorph threat has returned in Dead Space 2, this time on a large civilian space-station orbiting Saturn named The Sprawl. Although not a lot has changed between the original game and its successor, the few minor changes to the gameplay mechanics and the level-design help Dead Space 2 feel a lot more than simply "more of the same", but as a whole new experience filled with thrills, action and strategic dismemberment.
As the story begins, it is immediately clear that Isaac is not well. In fact, he apparently spent the last three years in The Sprawl's psychiatric ward, being treated for severe dementia that was caused by his exposure to the Red Marker back on Aegis VII. As the game starts, Isaac is freed from his cell by the protagonist of Dead Space: Ignition (Dead Space 2's downloadable prequel) during an ongoing outbreak of Necromorphs all across the station. After a brief but exhilarating chase sequence, Isaac must once again survive against impossible odds and discover the secrets locked away deep within his shattered psyche. As in the previous games, the story is told through a series of video and audio logs, plus the occasional video transmissions from several NPCs such as a raving lunatic or a fallow survivor. Isaac's dementia is also a strong narrative tool, manifesting as visions of his dead girlfriend Nicole brought on by his guilty conscience and the influence of the Marker. The story is a bit hard to follow at times, but as the game nears its end, everything becomes a lot clearer, mimicking Isaac's state of mind.
The new setting, The Sprawl, is a gigantic space-station, inhabited by around one million people at the time of the outbreak. It has malls, schools and even churches, all of them offer unique visual settings and sometimes even a new look for some of the enemies (Slashers in priest uniforms for example) . It's a big step forward, since exploring the Ishimura in the original Dead Space offered little in terms of variety. Dead Space 2 does have its share of bleak corridors and dark rooms, but the Sprawl actually feels more lived in, especially in earlier levels when Isaac is still exploring the residential areas, witnessing the effects of the outbreak firsthand.
The game's structure is still very linear, with little room for exploring off the main path (though it does encourage exploration with promises of extra ammo and unique items) , but it feels a lot more flaunt this time, and each chapter blends in almost seamlessly with the next. It does it so well, a lot of times it's hard to tell when starting a new chapter, which really keep the game flowing and moving forward. Dead Space 2 does slow down later in the game, when the environments go back to the industrial setting of the first game and the gameplay falls into a routine of Necromorph slicing and dicing, but then it picks up again and keeps on going strong till the very end. It doesn't mean that the game becomes boring or repetitive, it's just that most of the memorable and intense moments are at the beginning and the end, leaving the middle feeling a bit empty.
Strategically dismembering your enemies is still a major part of the Dead Space franchise, and the combat plays and bigger role this time around: Isaac has access to more weapons, such as a javelin gun and remotely detonated mines, plus his suit's telekinesis and stasis abilities are back full swing, making the combat even more exhilarating. The improvements to the TK ability are especially worth mentioning, since now it is an effectual weapon all by itself: it is faster, and allows Isaac to pick up not only random objects from the environment, but even dismembered enemy limbs, such as the Slasher's claws, and use them to impale enemies to walls. On top of some new weapons, there are some new, quite disturbing additions to the Necromorphs army. One specific new enemy, the Stalker, uses hunting tactics like luring Isaac into an ambush or flanking him from behind, making it one of the scariest enemies to face in the game. Despite the added variety, Dead Space 2 still uses the same three basic types of Necromorphs way too much, diminishing the impact the newer types have on the game.
Apart from the action, Dead Space 2 also tries to blend it some puzzle elements from time to time, most of them done in zero gravity environments. The zero gravity movement has improved greatly, and Isaac can now float around freely, thanks to rocket boosters embedded in his suit, instead of jumping from wall to wall to ceiling. This new freedom helps make the combat and puzzle solving in zero gravity all the more fun and intuitive, while still maintaining that "world turned upside down" feeling from the original game. If floating around the environment gets a bit too disorienting, it is possible to re-align Isaac with the floor with a push of the right shoulder button, but it makes the zero gravity sequences lose some of its magic. The puzzles themselves are pretty simple and straightforward: they range from little hacking mini-games, through maneuvering deadly obstacles in zero gravity to re-aligning giant solar array dishes. Though they offer a welcomed break from the combat, most puzzles are not very creative or hard, and do not pose any sort of challenge.
Although Dead Space 2 is marketed as a survival-horror game, it is not the case. Sure, the first few hours of the game are indeed scary and intense, with some great nerve-wracking moments and masterly executed lighting and sound effects, but the game shifts its emphasis from slow paced horror to full blown shooter action halfway through the game. At some point in later episodes the game simply starts throwing waves and waves of enemies at Isaac, offering him no other option than to mow them down like a one man army. It's a real shame to see the work that was put into creating such a wonderfully intense atmosphere during the first part of the game being replaces later on for the sack of cheap scares and hordes of enemies.
As mentioned, light and sound play a huge part in creating the game's atmosphere and feel, and they are the most noticeable elements in its presentation. The flickering lights, shifting shadows and eerie visual and audio cues are enough to unnerve even the most jaded of players. These simple tools are masterfully shaped into one big scare machine that keeps you on your toes, and manages to make you jump in your seat time after time. Adding to that the great voice acting of every character Isaac meets (including Isaac's himself) combined with clever use of in-game health, ammo, and action indicators and the creepy, familiar yet alien environments and you get an impressive looking and sounding game.
Dead Space 2 improves on almost everything that made the original Dead Space such a great game, and still manages to offer its own unique experience without feeling to familiar. The shift in focus from horror to alien-crushing action and some pacing problems does diminish the game's appeal at times, but the great presentation, complex story, and some really intense moment make up for it in a big way. For fans of the original, as well as for anyone who is seeking some powerful sci-fi action, with a scoop of horror, this is an obvious "must play". Dead Space 2 might not make you scream in terror, but it would definitely grab hold of your guts and keep on squeezing until Isaac Clarke's second action-packed journey is concluded.