Isaac Clarke, the unluckiest space engineer of the 26th century, is more unfortunate than ever in Dead Space 2. 2008's superb Dead Space took the style of survival horror shooter action exemplified by games like Resident Evil 4 and meshed it with an atmospheric deep-space setting and some terrific, distinctly sci-fi gameplay elements, creating something that felt simultaneously familiar and unique. Dead Space 2, on the other hand, will feel thoroughly familiar to those who have played the original; its few improvements over Dead Space are minor tweaks rather than game changers. But blasting the limbs off of hideous necromorphs remains tremendously satisfying, and although the pacing lags a bit during the game's middle portions, this second outing packs more than enough scares and surprises to make stepping back into Isaac Clarke's suit extremely worthwhile. In addition, a new multiplayer component successfully translates Dead Space's particular breed of dismemberment-focused combat into a pulse-pounding team-based experience that casts you as both humans and as the foul necromorphs. As long as you've got the stomach for it, Dead Space 2 is one sci-fi horror thrill ride you definitely want to take.
The first few moments of Dead Space 2 smartly accomplish a good deal in a very short amount of time. We get a glimpse into Isaac's psychological state, his psyche still tormented by the painful loss he experienced on the Ishimura during the events of the first game. We also learn that the three years since then have been little more than a blur to Isaac--he's in some kind of hospital facility, but has only the vaguest memories of his time there. And almost before you can say "necromorph outbreak," you take control of Isaac as he runs for his life from the hideous creatures who, for reasons that aren't immediately clear, have suddenly appeared and started slaughtering the human population here in the Sprawl, a vast urban area on Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Isaac, who said not a word in the original game, has a voice here, and although he's a bit bland as a character, the intensity of the action that surrounds him makes you feel invested in his desperate struggle for survival. Revealing glimpses into the world of Dead Space--such as a trek through a Unitology center that sheds light on the inner workings of the church whose activity is inextricably linked to the necromorph outbreaks--keep the momentum rolling during the early chapters. The game later falls into predictable rhythms for a while, but it picks up steam again toward the end, as the story goes to some unexpected and exciting places and puts almost as much emphasis on Isaac's struggle against his own demons of guilt and regret as on his battles against the necromorphs.
But those battles against the hideous undead mutations remain front and center, where they belong. The key to dropping necromorphs is still blasting off their often frighteningly pointy limbs, which you do with a number of repurposed mining tools and a few actual guns, all of which feel powerful and are immensely fun to use. All of the weapons from Dead Space return in this sequel, including the plasma cutter and the line gun, which fire beams of energy capable of slicing necromorph limbs clean off. Another returning weapon is the ripper, a terrific tool whose spinning blade can result in a noisy, grisly end to necromorphs who make the mistake of getting too close to you. And there are a few new weapons as well: the detonator lets you place laser-triggered trip mines to set explosive traps for approaching necromorphs, and the javelin gun fires spikes at such a tremendous velocity that any necromorph unfortunate enough to be in their path is likely to find itself impaled to a wall. Targeting the abominations and annihilating them feels great and works equally effectively whether you opt to play with a controller or with a keyboard and mouse, so you can opt for your preferred control method without suffering any disadvantage.
As you progress, you can upgrade your weapons with nodes that you collect, making them noticeably more effective at limb-ripping and laying waste to necromorphs, resulting in a satisfying sense of progression. What's more, it seems kinesis technology has seen remarkable advances in the three years since Isaac's fateful trip to the Ishimura, and it's now a much more effective offensive tool. Using this ability to pick up severed necromorph limbs or any of the sharp rods conveniently scattered across the Sprawl and hurl them at necromorphs is no substitute for a trusty plasma rifle by your side, but it works well in a pinch. There's a delicious feeling of dishing out poetic justice in turning the necromorphs' own limbs against them, and making use of this tactic is an effective way to conserve your often very limited ammo supply.
The Sprawl's pressurized environment also occasionally offers a spectacularly reckless and dramatic way to eliminate some necromorphs. Certain rooms have windows that you can easily shatter with a shot of your weapon or a hurled object. The instant you do so, everything in the room--furniture, necromorphs, and you--is rapidly pulled toward the window as the air rushes out into the vacuum of space. To save yourself, as you are being pulled toward the opening, you must quickly shoot a sensor that brings a metallic emergency door down over it. It's a risky and thrilling maneuver that brings some action-movie-style craziness to what is often a more grim and atmospheric adventure. These Hollywood set-piece moments and others that involve speeding trains, pursuits by massive necromorphs, and other surprises are great, but they're not entirely enough to keep things from falling into a predictable rhythm for much of the second half. Still, things start revving up again as you approach the conclusion, and the outrageous final moments make for an intense and truly memorable climax.
Despite your powerful and satisfying arsenal, you still feel as if you're in constant danger, and that's never more the case than when you're faced with a few of the terrifying new types of necromorphs that make their debuts here. One new variety, called the pack, resembles a twisted version of a human toddler. Individually very weak, these terrors run at you in groups, emitting bloodcurdling shrieks all the while, and if one manages to leap up onto you, it can cause tremendous damage. The other new standout necromorph type is called a stalker. These hunters display an intelligence previously unseen in necromorphs, making use of cover to try to stay hidden from you until they decide to strike, charging at you with incredible speed. It's particularly satisfying to hit one of these charging beasts with your very useful stasis ability, stopping it in its tracks before blasting it to bits. On the other hand, these creatures are so speedy and so prone to charge at you when your back is turned that Isaac's slow turning ability can at times become less a source of tension than a source of frustration.
Stasis remains an invaluable part of your arsenal, but turnabout is fair play, and the bile of another new necromorph type, the puker, slows you down almost as much as your stasis ability slows the necromorphs down, leaving you extremely vulnerable for a short period of time. All of these new necromorph threats fit in perfectly with all the returning varieties from the first game, creating a diverse and deadly assortment of both short- and long-range attackers to keep you constantly on edge as you make your way across the Sprawl. Unfortunately, as in the first game, the camera sometimes contributes to the challenge. When you're backed up against a wall and a necromorph gets too close to you, the camera often won't show you your assailant, and targeting the creature can require you to move around to get a decent angle, which is frustrating when your health is rapidly being slashed away.
You might think that with no mission captain issuing orders to Isaac, this time your objectives might be more diverse and engaging than the go-here, fix-this tasks Isaac was saddled with in Dead Space. Alas, that's not the case. Isaac must still play galactic repairman; you need to fix elevators, deactivate AIs, align solar arrays, repair drills, and so on, none of which is terribly exciting. The occasional simple puzzles you encounter and a basic hacking minigame you must frequently complete provide nice little breaks from all the dismembering, though. Solving those puzzles sometimes involves moving through zero-G environments, and the way you do this has changed, for better and for worse. Whereas before, you looked around for a suitable surface to land on and then automatically jumped across the zero-G space, you can now hover in place and move freely in all directions. This added freedom allows for some fun moments in which you must soar around large open spaces to interact with objects. But you can always orient yourself to the ground with the push of a button, so these changes come at the expense of the delightfully disorienting sensation that went with seeing the Ishimura from dizzying new perspectives as you stood on the wall or ceiling of a chamber.
In addition to playing a lot like its predecessor, Dead Space 2 looks a great deal like the visually impressive original. Dead Space cleverly incorporated your health meter and stasis meter into the back of Isaac's suit, and that's still the case; there's no distracting HUD, which lets you feel all the more immersed in the atmospheric environments. But the size and diversity of the Sprawl give Dead Space 2 a very different atmosphere from the original game. Your journey takes you through hospitals, shopping districts, residential quarters, schools, and other locales, all of which are positively packed with details that create a haunting sense that this is a place with history, a place where, up until very recently, people lived normal lives. This variety also means that the Sprawl is not as consistently oppressive a location as was the Ishimura, and at times you may miss all that time spent in the claustrophobic industrial corridors of the planet-cracker. But Dead Space 2's bigger, more sprawling and action-oriented campaign gives the game its own identity; this is the equivalent of the blockbuster movie sequel Aliens to the first game's more moody and intimate Alien. The sound design is an absolutely essential part of the immersive spell the game casts. Recorded announcements echo eerily through the empty corridors; each blast of your weapons rings with the convincing pound of a powerful industrial tool; and the terrifying shrieks, screams, and wails of the necromorphs send shivers up your spine and adrenaline coursing through your veins.
The single-player campaign clocks in at around 12 hours and offers some solid replay value because you can start new games and carry over all your purchased, upgraded equipment, or even try tackling the "hard core" mode, which restarts you from your last save each time you die and permits you to save only three times over the course of the entire campaign. But the real draw to returning to Dead Space 2 time and again is its terrific team-based competitive multiplayer. Divided into humans and necromorphs with up to four players on each side, the multiplayer gives the human team a series of objectives they need to complete within a time limit--interacting with consoles, carrying items, destroying objects, and so on--while the necromorphs' only goal is to stop the humans. The humans all play exactly like Isaac in the single-player, and the opposing players get to choose one of four necromorph types each time they spawn: the elusive pack; the long-range, wall-crawling lurker; the resilient puker; and the hard-hitting spitter.
The setup will feel immediately familiar to those who have played Left 4 Dead 2's competitive multiplayer, but the Dead Space trappings make it a wholly different experience, and an exhilarating one at that. While the mood of the single-player campaign is one of sustained tension and dread, broken frequently by necromorph attacks, multiplayer games create the frantic sense of a constant, desperate fight for survival against an unending onslaught. Humans are individually tougher than the necromorphs, and they have the advantage of spawning with a health pack in their inventories. But unlike the humans, necromorphs can choose where to spawn, making it possible for them to split the humans up and overpower them. Teams alternate once on each map so all players play both sides, and regardless of which side you're playing on, the mode strongly encourages coordinating with team members; taking down humans as part of an organized necromorph assault is immensely rewarding, as is completing an objective as a human player in the final few seconds of a hard-fought match. You earn experience points and level up as you play, gaining access to new weapons, more stasis power, and other benefits as a human and more powerful attacks as a necromorph, which, while nothing new, makes this multiplayer even more addictive.
Dead Space 2 doesn't bring with it the same sense of experiencing something utterly new and innovative that its predecessor did. But it's nonetheless a terrific game, with a campaign that simultaneously leaves you satisfied and eager for more, and intense multiplayer that gives you a great reason to keep coming back to this terrifying universe. Unless you're just plain chicken, this is a sci-fi horror adventure you definitely want to suit up for.