The necromorphs swarm through the halls and crevices of The Sprawl with relentless brutality, shredding the populace and reconstructing the mutilated remnants into an army of deadly carcasses. Isaac Clarke, engineer and rare survivor of the Aegis VII incident, wakes in the psychiatric facility of the orbital station. He's disoriented and bound in a straightjacket with no recollection of the past three years, but the violence around him is all too familiar.
The change in scenery, from starship to a massive city built into one of Saturn's moons, affords Visceral Games a wealth of new possibilities. Dead Space 2 is home to a parade of stellar action sequences that might make it an early contender for 'best of' lists. Whether battling waves of necromorphs in a train as it careens toward a sure death, or speeding through space and threading the debris like a human missile, Dead Space 2 is on a mission to constantly top itself.
Whereas the original game was known for startles and stingers as creatures popped out at you, Dead Space 2 embraces horror at its core. Art Director Ian Milham and Audio Director Andrew Boyd have created an unsettling atmosphere that plays with your emotions as it tiptoes along the thin line between dread and safety. Although you can play this sequel without prior knowledge of the series, I don't recommend doing so. I don't want to ruin any surprises, but there are more than a few nods to returning players, and old memories really can come back to haunt you.
While the action and scares are set to overdrive, the plot never clicks fully into gear. The first third of the game, or roughly four hours, is a carrot-on-a-stick scenario with a rather unappetizing carrot. A strange woman occasionally contacts you to guide you along an obscenely convoluted path. You don't know who she is, or why a crypt counts as a viable shortcut when the dead are rising. Without clear goals and motivations, the journey is disconnected from later events and serves little purpose except to show of a handful of environments, including a Church of Unitology.
In later chapters, it's character development that suffers most. From reading and listening to collectible logs, I can tell you about the hobbies, dreams, and frustrations of deceased citizens, including a few of their names. By comparison, Isaac's companions are vacant caricatures with names and little else. This is especially true of a key villain who is awkwardly interjected in the middle of the game. Not even Isaac is safe, whose dialogue includes cheap psychology while holding his head and screaming. It's a shame that even with so much backstory and a conflict fueled by the mingling of politics and religion, Dead Space 2 never delves beyond surface-level entertainment.
The original Dead Space was widely criticized for not being a true survival-horror game. For those players, Survivalist and Zealot difficulties feature significantly harder enemies and fewer supplies. The difference is dramatic. Shortly after switching from Survivalist to Normal, I had a stockpile of health and ammo to sell back to the store. For the most extreme players, or foolishly masochistic, Hardcore mode pushes the boundaries of survivability, removes all checkpoints, and limits you to three saves. Good luck with that.
All of Isaac's weapons and RIGs (his armor) are upgradeable. Like the branching skill-trees of an RPG, you must choose which upgrades are most important at the time, such as ammo capacity, damage, or reloading speed. Buying a new RIG can now yield a bonus ability, such as a discount at the store or higher damage with the pulse rifle, and you always retain the highest armor rating and number of inventory slots. It's a concept that I would love to see expanded upon, perhaps with more weapon-specializations and RIG-specific abilities.
Typically, the key to stopping a necromorph is to dissect it limb by limb until it runs out of appendages. Of the new breed, you may have already seen the unsettling Pack – groups of naked children with massive claws – or the projectile-spewing Puker. There are other newcomers, and the emphasis is more on strategic maneuvering than dismemberment, as it seems to matter little where you shoot them. Your arsenal is largely the same, with the addition of a high-powered rifle, explosive-launcher, and the electrifying javelin gun. Each is a worthy addition, although I would have liked to see some changes to the old gear, like a more effective force gun or a flamethrower with a longer range.
Multiplayer is new territory for the series and it mixes the team mechanics of Left 4 Dead with the ranks of Call of Duty; the more you play, the more weapons, abilities, and outfits you unlock. Four players attempt to complete objectives as humans while four players don the roles of bloodthirsty necromorphs. Multiplayer is enjoyable enough and quite polished, despite a scant five maps. The only real problem is that it struggles to find an identity all its own, as if it only exists because multiplayer is what the kids want these days.
Dead Space 2 is a fantastic experience, filled with stunning action sequences and environments that inspire fear, as opposed to relying on cheap scare tactics. Creatures still jump out once in a while, but not before a few seconds of spinning around, desperately searching for the source of that gurgling sound. I'm disappointed that the story never pays off, and seems more like a bridge to a third installment (getting close to Earth). It may not be deep, but it is an exciting journey, and possibly the most frightening game since the original Dead Space.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]