A spectacularly disappointing sequel
The original Dead Space, though effectively Resident Evil 4 draped in System Shock 2's clothing, was an intense and enjoyable, if banal, horror shooter. It was fun for what it was, and had a lot of room for growth and improvement, but a good balance between exploration, puzzling and combat, plus a general lack of hand-holding provided a surprisingly diverse, compelling and surprisingly tense and challenging game in an age of interactive movies.
I'm sad to say, then, that Dead Space 2 has pretty much decided to throw away the vast majority of interesting things the first game had to offer. The same old combat returns, with a few new weapons and suits for Isaac to purchase, upgrade and wear around while popping limb-shaped moles IN SPACE!, but unlike the first game, where combat was only one component of the fun, in Dead Space 2, that's pretty much all there is from start to finish: fighting your way through one corridor to the next, with the occasional arena fight against a few Necromorphs, and then being interrupted by a few impotent jump scares as an archetypical, usually "insane" NPC blathers vague nonsense through your radio in an attempt to provide a sense of mystery to the plot.
For a sequel, Dead Space 2 is remarkably light on actual new content and game mechanics. Zero gravity has been expanded a bit with a free-flight mode, which is used for absolutely nothing of any interest throughout the game, and many of the tense sequences taking place in the vacuum of space have been replaced with more linear corridors and jump scares. A hacking mini-game has also been shoehorned in "because Mass Effect 2 did it", and is about as much fun as any hacking mini-game; that is, not at all. While the first game was happy to break from linearity by providing multi-stage objectives within larger levels, "the Sprawl" offers hallway after hallway of nothing.
Somehow, Dead Space 2 manages to be even less scary than the first one, which I think is a feat only capable through sheer force of will to completely misunderstand how horror works. With plentiful ammunition, save stations and checkpoints around every corner, a 100% linear path to follow, more responsive controls, and significantly less dangerous enemies, you certainly won't ever fear the Reaper's icy touch. Much as with the first game, Dead Space 2 assumes that dim lights and ugly monsters are enough to freak you out; the formula becomes extremely transparent and predictable after about an hour, however, resulting less in tension and fright and more in simple anticipation to cap whatever Necromorph's decided to spawn behind your back. It even begins to border on self-parody with its brief preschool level, complete with crawling, exploding babies.
When you aren't blasting at enemies with the Plasma Cutter, the most ridiculous "engineering tool" ever invented, you'll probably be performing a quick-time event. While the first Dead Space had the occasional quick-time events and cutscenes, they were infrequent enough to never grate. Dead Space 2 provides its first quick-time event approximately five minutes into the gameplay. This was probably the first sign that things were going to go downhill fast. After a vaguely novel introduction which sees Isaac tutorialing his way through a hospital wing toting a straightjacket, dodging Necromorphs to and fro, things settle into their usual pace very quickly, though the absurdity of the Dead Space universe, and its weapon-stocked vending machines ready and willing to sell their goods to escaped mental patients, is a sore point which Visceral seem content to completely and utterly ignore in favour of "unexpected" plot twists about as surprising as EA's manipulation of Battlefield 3 review scores.
What good is there to say about Dead Space 2? It's pretty, quite so, and despite being horribly cramped and linear, the 3D skyboxes bordering the corridors are some of the more expansive and striking I've seen in a while. It sounds great, too, and the story, though completely formulaic and lacking in any mystery whatsoever, is at least told well enough to keep things moving along from one quick time event to the next. The PC version also wasn't completely butchered this time, and since I rather prefer using a mouse and keyboard, it's nice that I can actually aim properly this time around. But then, good graphics, audio and production values are to be expected from a "AAA" title such as this one, so I'm not sure why that should be considered much of a selling point. I almost feel sorry for Visceral's art and audio teams - these guys do great work, and it's completely and utterly wasted on a game as tired as this one.
Dead Space 2 resorts to reusing its already tiny environments about 1/3 through (chapter 6 by my reckoning) and never really goes uphill from there. Everything about it smacks of a hastily-put-together, trend-hopping, passionless cash-in, its gameplay made easier, simpler and dumber to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, as dictated by the soulless cardboard cut-outs running EA. The sheer apathy can be felt right down to the placement of "hidden" items five feet from the beaten path, and schematics for flamethrowers inexplicably left lying on the floor of fourth-grade classrooms. Who gives a shit? Not Visceral Games!
The most entertaining thing Dead Space 2 has to offer is the frequency at which ragdolls get stuck in level geometry. Unless you can pick it up for super-cheap (as I did) or have some sort of fetish for blowing your money on mediocre games, avoid Dead Space 2 like a Unitologist handing out flyers on a street corner.