The first Dead Space was a surprise to me because it took a bunch of familiar concepts from other games and movies, and put them together so expertly that the result somehow felt original and highly satisfying in its own right. With an established Dead Space formula now in place, the only surprise about the game's first sequel is that it's actually better than the original. Dead Space 2 expands the scope and intensity of its sci-fi horror action without stifling its tense atmosphere or fiddling too much with its nearly perfect third-person shooting. If you care at all about keeping up with the evolving standards of cinematic action games, you simply can't miss it.
You're once again in the role of that valiant space engineer Isaac Clarke, the poor sap who was sent on a routine mission to find out why the giant mining ship USG Ishimura had gone dark, and then barely survived the terrible horde of monsters its crew had become. At the end of the first game we saw Clarke escape the Ishimura and destroy the sinister artifact responsible for the whole undead mess, but beyond those final events his fate was unclear. This being a sequel, Clarke is of course pitted against another outbreak of those awful necromorphs, but the game's writers laudably avoid taking the lazy way out by merely having Isaac's superiors transfer him to another mining colony that also happens to get overrun by monsters. All in a day's work, right?
Instead, you start with Isaac waking up in a straightjacket with no idea where he is and no memory of the three years since the Ishimura incident. Also, everyone around him is in the process of being slaughtered. This lack of backstory contributes to a healthy mystique that builds up around this second necromorph outbreak as you fight your way through it, and get closer to the truth of why this awful business is happening again and who's responsible for it. In the first game you didn't hear a peep out of Clarke, but now he's joined the noble ranks of formerly silent protagonists who have gone on to more prominent speaking roles, since his trademark robotic helmet will lower during dramatic scenes so he can plead his case to the scant few survivors nearby. The game takes this opportunity for richer characterization and uses it to plumb the depths of Clarke's tattered psyche, but he comes off as kind of a one-dimensional, square-jawed action hero who's never quite in danger of actually losing it, so I didn't feel especially connected to what the game depicts as a grueling internal conflict. But I did appreciate his interactions with the other characters and the way they fleshed out the game's overall storyline.
Isaac was silent in the first game largely because the dreadful atmosphere of the Ishimura itself was in a lot of ways the real star of the show. As terrifying as it was, though, the ship was a purely utilitarian mining vessel, and at some point when you've seen one drab industrial corridor, you've seen them all. Dead Space 2 moves the setting to Titan Station, a vast colony built right into the mined-out remnants of Saturn's largest moon. In contrast to the Ishimura, this place is a fully functioning city in space, complete with residential apartments, churches, and schools. You'll find yourself fighting through all of those places, which serves the dual purpose of nicely varying the backdrops and also providing the means for some really uncomfortable scripted situations involving the occasional innocent bystander.
All that space-horror window dressing is great and everything, but for all I care Dead Space could revolve around prancing unicorns on Gumdrop Mountain as long as it still played the way it does. Ultimately, it's the perfectly tuned third-person run-and-gun shooting action that attracts me to this series, and that gameplay has only gotten better in Dead Space 2. It still revolves around shooting the heads, arms, legs, and tentacles off of every necromorph you see, and the basic controls for doing that are still so well tuned that I can't think of any way to meaningfully improve them. Everything from the acceleration in the over-the-shoulder aiming to the fact that you can sprint backwards makes the game a joy to control. Look, any game that lets you reload even while you're running is A-OK in my book. If there were a university course about third-person shooter design, it would devote an entire unit to the way this game plays.
There are a few new weapon types (a minelayer, a sniper rifle) alongside the iconic original guns like the plasma cutter and line gun--and of course there are a few tricky new types of enemies to use them on--but otherwise, the mechanics here feel pretty familiar. You still have peripheral tricks like the stasis weapon that lets you slow down enemies, and the kinetic power that lets you launch objects at them. It didn't occur to me until I threw in the first Dead Space, but everything just moves a bit faster here than in the first game, from the way you move around the environments to even how quickly the clever in-game holographic UI pops up when you grab items. It's a subtle difference but one that improves the overall flow of the action in my opinion.
(It's worth noting the preceding comments about the controls apply only to the console versions, since I didn't have a chance to try the PC version of Dead Space 2 prior to release. A lot of people had trouble with the feel of the first game's aiming on the PC, for what it's worth.)
That minor increase in speed goes hand in hand with the game's slightly greater emphasis on big action. That's not to say there isn't also plenty of quiet suspense, though. You'll creep through plenty of dark corridors, never sure when another necromorph will burst from its carefully hidden monster closet and startle the crap out of you. There are also a number of subdued sequences that take place in a vacuum, where your air supply is limited and there's almost no sound, and in zero gravity, with objects lazily floating all around you. Those zero-G segments might be the most improved thing about the game, since Isaac's suit now has little boosters that let you fly around freely, rather than having to launch yourself in a straight line from surface to surface. The designers use that new freedom to stage one mindboggling, lonely spacewalk outside the station itself that honestly left my jaw hanging open. It's really effective, evocative stuff.
But the bigger environments and quicker gameplay allow some stunningly larger-than-life action sequences to take place as well. Remember when that giant tentacle came out of nowhere near the beginning of the first game, and you had to actively shoot its weak points as it dragged you through the ship? The sequel has a bunch of stuff like that, amplified by a large factor. There aren't a lot of boss encounters, per se, but you'll certainly have to deal with plenty of giant ugly monsters while in some compromising positions. And while you'll spend lots of time in tight, dark corridors, there are plenty of instances of larger-scale combat against multiple enemies in wider areas, as well. I felt like the designers struck the right balance to keep things varied and still retain this game's identity as a follow-up to Dead Space.
I don't like to spend a lot of time describing the look of a game these days because, hey, it's 2011. That's what we produce videos for. But Dead Space 2's visuals are worth recognizing simply because they're so impressive. The amount of detail in every single room of Titan Station is downright baffling when you consider that someone had to model and texture and assign physical properties to every single surface and object in there. I'm not trying to equate more detail with a better visual style or something, but the game's environments have a stunning amount of craft in them. There's also a great, restrained use of lighting that helps to heighten the tension from area to area. The sound design is just as appropriately horrific; some of the sounds the new necromorphs make from the shadows, announcing their presence before you even see them, are absolutely bloodcurdling. It's a game that looks and sounds incredible, and one that, like the first Dead Space, demands the biggest screen and speakers you can give it.
Dead Space 2 has multiplayer, though I wouldn't have told you the game needed it, based on the way it plays. But it turns out the multiplayer isn't half bad. Here is where I make the requisite " Left 4 Dead Space" joke and tell you that it pits four human players against four necromorphs in an objective-based format that flips the two sides after one round. And just like in Valve's series, the humans are relatively hearty while the monsters are frail as all get out, meaning the players on the monster side will respawn repeatedly as fast as they can to prevent the humans from reaching their goal before time expires. The game only ships with five maps, but it does have a progression-based leveling system that unlocks new weapons and abilities. That provides a decent carrot for you to chase after, and there's some room for coordinated teams to strategize against less-organized opponents and achieve dominance. The multiplayer doesn't seem especially deep, though, and consequently I suspect it will lose its luster after a week or two.
The good news is the campaign alone is worth playing through two or even three times. I personally enjoyed Dead Space 2 so much that I played through the PlayStation 3 version start to finish, then immediately started another run on the 360, and plan to play it again on the highest difficulty after that. Coming from someone who rarely has the time or interest to play a game more than once, that's saying something. It helps that the designers got the whole "new-game-plus" thing right this time around by allowing you to take your upgraded weapons and gear into subsequent playthroughs, and also that there are numerous achievements and trophies that reward multiple, harder runs through the game(though none, it's worth pointing out, that apply to multiplayer). The two console versions looked virtually identical to me, but I have to give a slight nod to the PlayStation 3 version simply because it ships on one disc, while the Xbox game comes on two and features a disc swap halfway through. The first production run of the PS3 version also contains the previously Wii-exclusive prequel Dead Space Extraction dressed up with HD graphics, optional Move support, and trophies, though subsequent pressings will lose that bonus. For the time being at least, that's a pretty valuable bonus.
Just like its predecessor, Dead Space 2 doesn't do anything especially new, it just does everything exceedingly well. EA's current management set a mandate a few years ago to improve the quality of the company's internal game development, a directive this game and its predecessor directly resulted from. If the Dead Space franchise is ultimately the only memorable result that effort ever bears, it will still constitute a memorable legacy indeed.