Dead Space 2 begins three years later. Isaac awakens in a medical facility on "The Sprawl," a giant city of a space station orbiting Saturn, and it's clear (based on some downright creepy in-game cinematics) that he's in the process of losing his mind. To make matters worse, there's been another Necromorph outbreak.
As in the first game, the action in Dead Space 2 revolves around blasting your way to the next story-based objective, while being ever conscious to conserve as much health and ammunition as possible. Clarke again packs a varied suite of weapons -- many of which are re-purposed cutting and mining tools. As far as new additions go, the Javelin Gun was my personal favorite. It shoots stakes that can be used to pin enemies to walls, and the stakes can be electrified with the secondary fire mode. I'll admit to not experimenting too much with the Detonator Mines or Seeker Rifle during my first play-through, given that proximity mines and a sniper rifle seemed to have fairly limited applications for my play-style.
Combat retains a puzzle-like element, in that certain weapons are exponentially more effective against certain enemy types. In practical terms, this means that switching weapons on the fly in order to deal with a group of disparate enemies is an important strategic consideration. The wrong gun for the job will burn through ammo with little to show for it. Even on normal difficulty, some of the more intense battles left me barely alive, and with far less ordinance than when I started. Luckily, most downed enemies will drop pickups after being stomped, and the game seemed pretty good about letting me regroup after such a battle. Other additions like the ability to blow out certain windows to create a vacuum (a quick and dangerous way to clear a room) and a new hacking minigame add welcome variety.
Stasis--Isaac's ability to slow enemies down--has been tweaked for the better. It now automatically recharge some of its power after a short period, and can be refilled easily using a hotkey (rather than forcing you to open your real-time inventory screen). It's much more convenient, but it's balanced by the way the game throws more enemies at you, in greater frequency. Isaac's Kinesis ability also proves more useful that in the original. With it, Isaac can pick up sharp objects (or even spiky parts of deceased Necromorphs) and use them to impale. It may not sound like much, but it's especially handy when ammunition is scarce.
Dead Space 2 is also peppered with some jaw-dropping cinematic boss battles against a variety of massive Necromorphs. They're also best if not ruined beforehand, but most of them are on-par with (or surpass) comparable segments from the original game. Aside from the bosses, all of the Necromorph types from the original game return, along with several new variations. I quickly learned to fear new additions like "The Pack" -- child-like aliens with razor sharp claws that attack in groups -- and the Velociraptor-like "Stalkers" that hide and charge you when you least expect.
The zero-gravity sequences peppered throughout Dead Space 2 are also a ton of fun. No longer forced to jump from surface-to-surface, Isaac can now use jets on his improved suits to maneuver three-dimensionally in gravity-less areas. These parts of the game are appropriately disorienting and liberating, and provide a nice break from the usual running and screaming.
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In the presentation department Dead Space 2 lives up to the promise of its videos and screenshots. Aesthetically, it's a blend of H.R. Geiger's art and John Carpenter's The Thing, with a dash of Blade Runner. It visually improves on the first game in nearly every respect, showcasing more varied environments (shopping malls, mines, a creepy church, etc.) and improving in its use of light and shadow. The sound design is also top-notch. Playing the game in a low-lit room with surround-sound headphones is not for the faint of heart. Isaac also talks quite a bit in Dead Space 2, but despite my initial concerns about having a formerly-mute protagonist speak, it's a welcome change that helps flesh out the game's multi-layered story.
Dead Space 2 also includes multiplayer, a first for the series. Five maps--each with a unique specific set of objectives--set the stage for four-on-four matches pitting a team of humans against a team of Necromorphs. It's a solid take on the versus multiplayer design of Left 4 Dead. But while the maps are well designed, and the action frantic, it lacks the tension and atmosphere that makes the single-player experience so phenomenal.
In part that may simply reflect how well Dead Space 2 gives players more of what made the first outing such a memorable experience, while putting in a number of improvements and enhancements that make the game feel bigger, more cinematic, and much more intense. Those who played the first will appreciate a few winks and nods back to its events and benefit from a head-start in knowing how to battle the Necromorphs, but the opening video summary makes it easy to pick the story up here as well. Either way, if you're looking for a white-knuckle shooter, you'd be hard-pressed to make a better choice than Dead Space 2.
Dead Space 2 Review based on an Xbox 360 retail version of the game, provided by the publisher. Dead Space 2 is available on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.