More often, Dead Space 2 -- like its predecessor -- leans on quick shocks, rote horror tricks, plenty of gore and, more importantly, murdering lots of monsters in interesting ways.
The thrust of Dead Space 2 is almost exactly the same as the original. As engineer Isaac Clarke, you must explore a massive space station called the Sprawl, work with various characters and kill Necromorphs -- reanimated human corpses with a few extra (and very sharp) limbs. As luck would have it, severing said limbs tends to the be best way to dispatch Necromorphs, whereas body shots are usually a waste of ammo.
A few new wrinkles have been added to the original Dead Space formula. Isaac can now impale enemies using telekinesis -- even using their own limbs to do so -- which can be a handy trick in hairy situations. Zero gravity mechanics have been overhauled, and Isaac is now afforded a full six degrees of motion and able to fly in any direction with his thrusters. One other addition -- a nod to Clarke's engineering skills -- is the ability to hack certain circuit panels, an activity that initiates a quick mini-game.
The Sprawl itself makes for a much better setting than Dead Space's Ishimura mining ship. First and foremost, the Sprawl feels much more lived in than the Ishimura. Rather than offering up an endless maze of metal corridors, the Sprawl is home to shopping centers, apartments, churches and even schools. These locations give the setting a very human feel, which helps to ratchet up the fear. Incidentally, future space crypts, metallic and sterile though they may be, are still spooky as hell.
Most of the environments, notably in the first half of the campaign, are rife with anticipatory tension. I have to hand it to Visceral for letting these environments speak for themselves -- particularly the elementary school -- only sprinkling them with enough shocks to keep them interesting. I tend to deride cheap scares in my horror, but I must admit that some of them made me smile (note: toilets on the Sprawl flush automatically). It's too bad that the latter portion of the campaign veers back into bland corridors, because the early environments really do shine.
Adding to the overall tension of Dead Space 2 is one of its central plot lines: Isaac is openly insane this time around. In fact, the game begins as Isaac wakes up, bound in a straightjacket, inside of what appears to be a hospital ward. Since the events of the original Dead Space, it seems that the alien Marker monument and grief over his dead lover, Nicole, have taken their toll on Isaac. This plays an important role in the story as delusions begin tormenting him early on -- including a terrifying ghost version of Nicole.
The only problem: I couldn't understand a word she said. In fact, I had trouble understanding a few of the characters, though not as consistently as Nicole, who usually has lots of glitchy and spooky audio dubbed over her voice. Turning on the subtitles rectifies this easily enough, though having to read them occasionally kills the mood.
But the story is really just a vehicle for the action, and Dead Space 2 is rarely in short supply. The Sprawl is crawling with Necromorphs. As in the original Dead Space, if there's a Necromorph in front of Isaac, there's almost certainly another one behind him. Of course, there are new Necromorphs to contend with as well. My personal favorite is the Stalker, a velociraptor-like monster that hunts in packs. You'll also encounter the disturbing Crawlers and the Pack. Crawlers are horribly bloated infants (i.e babies) that explode on contact, while Pack Necromorphs are the mutated bodies of school-age children that attack in huge groups.
There are new weapons to combat these monstrosities, like the proximity mine launching Detonator and the surprisingly competent Seeker sniper rifle. Old favorites like the Plasma Cutter return and some of the more useless weapons are given new life thanks to the new monsters. The Pulse Rifle, for example, is great at mowing down the Pack.
Be sure to hone those Pulse Rifle skills, because they're essential in the new multiplayer mode. Multiplayer pits humans against Necromorphs, with both sides afforded different perks and play styles. Each map has a unique set of objectives for the human team. The Necromorph objective is a bit more consistent: Kill the humans.
For example, humans might attempt to assemble a bomb or operate terminals to open an escape route. Naturally, even future computers are incredibly slow, so terminals take a good thirty seconds to activate -- thirty seconds of standing completely still. A good team will protect each other in these moments. A bad team will become intimately familiar with their newly exposed innards.
The meat of the experience is all the meat
The Necromorph team, while frailer than humans, has a few advantages. For one, they can spawn nearly anywhere on the map, allowing them to set up ambushes. They can also sense humans through walls. Certain Necromorphs can climb on walls or spit projectiles. Necromorphs can also latch onto humans, mauling them and even killing them if their health is low enough.
It's more than a little entertaining to recreate the annoying make-you-jump scares from the campaign. There's a sick satisfaction in playing as a Pack Necromorph, hiding behind a corner and jumping onto a human player as he comes into view (a moment made even better when you hear his screams over your headset).
The mutliplayer mode features a familiar experience system, slowly unlocking new goodies as players level up. Necromorphs acquire upgrades to their abilities -- increased projectile damage, etc -- while humans can unlock new weapons and armor configurations. The multiplayer is honestly better than I expected, though only time will tell if it can pull me away from Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood or Bad Company 2. One thing it does throw into sharp relief: The Dead Space franchise is dying for campaign co-op.
Dead Space 2 does not stray far from its gross, fleshy roots, but it still manages to provide one of the best action horror experiences available. In short, survival horror fans should definitely suit up.
This review is based on review code of the Xbox 360 version of Dead Space 2 provided by Electronic Arts. Dead Space 2 is available now for PS3, PC and Xbox 360.