When I learned that Dead Space 2 was going to give its hero, Isaac Clarke, a voice, and move the action from the cramped halls of the Ishimura to the huge expanse of a space station, I thought for sure I was going to wind up hating the game. Isaac’s silence and the cold, dark sections of the ship were key ingredients in the first game’s atmosphere, so I figured that if you lost them, you lost the heart of what made the game good. But I was completely wrong. Dead Space 2 is a brilliant successor, using the very changes I feared to create a fantastic horror experience.

The game takes place three years after the events of the first Dead Space. (If you didn’t play it or are a bit fuzzy on what-all happened, take advantage of the “Previously on Dead Space” feature listed in the game menu, which does an excellent job of catching you up on the plot and mythology of the series.) Isaac has been committed to a psychiatric facility on an enormous space station known as The Sprawl and is suffering from a dementia that will, he is told, eventually kill him. His contact with The Marker has left him seeing horrible visions of his girlfriend, Nicole, among other terrors. Not that the real world is much better. Isaac is still strapped into his straightjacket when the necromorphs begin to overrun The Sprawl, but it’s not long before he’s back to business, slinging a plasma cutter and dismembering hideous monsters.

As with the first Dead Space, your aim during combat is to literally rend the necromorphs limb from limb; shooting off a single arm or leg – or even a head – won’t put them down for good, so you’ll have to be thorough when picking them apart. Thorough, but also precise; ammo conservation is key to survival. You can buy more at the stores that pepper The Sprawl, but credits are in short supply, too, forcing you to make tough choices about whether or not you really need that flamethrower. (Answer: Of course you do. It’s a flamethrower.)

One thing I appreciated about the first Dead Space was how it based its weapons on what you might actually find aboard a mining vessel, admittedly taking a wee bit of license. Although The Sprawl is basically a small city, complete with shopping malls, schools, churches, and other sign posts of civilization, Isaac still ends up using pretty much the same exact gear. It certainly makes it easy for fans of the first game to jump right into the action, and the line gun and ripper are still as satisfying as ever, but a little more variety would’ve been nice, too.

The weapons may be repeats, but The Sprawl is a fantastic battleground, offering many different kinds of creepy. Dead Space 2 mixes up the ambience by sending Isaac to expectedly unnerving locations like hospitals and engine rooms with more friendly locales like schools and shopping centers. The game never truly gets scary, but it’ll certainly keep you feeling uncomfortable and will unquestionably make you yelp like a tiny dog more than once.

Isaac’s newly-found voice adds to the tension by transforming him from a passionless bystander to a character we come to care about. This isn’t his fight, this isn’t his fault, but he’s there, and he’s going to do the best he can to help. When wave after wave of necromorphs forces Isaac into a corner, you’re concerned about a person, not an avatar. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one that elevates Dead Space 2 above its predecessor.

Dead Space 2 is full of such small changes that make a big difference when it comes to overall enjoyment of the game. The new navigation system, for example, is incredibly simple: Press in the thumbstick and a line on the floor points you to your destination of choice, whether that’s your next objective or the nearest save room. The map in the first Dead Space was a 3D hologram that looked great and fit beautifully with the game’s setting but was incredibly difficult to use. The new system, which is there when you want it and invisible when you don’t, makes the game far more fun to play because you never have to interrupt your experience to peer at the map and figure out where you made a wrong turn.

Dead Space 2 does an admirable job of keeping the action feeling fresh and taut, but the later stages of the game do start to feel a bit samey. You can only play through so many levels where you have to survive endless necromorph waves before they all feel alike. For the rest of the game, the necromorph attacks have a certain amount of context, but just standing in place and killing thing after thing after thing loses its charm after the first few times you do it. It’s a minor complaint, and just highlights how deftly the combat is handled throughout the rest of the game.

One quick note about the multiplayer before we wrap up: I never got the chance to try it. If you’ve given it a shot, please add your observations to the comments.

Bottom Line: If you like to shoot things, you should absolutely have this game. It builds upon its predecessor in all the right ways, delivering a healthy gaming challenge. Fans of movies like Aliens and Event Horizon in particular will enjoy the game’s blend of sci fi and horror elements.

Recommendation: The single player campaign is a bit on the short side, which may drive this into “rental” category if you don’t care about the multiplayer. That said, Dead Space 2 does offer New Game +, which adds to the game’s replayability.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

[rating=4]

What our review scores mean.

Game: Dead Space 2
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Visceral Games
Publisher:EA
Release Date: January 25, 2011
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Available from: Amazon

Susan Arendt wants to thank Visceral for not having to adjust the camera at all while crawling through the ducts of The Sprawl.

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