One of the things that sets video games apart from films and books is the common occurrence of a sequel being much better its predecesso. Critics will often note that writers lose touch with their original vision for a series, or that a director will milk a movie franchise for too long without bringing in fresh ideas. And while there are plenty of game franchises that have stuck around far longer than they should have, many developers are able to learn from their mistakes and craft a better product on their next try. Dead Space 2 is a subtle improvement over an already great game. It takes the already-wonderful blend of action and survival-horror elements and drops it into an even better setting, while making slight tweaks to the controls that round this out to being a strong contender for the 2011 game of the year. Dead Space 2 cements the series as a new cornerstone in the shooting and survival-horror genres…and that’s all before the new multiplayer.
No one knew what to expect of the first Dead Space when it released in 2008, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that the game was so much more than just Resident Evil on a spaceship. While the original game had an intense environment in the form of the deserted USG Ishimura mining ship, Dead Space 2, puts the now-fleshed-out protagonist, Isaac Clarke, on a bustling space station. Excellent voicework makes it easy to connect with the character and evokes strong mood. The overall sound design is superb, featuring hollow thumps that reverberate through your suit with each step and the uncomfortable squishing of flesh tearing apart.
The campaign flows much better this time around, with one chapter leading uninterrupted into the next in place of train rides and loading screens breaking up the action. The story never slows down too much and makes for a satisfying twelve to fifteen hours of single-player action. The unique “strategic dismemberment” method of dispatching foes, where you can shoot off an enemy’s leg to slow it down or cut off its arms to stop it from attacking, is back and remains very fun. All of the original weapons return with several new additions, and they all feel completely different. You'll quickly find your favorite instruments of destruction, and can upgrade them indefinitely, courtesy of a quality “New Game Plus” mode. Those with a masochistic streak can help themselves to a “Hard Core” mode.
While it’s tempting to immediately start the game over, fitting some time in for multiplayer is definitely a worthwhile endeavor. Taking many pages out of Left 4 Dead's “Versus Mode” book, the online component of Dead Space 2 features 4v4 objective-based missions with one team playing as humans and the other playing as the zombie-like Necromorphs. There's an obligatory experience system that grants new weapons, perks and skins for your human character. While it’s fun, it doesn’t have the hooks of Halo: Reach or whatever the most recent Call of Duty is. It’s a fun weekend distraction, but the meaty single-player experience is where Dead Space 2 shines.
While many people will argue that games don't need to pretend that they aren't games, Dead Space 2 is able to hide its seams so well that the total package feels wholly unique. With a striking visual style, plenty of jump scares and a tense, nerve-wracking storyline, this is a game that should be played by anyone who can stomach it. Third-person survival-horror has a new bar, and it has been set very high. As an aside, those with multiple game consoles should look into getting the Limited Edition PS3 version of the game. It offers the same experience you'll find on Xbox 360, but includes the HD port of Dead Space: Extraction on disc.