Unable to recall the past three years of his life, Clarke finds himself suffering from distorted visions of his deceased girlfriend, Nicole. As the Sprawl finds itself subject to a second necromorph infestation, Clarke finds himself wrapped up in a mission in which he must destroy the Marker — the iconic religious symbol that is worshipped by the franchise's Unitology cult — and battle his own dementia.
The plot does struggle under the strain of its own symbolism at points, though developers Visceral use the environment as a great plot device. Like the first game, the hooks lie in the integrated user-interface and unique style of combat. Refined but largely unchanged, Dead Space 2's dismemberment mechanic is once again the underlying strength of the franchise's gameplay.
For the first time in the series, Dead Space 2's gameplay is complimented by a multiplayer component. Built strongly around the foundations of the franchise, the multiplayer pits teams of four engineers against four necromorphs. While playing as the antagonists is a novelty at first, we much preferred playing as the engineers, and think an objective co-operative mode would have worked better than the competitive gameplay provided.
The single-player really is the main draw though, and with good use of the "New Game +" feature — in which additional playthroughs allow you to carry forward your upgraded gear — we imagine most players will experience Dead Space 2's eight hour campaign two or three times.
While the original Dead Space was a bit of a surprise hit, many criticised its oppressive, repetitive setting. Dead Space 2 rights the wrongs of the game's predecessor by moving the action from the Ishimura space-craft, to the futuristic metropolis, the Sprawl. Because the Sprawl is a gigantic city, it's allowed the developers to pack the game with variety. Throughout Dead Space 2's fourteen hour campaign you'll trudge through mines, schools and shopping districts. One of our favourite chapters funnels Isaac through the religious quarters of the Unitology cult — the group which are largely responsible for the Necromorph outbreak. This allows Visceral to really flesh out the back-story of the religion, which they do by making excellent use of the environment. It's a trait consistent throughout the entirety of Dead Space 2 — players who take the time to explore the world will be rewarded with plenty of additional narrative that's hidden within the environment. While we won't get too deep into spoiler territory, it's also worth noting that fans of the original Dead Space will be rewarded with some loving fan service towards the end of the sequel.
While the Sprawl is larger and more artistically varied than the original Dead Space, Visceral's managed to recreate that tense, claustrophobic sensation that made the original game such a welcome experience. We'd still argue there's nothing more exhilarating in video games than when the lights go out in a Dead Space title. Throughout, the lighting is absolutely sensational. Shadows cast brilliantly across the Sprawl's sterile walls, while lights flicker on-and-off as you pass them by. It all feels natural for a city that's been over-ran and evacuated. Often Dead Space 2 chooses to tease you with the horrors you can't see, rather than the ones you do. It gives the game a psychological element that's strengthened by Isaac's visions. While we feel the character's descent into madness could have been more interactively handled, the imagery some of these scenes provide add an extra dynamic to the game's atmosphere.
We like to play Dead Space slow, and the game rewards you for doing so. Not only does the environment contain clues about the overarching narrative, but it's also essential to scrounge the environment for ammo as Clarke is always in limited supply. Visceral really understand the importance of pacing when creating a horror atmosphere. The game rarely stops teasing threats, but it's also hard to predict. Unfortunately, Dead Space 2's last couple of chapters rely too heavily on combat, killing some of the game's psychological tension.
Whoever is in charge of Dead Space 2's audio design deserves a serious bonus. Like the original game, Dead Space 2's sound design is beyond phenomenal. Enemies sound genuinely eerie without suffering from pantomime-esque exaggeration, while the game's score is perfectly controlled and dynamically implemented. Big swells help to add to the tension, usually drawing focus to some kind of on-screen action. Above all though, the game's mix of natural and futuristic sound effects brings an air of believability to the whole universe. It really is unsettling and brilliantly well realised.
Little has changed to Dead Space 2's combat mechanics. The selective dismemberment mechanic is still strong and rewarding. The game's plasma cutter returns early on, giving players the ability to slice necromorphs horizontally and vertically. New weapons are available, but it's the original trio of plasma cutter, plasma rifle and line cutter that we found ourselves sticking to. Stasis and gravity pull attacks give the combat some variety, allowing players to use enemy body parts as weapons, or simply slow opponents down. While many of the necromorphs are also the same as the original game, newcomers like the Stalkers add a new dynamic to the gameplay. In fact, the Stalkers ended up as our favourite enemy type in the game. These fast, long limbed necromorphs run away from Isaac and take cover behind objects in the environment, before charging with large powerful attacks. They're a lot of fun and add a "hunting" twist to the gameplay.
When Visceral said they wanted to up the action in Dead Space 2, we were left feeling cold and concerned. The strength of the original Dead Space was its oppressive, claustrophobic world that added an unsettling tone to the franchise. Dead Space 2 manages to have all that, while still offering some really exceptional set-piece moments.
The zero gravity components in the original Dead Space were some of the most fun moments in the game, but Dead Space 2's are even better. One mission sends Clarke deep into space, where you'll need to realign satellites while fighting against the gravity. It turns out to be one of the best mirror-reflection puzzles since Ocarina Of Time, purely because space is such a fun place to maneuver.
In the original Dead Space, protagonist Isaac Clarke didn't talk. In the sequel, he talks some but not enough. It's a weird dynamic because it feels like Visceral are caught in two minds between whether their protagonist should have a voice or not. While it adds depth to some of the sequel's more cinematic moments, Clarke's voice and dialogue takes away from the mystery of the character. What's more, it feels like Isaac only talks when spoken to — for the rest of the game he stays perfectly silent. Why does he not react vocally when being chased by three necromorphs, yet can't stop swearing when an ally informs him a door's locked? It doesn't really make sense.
The last three or so chapters of Dead Space 2 really ramp up the emphasis on combat, leaving the game's conclusion a bit unfairly paced. The early chapters really allow you to explore the world, but the final quarter is so heavily combat focused that you don't really get time to think. While we really enjoy the combat, we couldn't help but feel funnelled into the conclusion, when the rest of the game is really well paced. We also hate Visceral's emphasis on making enemies stronger and stronger as the campaign progresses. They used similar techniques in Dante's Inferno and the original Dead Space. While Dead Space 2 features a robust weapon upgrade mechanic, it never really feels like you're getting stronger because the enemies evolve at a rate faster than your own.
Dead Space 2 retains the tense, claustrophobic vibe that made the original game so strong. Set on the Sprawl — an enormous, futuristic city — Dead Space 2 serves up a dark, varied environment that adds context to the franchise's narrative. The game's slow pacing is punctuated by excellent set-pieces, with the tone perfectly crafted by the franchise's eerie blend of orchestral swells and futuristic sound effects. The series' recognisable selective dismemberment gameplay mechanic is as satisfying as ever, though Dead Space 2's combat heavy conclusion can get repetitive.