Three years have passed since the events of Dead Space, in which Isaac Clarke survived the bloody ravaging of a mutated crew and a slew of monsters called necromorphs aboard the USG Ishamura, a planetary mining ship that found itself stranded in space. After escaping the Ishamura and being rescued by an EarthGov ship, Clarke now finds himself locked-up in an asylum aboard the Sprawl, a massive space-station orbiting Jupiter. Sure enough, the Sprawl proves to be no safer than the Ishamura and is quickly filled with monsters and spilled blood. Dead Space 2 opens with a brief cinematic to get players caught up before dumping them into an insanely addictive game of survival-horror. The game's opening moments are an exhilarating rush that underscores its mission statement well: hooking gamers with ripe moments of shock-value, intense action, and the primary aim of simply surviving against overwhelming odds. When you first gain control of Clarke, he is manacled in a straight-jacket and trapped in a dark room filled with necromorphs. The only way out is through, and players are tasked with running around a series of obstacles while avoiding the blood-thirsty ghouls around them. It's a fun introduction to the dynamics of the game as players are naturally guided through the combat and control systems along the way. As a tutorial, it functions organically within the game and is made compelling simply out of sheer necessity. It provides a quick learning curve, but little breathing room.
The Sprawl, on the other hand, provides quite a bit more breathing room than the confines of the Ishamura with its expansive level designs. Although it still maintains a sense of claustrophobia at times, the massive city is a beautiful change of scenery from the prior game's ship-based setting, but still rich with its unsettling dark tone and foreboding atmosphere of the original. Lights flicker or extinguish themselves entirely, plunging rooms and hallways into pitch-black darkness; eerie noises and the sounds of screams, crying, and anguish burn through the walls and ceilings around Clarke, as he makes his way through bloody, corpse-strewn corridors and rooms. There are also more diverse areas aboard the Sprawl as Clarke makes his way through residential blocks, a mall-like promenade, a religious center, and an awfully creepy preschool area.
Along the way, expect to combat a lot of necromorphs. These multi-jointed monstrosities have to be dismembered before they even consider dying, so sweet headshots won't do jack against these guys. Limbs have to be carefully targeted in order to blow off their arms and legs and put them down for good. It also helps to save on ammunition, which can be hard to keep stockpiled given the storage constraints on Clarke's outfit since it's always a good idea to have a few extra med-packs and stasis boosters handy to keep him going against the very-many monsters within the Sprawl. While Dead Space 2 has many familiar looking enemies wreaking havoc, there's a few new additions, including pale-white, bald-headed child-like monstrosities that move quickly and are every bit as lethal as their adult counterparts. In addition to the dangerous necromorphs, Clarke is also being hunted by EarthGov's military, which wants to weaponize the alien demons. Ever-present throughout is the fragile state of Clarke's psychosis and the ghosts of his past, which crop up in the form of some very dangerous hallucinations. The multiple threats this time around are not only external, but internal as well.
Difficulty-wise, the sequel is about on par with its predecessor. Those familiar with the first game will have a good idea of what to expect in this installment. Newcomers should find the "normal" difficulty setting a fun challenge, although the final boss-battle during the game's climax is truly an exercise in frustration. Some may also find supplies at a premium, and the increased emphasis on action will have the trigger-happy types hunting for more ammo, or at least loading up on plenty of rounds at the occasional store, along with health packets. Upgrading Clarke's RIG (or armor) and weaponry remains unchanged from the previous game, as players will have to collect power nodes and install them in their equipment at workbenches to receive boosts in health and damage. For those who cannot get enough of the game, or are simply looking to run themselves ragged, after the first play-through is completed gamers will be rewarded with the unlocking of a hardcore difficulty setting. In this mode, players are given only three saves to use across the entire game's 15-levels, and if you die you are restarted from your last save-point, rather than the customary checkpoints of easier settings. If ever there were a difficulty setting worth of the 'insane' title, this would be it.
The first Dead Space was a refreshing take on the survival-horror genre. In a market saturated with numerous Resident Evil and Silent Hill sequels, it presented an original experience by melding the familiar genres of science-fiction and horror into a captivating experience. Gamers were not simply controlling Isaac Clarke--they were trapped right alongside him, sharing in the trauma, frustrations, and random scares of that world. With Dead Space 2, Electronic Arts and Visceral have upped the ante, bringing back everything that was great about the first game, while still providing fresh scares and unrelenting action. You never know when a new batch of monsters will be hunting you down, and it's easy to be lulled into a false-sense of security as you clear through rooms unmolested, waiting for something to go wrong. The dark atmosphere and unsettling tone of the game itself will be sure to keep the nerves wound tight and players on the edge of their seat. While familiar and deeply connected with the first Dead Space, the sequel never feels recycled. Rather than being tired and unwelcome, it instead proves itself to be a worthy continuation to a fledgling franchise.