The original Dead Space was a reminder that EA could produce fresh franchises that could rival the best in the genre. Hitting such a home run on its first swing however produces the inevitable problem of the follow up not just being as equally assured, but bettering the first.
As we discover, Visceral Games idea is increase the heat in the coldness of space for engineer-turned-space vermin exterminator Isaac Clarke.
The tools of the trade may be comforting in their familiarity, but the dangers are new - the space parasite that animates and mutates dead flesh into horrifying killers now spits, bites and vomits, bristling with horrifying rage and renders any comfort gained from surviving the first into a bloody, quivering pulp. Welcome back to fear and the simple question: how can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?
We'll talk story and the increased threat in a second. But what you need to know is that the developer hasn't tampered too much with the formula that cut your nerves on a knife-edge in the first. It's still a third-person shooter. It still offers that variety of pace, mixing slow walks through darkness to frantic battles with the countless horrors eager to kill Clarke in the most gruesome way imaginable.
For newcomers, you won't need to have an extensive knowledge of the back story to enjoy the game, but there are elements to which players of the original Dead Space will get and appreciate. We'll keep details to a minimum to avoid spoilers, but know the game packs a lot of punch into its compact and tight frame, helped throughout by elegant storytelling that makes good use of both environment and the dialogue, played out by a small cast of credible characters. They're easy to like, and with the horribly twisted ones, you'll be fascinated. It's great work and cements Dead Space 2 as one of the premier sci-fi horrors of any medium.
There's not an inch of its muscled bulk that is wasted, making the eight-hour playtime feel robust rather than short. In that time you'll have sweated out through some intense action sequences, and your brain will have as much a work out as your heart with environmental puzzles that are so finely crafted will appreciate them even as your grey cells groan with the strain.
We're especially impressed by the phenomenal zero gravity sections, whether it's in decompressed spaces or on the exterior of the Sprawl, the giant space station in (and around) which the game is set. Visceral has managed to give the players plenty of freedom of movement and still made the objectives easy to find, a quick button press sorting any confusion over where to head next.
It's it's one of the clearest examples of just have much work has gone into creating the levels that make up the Sprawl. So engrossing is the experience that you feel oddly disorientated in the moments returning to normal gravity conditions.
Weapons, tools and Clarke's ever fashionable suit (you need to look good when you're staring death in the face constantly, right?) can be upgraded once more, opening up your tactical choices, and that you won't get everything pimped out first time round is good incentive to dig into another playthrough.
There was good reason why Dead Space was one of the titles worthy investing in a surround sound system for. That trend continues for the sequel. Orchestral scores and big-name voice actors might make other titles' soundtracks memorable, but seldom does the more anonymous parts of the soundscape get proper attention. DS2 is an experience you do not want to turn down the sound for, else you rob yourself of the whole experience. Every creak, groan and scream add to that increasing tingle down your spine.
Visually, the game astounds, but given the pedigree, that's no surprise. But here again, Dead Space 2 proves that God is in the details. There's not a wasted piece of architecture in the station's entire framework - it looks, feels, and operates just as you imagine a space station would without leaps in logic just for the sake of eye candy. It feel real, habitable, a fully-realised setting and proves how much work and passion has been poured into the game.
There aren't a lot of really scary games these days. They're a rare sight on the store shelves. So to be offered a chance to fear for our lives, to shudder in horror and jump in shock is a most welcome one. Dead Space 2 creates a fully fleshed out environment in which you wish to walk every inch of, even if those steps are the careful shuffling of someone fearful of what lies around the next corner. And even for non-horror fans (or those that need to play with all the lights on) there's much to recommend, Visceral crafting a tight, exciting shooter that stands tall in a packed genre.
It's strong start to 2011, but Dead Space 2 will be remembered not as just one of this year's best, but as one of the best examples of its genre full stop. This is how you do a sequel justice.