As a followup to one of the best survival horror games in years, does Dead Space 2 have what it takes to mess with your dreams and make you sleep with the lights on?

Note: Some potentially NSFW pictures of Necromorphs inside.  Other than that, no spoilers!  Also, please note this review is for the Steam-based PC version of the game.

The first Dead Space quickly shot up to the top ten of my all time favorite games.  Its atmosphere, mutilated Necromorphs, superb sound design, and draining sense of dread were all expertly executed.  Like any game, there were a few things that could have been done better/differently, but overall, Dead Space was an amazing achievement in video game horror.

Enter Dead Space 2.  Picking up a couple of short years after the first game, Isaac finds himself not on a deserted mining ship, but instead on a quickly dying space station (while he slowly goes completely out of his mind to boot.)  Although the game doesn’t start just as things are going to hell, it’s clear the Necromorph outbreak is a relatively recent occurrence…there are still plenty of people alive.  As an example, entering the apartments for the first time was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in a video game.  The sounds coming out of there cause your instincts to demand that you not take another step, lest you suffer a death more horrible and painful than you could possibly imagine.  While the story has the standard (but well done) plot twists, the main point of the story is all about survival and fleshing out the game world.

Even though things such as various corporations, religion, and different jobs were explored in the first game, Dead Space 2 makes it a point to immerse you in the game world far more than its predecessor.  A good comparison would be the difference between Half-Life and Half-Life 2, as far as political bodies, corporations, and daily life are concerned (and, interestingly, the game world is fleshed out in a similar way to Half-Life 2: via the environment itself.)  DS2 does a great job of giving the player a solid understanding of what it would be like to live in this time and place, and walking through the halls of the city lends the horror a very “real” foundation.  It’s one thing to dismember grotesque creatures in the middle of a sterile industrial environment…it’s another thing entirely to dismember those same grotesque creatures in bedrooms, classrooms, and civilian medical facilities.  As I previously said in a one-sentence review on this site, “when the environments of a game scare you more than the gory monstrosities that patrol their halls, you know the designers did a good job.”  Oh, also, let it be known that the first ten minutes are balls-to-the-wall insane.  I commend the game designers for taking such a big risk like that…it worked almost perfectly.

The same “floating” interface from the first Dead Space is back, and aside from a few less jaggies, it looks and operates pretty much the same.  One EXTREMELY welcome addition to the interface (unless I just missed it the first time around) is the ability to modify your objective “breadcrumb” line that shoots out of your hand.  Now, you can modify it so that it shows you where your next objective is, where the nearest savepoint is, where the nearest bench is, or where the nearest store is.  Not only does the word “objective”, “save”, “bench”, or “store” appear over your hand when you use it, but the line itself is a different color for each type, making it easy to tell at a glance what you currently have it set to.  I only used this feature a couple of times, but it was, quite literally, a lifesaver.

While aiming still feels “heavy” and Issac is a bit slow on his feet (he is in a huge metal suit, after all), the combat system does feel a slight bit more fluid.  Unfortunately, just like in the first game, you could conceivably stick with the Plasma Cutter for the vast majority of your play through (although the pulse rifle is extremely useful when you get swarmed by Necromorph children.  Yes.  Children.  ::shudder:: They’re worse than the demon babies in Doom III.)  Melee has been greatly improved, almost to the point of being broken: if you just mash the melee button using only a smidgen of timing, you can wipe out entire rooms of Necromorphs without ever shooting off a single round (although you will need to use a medkit afterwords, and if you don’t time your attacks right, you will definitely be killed.  I guess that evens things out a bit…it’s a viable strategy, but not one you should exclusively rely on.)

I’m not sure if the dreaded mouse/v-sync issues that plagued the first entry on the PC are still present, because I had my 360 gamepad hooked up right from the beginning of Dead Space 2.  PC gamers, please don’t get mad at me; I just didn’t want to have to deal with anything even remotely like the problems present in the first game, so I went with the gamepad right from the start.  Besides, this way I can huddle under our /dev/blanket, increasing the claustrophobia :)   Mouse issues or no, I’m happy to report the 360 controller works just as smoothly as it did with the first entry: no mapping is required, and the in-game interface changes to match that of its 360 counterpart (as in, 360-style buttons show up onscreen rather than keyboard keys.)

Sound played a huge role in the first Dead Space, and that trend continues here.  A good surround system or a g0od set of headphones should seriously be listed as a system requirement on the box; your enjoyment of Dead Space 2 will be directly influenced by your audio setup.  Also, just like the first Dead Space, Dead Space 2 doesn’t take much oomph to run smoothly: I’m playing it with every graphic option maxed out at 1920 x 1080 (except AA, which is set at 2x, and AF,which is set at 4x) on an Athlon II X4 635 (OC’d to 3.2 GHz), 4 gigs of DDR2 800 ram, and a reference ATI 4850 (hopefully, this will be the last major retail game I play before I drop a GTX 570 in there.)  The game runs at a solid 45-50 FPS, occasionally dipping down into the high upper 30′s if there’s a lot of shadows moving around.  That’s pretty damn good for a game released in 2011 running on what is, at this point, rather outdated hardware.

I wouldn’t necessarily call Dead Space 2 “more of the same”, but rather “more of the same, just different”.  While this still feels very much like Dead Space (meaning a cross between Alien, Event Horizon, and your worst nightmares), it’s JUST distinct enough for someone to tell at a glance whether you’re playing the first or second entry in the series.  If you didn’t really dig Dead Space, this second entry won’t change your opinion…but if you enjoyed Dead Space, you have to play this game.  Now.

Turn out the lights, turn up the sound, and make sure you wear a diaper.