You think you know where you are with a game when a loading screen hint suggests that you use your Kinesis power to grab the dismembered limbs from nearby necromorphs and hurl them at their mates. First, that you're in that world of seriously scary sci-fi known as Dead Space and, second, that you're in for a gory old time. It's to Dead Space 2's credit, then, that you come away from it thinking so much more. If Dead Space was a credible rival to the giants of the survival horror genre, Dead Space 2 arguably sets a new high-water mark.
Needless to say, it has all the bits we loved about the first one. The original was basically a canny combination of Resident Evil 4 and Doom 3, but enhanced by a superb, creepy atmosphere and some really ingenious gameplay. Making the hero, Isaac Clarke, an engineer rather than a soldier, and his weapons industrial machines instead of guns was a bit of a master-stroke, as was the idea of “strategic dismemberment”; slaying monsters by blasting their limbs off rather than going for a head shot every time.
Throwing in kinesis and stasis abilities (moving and throwing objects and slowing down mechanical devices and fast-moving beasties) was another, giving you an advantage in high-stress situations, and enabling some cool puzzles as the game went on. The setting - a drifting, deep-space mining vessel - allowed for some great sequences in zero gravity and/or limited oxygen, and the system for upgrading weapons and your engineering suit was flexible and brilliantly executed.
Most importantly, though, Deep Space was superbly cinematic and really, really scary. Moving stuff like the health bar, the save points, objective markers and incoming messages from the user-interface and menu system and into the game world made the experience so much more immersive. The sound design, with all those strange mechanical noises and skittering, pounding sounds, kept you constantly on edge. The use of space, camera position, light and darkness to restrict your perception and ramp up the fear put Dead Space right up there with Resident Evil 4 in the sheer panic stakes. The monsters, meanwhile - hideous, fast-moving, razor-clawed abominations - were right up there with Capcom's best.
All this still holds true in Dead Space 2, but it's an even more assured and ambitious effort. Where Dead Space expanded on the classic Doom/Half-Life/Resident Evil/System Shock settings and encounters, Dead Space 2 is more playful and more daring. It takes risks, but each and every one pays off handsomely.
The action begins with hero Isaac Clarke awakening on an isolated colony orbiting Saturn's moon, Titan. It's slightly disconcerting to find that you've been declared insane and subjected to a variety of unknown tests, and even more so to find that the colony is under attack from the same “necromorphs” that nearly killed you last time around. Spectacularly, the game then contrives to make the situation even worse.
What follows is one of the all-time great opening sequences of horror gaming, and when it's done the game still hasn't delivered its best shot. Dead Space 2 is incredibly effective at producing two emotions - rising panic and creeping dread - and it’s merciless about doing so. From set-pieces in a speeding train to sequences that have you dangling, almost helpless, as the necromorphs crowd in, it's an incredibly nerve-wracking experience.
The kinesis and stasis powers return, but this time they're better integrated into the core gameplay. Even on the normal difficulty level, you'll be employing both regularly to survive brutal waves of murderous beasties, or you'll soon find yourself out of ammo and dying repeatedly in a range of nasty ways. The low-gravity sections are slightly less disorienting than they were in Dead Space, but you're given more control and the puzzle elements arguably work better. The introduction of breaches, dragging Clarke and any lurking monsters towards the vacuum of space, is a great idea, brilliantly explored.
Of course, new weapons and new monsters are a must for any sequel, and Dead Space 2 doesn't disappoint with its detonator - a mine/grenade launcher - and shock-inducing javelin gun or a new cast of acid-vomiting and charging necromorphs. It's also safe to say that Dead Space 2 outdoes its predecessor on the visuals, with even more detailed characters and surfaces and some impressive lighting effects. And, as with the original, the pacing and difficulty level is expertly judged. You're rarely hit with a massive gap between checkpoints, and while there's a tendency to bombard you with larger groups of necromorphs as the game goes on, there's always a weapon or a strategy to manage the job.
However, what really makes Dead Space 2 so fantastic isn't all the usual gamey stuff, but the attention that's been paid to the setting and the story.
The USG Ishimura - the scene of the original atrocities - was impressively detailed, but heavy on the kind of decor we've seen before. If you'd played Doom 3, Aliens vs. Predator and the rest, then there wasn't an awful lot to amaze and surprise you. The Sprawl, the colony featured in Dead Space 2, is far more varied and intriguing. It's still full of dark corridors and gloomy chambers, but key locations around a sinister church or a frozen mortuary match Bioshock's Rapture when it comes to making you feel like you're exploring a richly-imagined fictional world. With some games, you get that feeling that you're walking around a set which extends no further than the eye can see. With Dead Space 2, you just believe.
The story, meanwhile, is more complex and engaging, pitching Clarke into a fight between religious nuts and authoritarian government forces as all hell breaks loose in the Sprawl, and frequently wrong-footing you with untrustworthy characters and crazy, supernatural visions. Giving Clarke a face and a voice was a risk, but it helps make him more than just another meat-head hero, and makes it easier to identify with his fractured state of mind. Dead Space 2 puts him through the wringer, and you're coming along for the ride.
Sadly, we've been unable to try the multiplayer option before launch, but with modes that pit human security forces against more vomiting, wall-crawling necromorphs, it has a bit of that classic Aliens vs. Predator potential. Fast-acting PS3 owners also get another bonus: a limited number of copies will ship with a port of the Wii on-rails blaster, Dead Space: Extraction, with the graphics given a rough HD overhaul and the controls reworked for PlayStation Move. You can still spot the Wii origins in the slightly primitive character models and blocky textures, but it's still a fantastic light-gun game, and arguably one of the best reasons at the moment to have a Move.
We'd have been well-pleased had Dead Space 2 just delivered a bigger, better version of the original game, but in terms of gameplay, story and atmosphere, the sequel is a huge leap ahead. It's an unmissable survival horror game, and one that puts the Dead Space series on the same pedestal as Resident Evil, Project Zero and Silent Hill. Empty your bladder, steel your nerves and get stuck in.