In the opening moments of Dead Space 2, protagonist Isaac Clarke awakens in a mental hospital aboard the Sprawl, a city-sized space station orbiting Saturn’s moon, Titan. Franco, the man who has come to rescue Isaac, is attacked by an infector and transforms before Isaac’s eyes into a necromorph, the reanimated flesh-monsters that act as the franchise’s antagonists. The first moment the player has any control of Isaac, they have to flee as the necromorphs ravage the hospital, with no ability to fight back yet because he’s still trapped in a straitjacket.
It’s an appropriate metaphor for the entire experience. As a linear single-player adventure, there is no way to go off the pre-set path the developers have designed. The player is strapped in for the ride and has no effect on the outcome. But the feeling of powerlessness the opening instills also plays into one of the game’s central conceits: that despite everything Isaac accomplishes, it’s never enough. The necromorph outbreak isn’t something Isaac can stop, or even really slow down. It’s simply something he can survive.
The first few chapters do an excellent job of situating the player in a very different headspace than that of the first game. Where before Isaac arrived at the starship Ishimura after almost all the crew are dead and the carnage is over, here the player gets to witness the outbreak take over the Sprawl first-hand. Civilians flee in terror, many of them slaughtered by the creatures only moments before you could have stepped in to save them. Fires rage, screams echo in the halls, explosions shake the floor beneath Isaac’s boots. The world of the first Dead Space was long dead, the Ishimura a graveyard floating through the stars. The world of Dead Space 2 is gasping for breath, with the walls always closing in, the blood painting the windows not yet having had the chance to turn brown.
This is why there is no mistaking Dead Space 2 for anything but a survival horror game. While it’s decidedly more propulsive and action-heavy than its predecessor, it’s all in service of a deliberate change in focus. The Ishimura was a haunted house in space: a confined, static location with mysteries to solve and horrors to uncover. With many of the secrets of the necromorphs and the Markers having already been revealed, Dead Space 2 opts instead to be a roller coaster, an experience driven less by atmosphere and more by impulse, the tension generated less by resource management and exploration but by a constant sense of escalation. The outbreak is already out of hand, and it’s only getting worse.
This shift in focus pairs well with the tweaks to gameplay. Dead Space 2 plays similarly to its predecessor, but with numerous refinements that iron out any previous clunkiness. Isaac now moves faster, his aiming is smoother, and his melee attacks no longer feel useless. Instead of leaping through zero gravity with no way to change direction after he takes off, Isaac can now effectively fly through zero gravity areas with full 360 degree control. It’s a progression that makes sense; after all, Isaac had no combat experience at the start of Dead Space 1, but having sliced his way through hundreds of necromorphs on the Ishimura, it stands to reason that he’d be more confident and skilled this time around.
The refurbishment also extends to the environments, with the Sprawl being a modern civilian station with government funding that offers a stark contrast to the beyond-its-time mining ship of the first game. While the Sprawl never becomes as coherent or identifiable of a space as the rusted, utilitarian halls of the Ishimura, Dead Space 2’s level design offer a chance to witness the necromorph infestation subvert the sanctity of many recognizable civilian locations: apartment complexes splattered with the blood of their occupants, a gothic church built by the Unitologist cult that orchestrated the outbreak, a school littered with shrieking monsters created from the bodies of children. It’s a contained apocalypse, a preview of the devastation that would be wrought should the necromorphs make their way to Earth.
The game moves the player through these locations at a rocket-propelled pace, creating a sense of momentum that is perhaps its most undervalued asset. There is virtually no downtime in Dead Space 2, with each of the fifteen chapters offering new locations and setpieces. Rarely does any one segment last long enough for the player to potentially grow comfortable. The one exception to this is strategically placed: at about two-thirds of the way through the game, the player is prompted to revisit the Ishimura, which has been docked on the station. It’s a perfectly placed endorphin hit, rewarding players of the original who know the layout well, and highlighting how haunted Isaac is by the experience. He’s survived it, but he’s also still living it.
Isaac’s mindset regularly interacts with the gameplay in the form of visions of his dead girlfriend, Nicole. In the original, Nicole was an objective perennially out of reach, a spectre Isaac was supposed to save who got lost in the shuffle of so many repair missions and combat encounters, only to learn she had been dead before he even arrived. Here, she takes on a larger role by acting as both tour guide and tormentor, a ghost who offers Isaac signposts while also arguing with him about just how guilty he’s supposed to feel for something he had no control over. She is, of course, an illusion, but even though Isaac knows this, he cannot help but be taken in by her spell, powerless to resist her siren call to the new Gold Marker.
Isaac’s arrival at the Marker triggers the final boss fight against Nicole herself. Mechanically, it’s fairly pedestrian, something of a disappointment gameplay wise in a game that has almost completely removed boss fights from the experience. Narratively, it’s a fitting conclusion for Isaac’s character, with him finally coming to terms with not being complicit in Nicole’s death and no longer allowing his guilt to consume him. It’s so fitting, in fact, that it makes Dead Space 2 feel like more of an ending to the series than a middle chapter. The Marker and the Sprawl are both destroyed and the necromorphs are thwarted, at the cost of the lives of everyone on the station. Only Isaac and his companion Ellie have escaped the nightmare, and Isaac ends the game having conquered the helplessness he embodied at the beginning.
However subsequent installments in the series would (or wouldn’t) pan out, Dead Space 2 is still a remarkable game. It has a heavy focus on action for a horror title, there’s no denying that. But it’s also about as effective as games of its type can be, and in a world where big budget horror titles are increasingly rare unless they’re made by Capcom, it’s a game that will continue to be worth coming back to for many years to come.